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The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe Edgar Allan Poe

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The following entry presents criticism of Poe's poetry. See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.

Poe's output of some fifty poems has been widely read but often critically reviled, at least in America. His international reputation as a poet, both in his own time and for the century and a half since, is far more impressive. Together with his theoretical essays on poetry, his verses strongly influenced the French Symbolist Movement, and many critics believe his work anticipated and influenced Modernism. Criticism of Poe's work has often focused on elements of his tragic life and early death: his drinking and drug use, and the deaths of virtually all the important women in his life, including his mother, his foster mother, and his wife.

Biographical Information

Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, to a pair of impoverished actors. Abandoned by his father in infancy, he went on tour with his mother until she died the following year. Poe was raised by Frances and John Allan, a wealthy couple from Richmond; he attended schools in Richmond and London and enrolled in the University of Virginia, but was removed the first year by his foster father for having incurred a sizeable gambling debt and for drunkenness. He later entered West Point where he again fell into debt and was dismissed.

Poe lived in New York for a time and then in Baltimore, working as a reporter and copyeditor and selling an occasional story. He continued writing poetry and short stories and in 1835 began writing for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. That same year, at the age of twenty-six, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia. For the next twelve years Poe supported his family by contributing reviews, stories, essays, and poetry to a wide variety of magazines and annuals, and by serving as editor on a succession of periodicals, among them Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine. In 1847 after a long illness, Virginia died, and three years later Poe died at the age of forty under mysterious circumstances.

Major Works

Poe published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827 at the age of eighteen, claiming that most of its contents had been composed much earlier. More than half of this volume consisted of the title poem, a dramatic monologue reminiscent of Lord Byron's Manfred. In late 1829, Poe offered a revised version of “Tamerlane” in his second volume, entitled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, which included one of his best poems, “Sonnet—To Science,” lamenting the primacy of a science-based reality over the imagination. Two years later, just after his dismissal from West Point, Poe issued Poems, which included “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” and nine new poems as well as a preface that stands as his first critical essay, the themes of which are partially indebted to the poetic philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The volume also contains what many critics believe to be Poe's finest lyric poem, “To Helen,” which features the famous lines: “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.”

Poe's best known work is “The Raven,” extensively anthologized and committed to memory by countless schoolchildren in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Originally published in 1844, it also appears in his 1845 collection The Raven, and Other Poems and was explicated in an essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” published the following year. “The Raven” was an immediate success and was reprinted in numerous publications in America and Europe.

In 1848, Poe delivered a lecture before the New York Historical Society entitled “The Universe,” which became the basis for his extended prose poem Eureka (1848), exploring a number of philosophical and scientific issues such as the nature of man, God, and the universe. Although Poe insisted that the work be judged as poetry, many scholars classify it as a scientific essay. Shortly after his death in 1849, two of Poe's most famous poems were published: “Annabel Lee” a mournful lament on the death of a young bride, and “The Bells,” which associates the stages of life from childhood to death with various types of bells.

Major Themes

The most prominent features of Poe's poetry are a pervasive tone of melancholy, a longing for lost love and beauty, and a preoccupation with death, particularly the deaths of beautiful women. Most of Poe's works, both poetry and prose, feature a first-person narrator, often ascribed by critics as Poe himself. Numerous scholars, both contemporary and modern, have suggested that the experiences of Poe's life provide the basis for much of his poetry, particularly the early death of his mother, a trauma that was repeated in the later deaths of two mother-surrogates to whom the poet was devoted. Poe's status as an outsider and an outcast—he was orphaned at an early age; taken in but never adopted by the Allans; raised as a gentleman but penniless after his estrangement from his foster father; removed from the university and expelled from West Point—is believed to account for the extreme loneliness, even despair, that runs through most of his poetry. Yet alongside the Byronic lamentation for lost beauty and idealism exists, according to many scholars, an ironic send-up of those very sentiments. Much of Poe's poetry is described as satiric or even as a deliberate hoax upon his readers.

Critical Reception

There is widespread disagreement on the merits of Poe's poetry. He was labeled “the jingle man” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many of his verses, particularly his later incantatory poems like “The Raven,” and “The Bells,” were disparaged by his contemporaries. This view is shared by such modern critics as Dave Smith (1995) who claims that “The Raven,” although Poe's best-known individual poetic work, “may be among our most famous bad poems.” Daniel Hoffman (1972) includes other verses along with “The Raven” in this category, some of which “transcend their time without being good poems; they may be terrible poems, but they are, undeniably, unforgettable.” Alice Moser Claudel (1970) would agree, claiming that Poe's poems draw in the reader, sometimes unwillingly, on a subconscious level. “Although I resist ‘The Raven’ as though it were a plague,” Claudel states by way of example, “a good reader can make me its victim.” Still, many critics would concur with Hoffman's assessment that much of Poe's verse consists of “pounding rhythms and changing rhymes,” whose regularity can be likened to a Chinese water torture.

Many critics connect the tragic elements of Poe's life with events described in his poetry. Georges Zayed (1985), for example, insists that the poems, unlike his prose writings, are drawn from personal experience. Zayed and other scholars attempt to account for each of the real-life women who inspired individual poems, although there is some disagreement on the results—with the exception of “Annabel Lee,” which is universally acknowledged as a tribute to Poe's child-bride, Virginia. Poe's preoccupation with death in his poetry is related to the deaths of so many of the important women in his life and the resulting sense of abandonment. According to Edward H. Davidson (1957): “In Poe the child became the man; and the mother who never came in the dark of the night grew into the demon lover, the poltergeist, who was to haunt him in all his poetry.” But Shoshana Felman (1980) cautions against considering the poetry as a symptom of the poet—and in the case of Poe, a symptom of a poet who is both sick and abnormal. Such reliance on the psychoanalytical approach accounts, in part, for contradictions in the critical reception of Poe's work; thus Felman describes Poe as “being at once the most admired and the most decried of American poets.”

The most widely documented critical contradiction regarding Poe's poetry is international in scope. Disparaged in his own country, Poe was considered a genius and a hero by the French Symbolists. James Lawler (1987) examines the relationship between Poe and the Symbolists Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry, for whom Poe served as inspiration and “catalyst” in moving away from the conventions of Romanticism.

Although scholars, both in America and abroad, continue to debate Poe's critical reputation, he is more often described as a genius than a “jingle man” and is now considered a major figure in American literary history. As the heir to English Romanticism who in turn influenced both Modernism and the French Symbolist Movement, Poe is considered the first American poet to reverse the direction of influence between America and Europe—at a time when the United States was struggling to establish its own national literature independent of European domination.

Principal Works

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Tamerlane and Other Poems (poetry) 1827

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (poetry) 1829

Poems (poetry) 1831

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude (novel) 1838

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories) 1840

The Raven, and Other Poems (poetry) 1845

Tales by Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1845

Eureka: A Prose Poem (poetry) 1848

The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Words of Personality (criticism) 1850

James Lane Allen (essay date 1884)

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SOURCE: Allen, James Lane. “Night Shadows in Poe's Poetry.” The Continent 5, no. 4 (23 January 1884): 102-04.

[In the following essay, Allen examines the preponderance of night imagery in Poe's poetry.]

The appearance of an important biography of Poe in France and the preparation of still another in America, the publication of his most widely-read poem with illustrations by Doré, and the prospective unveiling of a memorial tablet to his honor, seem to furnish a fit occasion for inviting attention to a striking but hitherto unnoted characteristic of his poetry. In fact, with the exception of a comparatively few closeted minds, the attention of the world has thus far been riveted upon the overwhelming sorrows of Poe's lot, the mysterious inequalities of his moods, and the phenominal aspects of his career, rather than devoted to the critical examination of his works. The retributive swing of the human mind, also, naturally bore it first to the rescue of his name and character both from the innumerable legends that grew up around them during his lifetime, and from the blunders and the malignity that overwhelmed them immediately after his death. Thus, criticism, especially in America, has not yet spent its powers upon his literary remains, and thus it seems possible that a brief examination of his poems may serve to exhibit them in a novel and interesting light.

There are poets who claim all hours and all seasons for their own; but an almost constitutional concomitant of the poetry of Poe is night. Of the more than forty pieces that comprise his poetical works a fifth are wholly night scenes, and in the composition of three-fourths the shadow of night fell athwart his mind and supplied it with its favorite imagery. The remaining poems, with the exception of three, do not contain the element of time at all. Two of these mentioned as exceptions were written in his youth, before he had elaborated his views of the “Poetic Principle,” or his imagination had assumed its final cast. Thus, among his later poems that contain the element of time, there is only one—“The Haunted Palace”—that may be called a day-scene; and when it is remembered that this poem is designed to describe the overthrow and ruin of a beautiful mind, so that all the imagery introduced throughout merely expresses the contrast between reason and madness, even it will scarcely be regarded as a solitary exception. Leaving it out of consideration, therefore, we may say that all his most beautiful poems, having any relation to time, belong wholly to the night, and from it draw their elements of power and pathos. These, by general consent, are “The Raven”—the night of dying embers and ghostly shadows, of mournful memories and broken hopes; “Lenore”—the night of the bell-tolling for the saintly soul that floats on the Stygian river; “Helen”—the night of the full-orbed moon and silvery, silken veil of light, of the upturned faces of a thousand roses, of beauty, clad in white, reclining upon a bed of violets; “Ulalume”—the night of sober, ashen skies and crisp, sere leaves in the lonesome October, of dim lakes and ghoul-haunted woodland; “The Bells”—the night of the icy air through which the stars that oversprinkle all the heavens seem to twinkle with crystalline delight; “Annabel Lee”—the night of the wind blowing out of a cloud, chilling and killing his beautiful bride in the Kingdom by the Sea; “The Conqueror Worm”—the gala knight in his lonesome latter years with its angel throng bedight in veils and drowned in tears; and “The Sleeper”—the night of the mystic moon, exhaling from her golden rim an opiate vapor that drips upon the mountain top and steals drowsily and musically into the Universal Valley—the night of nodding rosemary and lolling water-lily—of fog-wrapped ruin and slumber-steeped lake.

If we turn from his poems to the “Poetic Principle,” we shall discover the fascination that night exercised over his poetic imagination, strongly affecting his estimates of poetic beauty in others. Thus, among the minor poems selected by him in the exposition of the “Poetic Principle,” on the ground that they best suited his own taste or left upon his own fancy the more definite impression, are “The Serenade” of Shelley, a poem by Willis, beginning with a reference to the on-coming night, the poem by Byron beginning “The day of my destiny is over,” the “Waif” by Longfellow, beginning “The day is done and the darkness,” and two selections from Hood—one beginning with a figure descriptive of the approaching night, the other being the night suicide on the “Bridge of Sighs.”

Passing to his enumeration of the simple elements that induce in the poet true poetical effect, we find him mentioning the bright orbs that shine in heaven, the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells, the sighing night wind, and the faint suggestive odor that comes at eventide from our far-distant oceans illimitable and unexplored. If we leave the “Poetic Principle” and take up his reviews of authors, native and foreign, contributed by him to various periodicals during the course of many years, we derive from them evidences greatly multiplied and not less striking of the spell that such hours possessed for his poetic imagination. Again and again will it be found that passages in some way related to night are selected from a poem or a book of poems, emphasized, and made the subject of delicate analysis or graceful comment.

And, finally, if we but glance at—for we do not wish to explore—his prose tales of the imaginative kind, we may detect further examples of the same compositional bent. In “Ligeia,” which he regarded his best tale as involving the exercise of the highest imaginative creativeness, the lady Ligeia's death occurs at high noon of night, and the hideous drama of revivication goes on from midnight till gray dawn; in the “Fall of the House of Usher,” the catastrophe takes place at an hour when the full, setting, blood-red moon shines through a fissure of the foredoomed and collapsing ruins; in “Metzengerstein,” it is at night that the unbonnetted and disordered horseman leapt the moat and the castle wall and disappears in a whirwind of chaotic fire.

Of this striking peculiarity the evidences are now, perhaps, sufficiently detailed. In connection with it, it will be interesting to consider certain peculiar habits in the poet's life, his habits of composing, his views regarding poetic art, and his essentially gloomy nature. We find the closely related facts in Poe's habit of going nightly for months to the grave of the woman, who by her tender and gracious reception of him while he was a student in Richmond, became the subject of his confiding tenderness during the rest of her lifetime, and in his remaining for hours at her tomb, leaving it most regretfully when the autumnal nights were dreariest with rains and wailing winds; in his frequently escaping from parade, when a student at West Point, that he might indulge his predisposition to loneliness and solitude on the banks of the legend-haunted Hudson; in his habit of walking to High Bridge during his residence at Fordham, and of pacing the pathway, then so solitary, at all hours of the day and night; in his selecting as a favorite seat a rocky ledge to the east of his cottage, where, during starlit nights, he would sit dreaming his wild dreams of the universe; in his habit of arising from his sleepless pillow for weeks after the death of his wife and of keeping tearful, lonely vigils by her grave; in his habit, while writing “Eureka,” of walking up and down the porch in front of his cottage even on the coldest nights, engaged in contemplating the stars and in solving until the approach of dawn the august problems of his ever-wakeful brain; and, finally, in the very pertinent special fact that during one of these nights of restless wandering the occasion was furnished him of writing one of his most beautiful poems.

All these facts show how inexcusable is the ignorance of some of Poe's biographers in stating that he was afraid of the darkness, and was rarely out in it alone. On the contrary, they reveal him as a voluntary student and loving companion of the night, either because it was most soothing to his irritated sensibility or more pleasing to his imagination, or ablest and aptest to excite in him desired or unhoped for trains of thought. The evidence that they furnish relative to his hours and habits of composing seems to throw a welcome light upon the characteristic of his poetry that is under consideration; and this may be supplemented by certain remarkable statements of his own on the subject—statements that have been entirely overlooked by those who should have had the keenest appreciation of their value. At moments of the soul's most intense tranquility, at those mere points of time when the waking world blends with the world of dreams, there arose in his soul, as if the five senses had been supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality, evanescent visions of a supernal character—psychical impressions marked by the absoluteness of novelty—fancies of exquisite delicacy—the shadows of shadows—which, despite all his extraordinary powers of expression, he yet utterly failed at first, to adapt to language.

By repeated efforts, however, he acquired the power of startling himself from slumber at the moment when these ecstasies supervened, and of thus immediately transferring the attendant impressions to the realm of memory, when for an instant they could be subjected to the eye of analysis; and thus, finally, he so far succeeded in adapting them to language as to be able to give others a shadowy conception of their character. In this way, no doubt, his mind became the storehouse of images drawn from a world little known to common minds, and the events of his inner life seemed better known to him than the occurrences of outer experience. The conclusion to be drawn, however, is that poetic visions arose in the soul of Poe during the stillness of the night, and either involuntarily or deliberately were yielded up to its influence, and partook of its hue and spirit. Along with this strange revelation of his as to his ecstasies and struggles for utterance, there is no positive statement that the precious material thus so laboriously obtained, passed into the composition of his poetry; but evidence to this effect may be found elsewhere in his writings. For, to Poe, who is the true poet? Not he who sings, with whatever glowing enthusiasm or however vivid a truth of description, of the sights and sounds and odors and sentiments that greet him in common with other minds. The naked senses, if they sometimes perceive too little, always perceive too much. Art is the reproduction of what the senses perceive through the veil of the soul; and he is the true poet who, with ecstatic prescience of glories beyond the grave, attains by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of time, brief and indeterminate glimpses of that supernal loveliness—of those divine and rapturous joys—whose very elements appertain to eternity alone. In his poetry, therefore, we expect to find his own ecstatic visions—his own brief and indeterminate glimpses, which, if prolonged, he said would have compressed heaven into earth. And there we find them—manifested, not as things of sharpest outline and most determinate tone, but in the extra terrestrial accent, the mystical atmosphere, the dreamlike haze, the delicate breath of faery, the arch-angelic purity and nebulous softness of rhythmical movement that distinguished his creations from those of every poet, living or dead.

From his habits of life and of composing, we come to speak of the elements of his “Poetic Principle.” These elements, as may be ascertained from various portions of his writings, comprised not beauty alone, and always Beauty Uranian, never Dionæn, but also Melancholy, Strangeness, Indefiniteness and Originality. Such a theory of poetic art as he accepted would of itself have led him irresistibly to write of those hours that alone bring the human mind under the Supreme influence of the ideas fundamental to the theory itself. It is only at night, when the veil is thrown over the senses, and is lifted from the soul, that Beauty becomes most elevating and Melancholy most intense; that the Commonplace is supplanted by the Strange; that the Definite, suddenly overleaping its bounds, becomes the vague and vast; and that the poetic soul, rightly attuned to such influences, will be likeliest to attain Originality of the highest order. It is scarcely a fanciful phrase to say, that the elements of Poe's “Poetic Principle” were native to the Night, and lurked in its recesses, throwing dark lines upon the bright spectrum of his creative consciousness, and pervading his creations themselves as the gloom, the chill, the mystery, the dread, the disturbing strangeness, the unexplored recesses of sorrow, that constitute another group of his poetic attributes.

And, now, finally, we come to that which must be final in every investigation of this kind—the peculiarities of the poet's very nature. Of these his many biographers have had much to say, and it seems but necessary for us, in this connection, to note that Poe dwelt in a perpetual Night of the Soul. Rubens, by a single stroke, converted a laughing into a crying child; but no propitious stroke of destiny could ever have converted this gloom-haunted child of poetry and passion into a joyous singer in the sunshine; not sudden wealth, not troops of friends, nor adequate recognition. Of poverty he himself said that the Nine were never so tuneful as when penniless; of adversity in other forms, that what the Man of Genius wanted was moral matter in motion—it made little difference toward what the motion tended, and absolutely no difference what was the matter. We have come to think of him as the offspring of passion and adventure, as at birth ruled over by a spirit of romance, sinister and stormy, as early in life moulded by much that was outré and abnormal, and as bearing upon himself, when even a Man, the stamp of indefinable Melancholy.

Thus, whether we examine his poetry, or fix our attention upon his habits of life, his methods of composition, his views of the Poetic Principle or his very nature, our minds are drawn irresistibly to the same thing—night. Beneath this manifold night, however—the night of nature, the night of theories and the night of the soul, his broken but undying song always rose and soared away toward the realms of light—passing the clouds, passing the moon, passing the stars, passing his visions of floating angels—passing even toward the divine and eternal Beauty.

John Middleton Murry (essay date 1922)

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SOURCE: Murry, John Middleton. “Poe's Poetry.” In Discoveries: Essays in Literary Criticism, pp. 191-99. London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1924.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1922, Murry explores the extent to which Poe is less an American poet than an English one in the tradition of English Romanticism.]

It has long since been admitted that the two greatest poets of America are Poe and Whitman. The poetry of both belongs to the literature of the world. But there is an essential difference between their positions. Whitman is almost “a hundred per cent. American”; Poe is not. Whitman is clean outside the English tradition; Poe belongs to it. As a poet he is the successor of the English romantics; he learned from Byron and Shelley and Keats, and he taught Swinburne: as a prose writer, he alone gave to the great romantic movement in fiction which swept over England early in the nineteenth century the immortality of high and serious art. Were it not for the consummation of Poe's tales, the mysteries of Monk Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe would have been only a cul-de-sac. No other American writer has so clearly marked a place in the English tradition as Poe; he is a necessary link in the chain. To compensate, no great American writer is less distinctively American than he. This is not to diminish America's claim to Poe, or to suggest that his life would have been of another kind had he worked in England. The âmes damnées of romanticism would no doubt have been unfortunate in any country. But Poe would at least have found congenial companions in London and in Paris; he would have tasted some of the sweets of an immense succès d'estime; and perhaps he would have been able to earn more money. It is no good repining over Poe's miserable life now. But more truly than Baudelaire himself he was the albatross of the sonnet; in America he was exiled from his element, and he died in consequence.

Speculation upon what might have been but was not is generally dismissed as idle day-dreaming. But it has a function, and a valuable function, in criticism. It is a method of exercising the logic of the imagination. A great writer is something more than a man who lived his circumscribed physical existence at a given point of time; he is an incarnate potentiality of the human soul, concerning which it is legitimate to inquire whether the conditions attending its embodiment were good or bad. Relatively good, of course, is the best we can hope for genius in this rough world of compromise; the artist has no right to complain if he is misunderstood by the large mass of his contemporaries. But he has the right to expect to be comprehended by a few of his peers. The artist to whom this is denied may arraign the injustice of Heaven. Poe's isolation in America was of this unhappy and stultifying kind, and its effects upon his poetry are plain. For the most remarkable thing about him as a poet is the contrast between his scanty production—even with a long introduction and twenty new fragments, Mr. Whitty's edition makes a very small book—and the natural facility, the unmistakable fecundity, of his poetic genius. Poe was, by endowment, a prolific poet; as prolific as the men between whom he ideally takes his place, as Keats and Shelley, or as Swinburne and Tennyson. He was not by temper a meticulous artist. He theorised about poetry, it is true; but that was rather a manifestation of his general intellectual alertness (and, to some extent, a gesture of defiance) than a sign of unusual poetic self-consciousness. There is an almost Byronic freedom and flow in his verses; but he had a finer and more delicate mind than Byron's, and some of his poems are on an altogether higher poetic level, while in most of them can be found a few lines of a kind that Byron could never have written.

Moreover, the poems of Poe's boyhood, “Tamerlane,” published when he was eighteen, and “Al Aaraaf,” published when he was twenty, though they have their immaturities, are astonishing productions. They are, indubitably, poems, and they contain passages of imaginative beauty and splendid phrasing. To a modern reader, “Al Aaraaf,” which might justly be called Poe's Endymion, holds suggestions both of Keats and of Shelley:

Now happiest, loveliest in yon lovely earth
Whence sprang the Idea of Beauty into birth,
(Falling in wreaths thro' many a startled star
Like woman's hair 'mid pearls, until, afar,
It lit on hills Achaian, and there dwelt)
She looked into Infinity—and knelt.

Surely, one says, that is the work of a young man who not only has “the vision and the faculty divine,” but has also read Keats and Shelley. Yet it must be very doubtful whether Poe had read them when he wrote “Al Aaraaf.” It was written at some time between 1827 and 1829—that is, before the Galignani edition of the two English poets, and at a time when the total number of copies of books by both of them not gathering dust upon the publishers' shelves, probably did not exceed a thousand. It is hardly likely that a dozen had crossed the Atlantic, and less likely still that two of them fell into the hands of an impecunious soldier in a Virginian garrison.

The point is interesting. Even if “Al Aaraaf” owed something to Keats and Shelley, it is still a remarkable achievement. But if it owed them nothing it is altogether astonishing. Its richness, its movement, its lucidity, its evident creation out of overflow, make it one of those rare juvenilia from which can surely be predicted poetical eminence to come. This eminence Poe never completely attained, simply because the body of his finest work is not massive enough; he has the quality but not the quantity of a great poet. And this imperfect realisation of his poetic powers was due, as the internal evidence alone makes clear, not to any deficiency in himself, but to the hostile conditions in which he was compelled to work.

Events not to be controlled [he wrote in the preface to the 1845 edition of his Poems] have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances would have been the field of my choice. With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not—they cannot at will be excited, with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.

Our impulse is to suspect such a declaration. In Poe's case it was the simple truth.

After the first striking contrast between his obvious fecundity and the smallness of his production, another no less striking appears, between the comparative crudity of some of his poems and the delicate austerity of others. The crudity of “The Raven” and “Lenore” is, of course, only relative. These popular poems do produce their effect; and still more certainly “The Bells” is successful. But when we compare them with “Ulalume” and “Annabel Lee” we feel that the creative impulse has been coarsened. The technical power is constant, but the degree to which Poe's poetic individuality is realised is much less in the one case than the other. It is the difference between the romance which the early nineteenth-century public adored and the romance which haunted Poe's mind—the heightened awareness of spiritual mystery which he so beautifully expressed in the little poem “Romance”:

Of late, eternal Condor years
So shake the very Heaven on high
With tumult as they thunder by,
I have no time for idle cares
Through gazing on the unquiet sky.
And when an hour with calmer wings
Its down upon my spirit flings—
That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away—forbidden things!
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.

In Poe's most popular poems his heart does not “tremble with the strings.” We know, because there are many of his poems in which it does, where the poem is the expression of an intimate romantic emotion which has hardly more than the name in common with the crude supernatural thrills in which his contemporaries delighted.

The essence of Poe's romance is the eternal perplexity of the soul that turns aside from the harsh reality to the imagined perfection of a dream; it is a spirit akin to that which finds utterance in Mr. De la Mare's poetry to-day. And in Mr. De la Mare's poetry we find the distinctest echoes of Poe's subtler music. Compare the modern poet's Thule—itself a familiar country of Poe's—with:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
          Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
          The weary way-worn wanderer bore
          To his own native shore.

That note as surely sounds on in Mr. De la Mare's work as Swinburne prolonged the robuster reverberations of “Ulalume”:

Astarte's bediamonded crescent
          Distinct with its duplicate horn.

But, though Poe had many manners, he had but a single matter; and the manner which best suited it is not the manner by which he is best known. His finest poems (such as the lines “To Helen” or “The Sleeper”) are far quieter than those for which he is most famous, for his matter is secret and subtle and shy. The raven perched on the bust of Pallas is but a poor symbol for the intimate mystery. “Eldorado” touches it much more nearly and is, in consequence, a simple and perfect poem. It is Poe's equivalent of La Belle Dame sans Merci, as “Al Aaraaf” is his Endymion. And this curious parallelism with Keats appears again in the low-toned and beautiful poems in blank verse addressed to various women. Poe seems to have shared Keats's determination to escape if he could from the dramatic artificiality of blank verse, and to make it responsive to more personal emotions. Like Keats himself, he was not wholly successful; but we are struck by the curious resemblance in tone between the rewritten Induction to Hyperion and such an opening of Poe's as this:

Not long ago, the writer of these lines,
In the mad pride of intellectuality,
Maintained the power of word, denied that
A thought arose within the human brain
Beyond the utterance of the human tongue.

Compare with this the lines from the opening of the new Hyperion:

                                                                      Who alive can say,
“Thou art no poet—mayst not tell thy dreams?”
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions and would speak if he had loved,
And been well nurtured in his mother-tongue.
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet's or fanatic's will be known
When this warm scribe, my hand, is in the grave.

There is a curious tonelessness (which some might call mere flatness) common to the blank verse of these two poets towards the end of their lives. Both alike give the impression that they have touched the fringe of a truth more sacred to them than Art itself.

Poe's tragedy as a poet is that he was compelled to a compromise: he was forced by the necessities of living to use his great rhythmical gift in writing poems that might pass with an American editor of the Martin Chuzzlewit period. It is not surprising that he gave up the struggle, and devoted himself to prose of a kind that permitted him to make a little money without losing his own self-respect. Keats without his £2000, Shelley without his private income—would they, we wonder, have written more, or more finely, than Poe? But they would at least have been sustained by a handful of understanding friends. It does not appear that Poe had one.

The twenty new poems that have been unearthed by Mr. Whitty for this edition1 are without importance, with the exception of one, a love-poem beginning:

Sleep on, sleep on, another hour—
I would not break so calm a sleep,
To wake to sunshine and to shower,
To smile and weep.

It has not the perfectly individual sentiment of Poe's best poems, but it is limpid and beautiful, and it is a valuable addition to his work. Most of the other pieces are scraps and album rhymes. One of them is worth remembering as a sample of the sentimental punning which poets of Poe's day permitted themselves. It is indited to a lady called Kate Carol.

When from your gems of thought I turn
To those pure orbs your heart to learn,
I scarce know which to prize more high—
The bright i-dea, or bright dear-eye.

Keats and Lamb both did that kind of thing occasionally; but even they never did anything worse. Young ladies and albums have a great deal to answer for; yet, to be honest, Poe seems to have owed to them some of the happiest moments of his distracted life.


  1. The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Edited by T. R. Whitty. Constable.

Edward H. Davidson (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10863

SOURCE: Davidson, Edward H. “Aspects of a Philosophy of Poetry.” In Poe: A Critical Study, pp. 43-75. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1957.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson discusses Poe as one of the major philosophic voices of nineteenth-century America.]

Poetry is a form of philosophy. It distills the major philosophic precepts of its time. One poet is not expressing his whole age and time: not even Shakespeare was the total record of the Elizabethan age; yet we rightly consider Shakespeare as the distinctly summarizing and even philosophic voice of his age.

Some poets are apparently aware that they are the “voices” of their age, and, like Tennyson and Longfellow of Poe's own time, are deeply conscious of their poetic place and destiny in their age. To be aware of such distinction is, however, not to have it. In order to explore the intellectual and philosophic poetic temper of the nineteenth century in America, one should not go to Longfellow, Lowell, or Bryant. He should go to Poe, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, not one of whom was a “philosopher” (much as Whitman tried to be one), but all of whom form the record of the American poetic sensibility in the nineteenth century.

Different as at first consideration those three poets were, they were nonetheless very similar—certainly Poe and Whitman were—in their search for a unitary theory of the universe of man and God. Poe was different from them too; he was never touched by the profound reaches of the Puritan mind in quest of its own private center, as was Emily Dickinson; and, despite the influences of German transcendental thought and idealistic philosophy, Poe, unlike Whitman, always remained half-rationalist and half-organicist. In another term, he might be considered a return to the Middle Ages and to the schoolmen who fashioned the immense design of the “great chain of being.” Yet he was also a citizen of his age, keenly aware of the fracture which Cartesian logic and Lockean psychology had made in man's conception of himself and of his world. In its way Poe's problem was very much like that of Henry Adams or of Wallace Stevens: that of seeing unity in diversity, of conceiving the design behind the apparent chaos, of marrying matter and mind. Poe was not, strictly speaking, a “philosopher” any more than Henry Adams and Wallace Stevens were to be. Yet he regarded his world and employed his art “philosophically”; that is, his poems, short stories, and certain critical pronouncements were projections of the mind and the imagination toward a metaphysical order and were attempts to phrase not the “why” but the “what” of man, his mind, and his world. The poem, the short story, the novel like Pym became the symbolic enactment of man's search for logic and meaning.

What we shall endeavor to do in this chapter, which is intercalary to the main adventure through Poe's career, is to watch Poe respond and give expression to some of the major currents of his age and then to see what trends in his artistic career these forces shaped. The best and easiest point at which to begin is with the youthful mind of Poe himself.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the Romantic mind was that it wore itself out or even destroyed its own imaginative powers. Romantic poets have so frequently exhausted their inspiration, made barren their special subject matter, or contented themselves with their own private meditations that the “Romantic agony” has become, with whatever justification, a commonplace of historical inquiry and criticism. In a very real sense, Romantic poets have been susceptible to the “agony” because, as poets, they began with a potential of private destructiveness, namely, with the self. Poe belonged to the company of Shelley, Coleridge, Pushkin, Verlaine, and others too numerous to mention; it is a very large and yet a very select company, each member a special case in himself and accountable only on his own unique imaginative experience.

The “agony” character of poetry need not primarily concern us here. It is that frustration and terror a poet realizes when he knows that he has nothing more to say or when he gropes through that murky region that lies between what the imagination envisions and what the poetic rhetoric fails to resolve. Poe was a victim of both these failures, these terrors; and their roots lie deep in his mind and in the age of which he was, however unaware, a part.

Every youthful mind, especially every poetically romantic mind, is solipsistic; it begins with an intuitive necessity to give credence only to itself and to its own intense experience. It sees everything from within, and it sees even the universe as a kind of opaque mirror of itself. Such a condition of being is natural and even healthy; in a writer it produces the endless autobiographical narrative of the accumulating richness of consciousness on the part of a growing mind: Dickens' David Copperfield, Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym and “The Raven,” to Swann's Way, Buddenbrooks, and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In some respects Poe might be called the formulator of the theme: the subject of his poetry and of a great deal of his stories is the chronicle of the consciousness of a hypersensitive youth. One might also say that these “histrio” poses were means of his conducting his intellectual development in public.

Poe's development was limited to how far Poe could project or enlarge his own personality or his imaginative selfhood. His sense of self was, however, perilously close to an exclusive narcissism. The curiosity of this situation was not essentially its narcissism but its strangely hypertrophied emotional condition of always needing to be in another consciousness or being—as though he could continually invent imaginative protagonists of himself who would do what, imaginatively, needed doing in the poem or short story and all the while leave him safe and untouched. The drama always ended the same way: it was a double destruction, that of the Poe-self imaginatively and that of the invented self (woman, the visible world, God) substantively. Unless he could be “in” and wholly identify himself with that being or protagonist who was the doer of the poem, Poe had no subject at all; and the moment he achieved that state of identification—the moment when the self and its prototype were virtually indistinguishable—neither he nor that other being had any further imaginative existence. Poe's imagination reduced to complete disorder what it intended to use before any new shape or subject could arise; or, to put the matter another way, the imagination had to go through a process and come out on the “other side” before the original stimulus or insight had any usableness or meaning.

The rationale of this solipsistic act of annihilation is, admittedly, a matter for the most tentative speculation. Yet enough evidence survives to permit us to investigate further this question of an artistic mind delighting in its own destruction, the imagination destroying itself in the very act of creation, as a pervasive element in Poe's art.1

One of the major themes in Poe's whole corpus of writing is his longing for the mother, for a kind of female night-shape, who is never there and will never come. The pretty Elizabeth Arnold Poe died in Poe's infancy; and though Mrs. Frances Keeling Allan lavished on him an affection which was strong as it was deep, Poe never bore the name of this putative mother: for a boy growing up in Richmond, Virginia, not to bear the name of the mother and father was socially worse than having no parents at all. Thus Poe sought the “dream” mother who was forever young, forever soft, and yet forever unworldly; the foster mother who died when he was a young man could claim in death more of his devotion than when she was alive. In the last year of his life Poe celebrated in a sonnet this vision of the dream-mother who was a combination of Mrs. Allan, his mother-in-law Mrs. Maria Clemm, and all the visionary ladies he had ever seen:

Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
          The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
          None so devotional as that of “Mother,”
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you. …

This mother-image was, more importantly, one of the psychic projections of Poe's own inner world; the lost mother was a means of his acting out a number of themes which lay deep in his imaginative consciousness.

This longing for the mother was coupled with a fear of the dark and of the night. The child Marcel in Proust's Swann's Way suffered excruciatingly in the dark, but he could at least hear the voices below stairs, and eventually his mother did come to kiss him goodnight. Although we know nothing of the bedtime rituals in the Allan household,2 we can understand that for the rest of his life Poe heard, over and over again, the voices of his imagination out of the dark and terrifying night of his childhood. In that strange blending of visions which were to possess him for a lifetime, Poe saw a mother-image cast in the dark night of fear and death. This night-shape was always young, a beautiful woman arrayed in the filmy dress of marriage or the funeral: the nightgown or wedding dress easily shifted into the grave clothes, and the innocent white of the bride was the pallor of death on the cheek. The early lyric, “I saw thee on thy bridal day,” was, with very little change in metaphor, a version of Irene in “The Sleeper.” In Poe the child became the man; and the mother who never came in the dark of the night grew into the demon lover, the poltergeist, who was to haunt him in all his poetry and in many of his short stories.

Such a mind is born or made an outcast. Poe later suffered a deepening of his feeling of displacement when, reared as a gentleman in a gentlemanly way of life, he found himself suddenly cast out when he returned to Richmond, in no very deep disgrace, from the University of Virginia at Christmas time of 1826. It was indeed one of the harshest blows life could deal him; biographers, for all their stress on facts, have not stressed it enough, for it split Poe's life in two.

Yet, like other outcasts or outcast minds, Poe enjoyed his special condition; he reveled not only in a “region of sighs” but in solitude. He developed early a capacity for introspection, and these private meditations, coupled with the power of self-expression, induced Poe to speculate on his own mind as outside of or as functioning apart from the world of men and reality. In that separation Poe sought, ultimately, the deepest meanings of his own existence—yet this speculation was going on all the while that Poe was setting up a number of barriers or defenses against final self-revelation.

The feeling of isolation or the sense of personal loneliness can actually become means of insight into the nature of the self and the world. They can become, not philosophies, but philosophic attitudes. Kierkegaard, whose mind was contemporary with and much like Poe's, put on his mask of the “either/or” whereby he could play the trifler in public and hold his mind in suspense and ready for speculation in the deepest privacy. Poe was similarly the histrio, the shaper of masks for the self and a teller of lies in order to conceal the cracks in a histrio's façade.3

Poe was also a citizen of the first half of the nineteenth century, a member of the generation which sought Waldens and brotherhoods of men whereby man might learn to express himself both in the privacy of his own mind and in the community of his fellowmen. He was of an age (it was an “age”: Hawthorne and Melville were distinguished citizens of it) which tried to solve a question central to the modern world: if man is a mind, he cannot live in a mindless or mechanistic world. Either he must be mechanistic man existing in a mechanical universe, or he must see himself as a mind living in a world which also functions according to some intelligence. The solution Poe reached, as did Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, may not have been a permanent one (what solution could be?) but it had certain validity until the impact of evolutionary and Pragmatic thought.4

The romantic mind—and Poe is almost a touchstone for it—sought the answer to the epistemological dilemma—does man as mind live in a mindless universe?—by consistently undertaking the journey of mind. Whatever this questing self could find would be truth for itself and for its time; but the quest had to be undergone alone; if it reached its goal in privacy, it might then turn outward toward the world. But the social message could come only after a private regeneration: witness Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Mill's Autobiography (and its famous description of the mind's rebirth in mid-life), Newman's Apologia, and Arnold's poetry. The private self was first mirror for the world and then the world could be seen as it truly was—a universe of mind which somehow was like the private self as a mind.

The first stage in this romantic quest was an act of destruction or renunciation: the real world was abandoned or reduced to the conditions imposed by the self as mind; then, and only then, could reality or world assume its being and actuality again. The writers I have just mentioned were ones who performed this double activity of intellectual making and reshaping. The curiosity of Edgar Poe is that he never came out of the first stage: the young mind's private indulgence in solitude and in terror and dream became the habit of a lifetime; his mind fulfilled itself—every time it wrote a poem or short story—by performing an act of destruction, a destruction of the sensible world as having any mind or reality whatsoever. What the child saw in its earliest impressions—the visions of the dying or dead girl-mother, then the youth's private longing for solitude, finally the literary capital which could be made from the terror of self-consciousness and the dark night of the seeking mind—these became the major imaginative enterprises of a lifetime.

Yet the “either/or,” the split between the inner self and the outer world, was never complete in Poe: the mind which employed itself in the discursive journey of self-exploration was never quite the total enterprise. There was another side of his mind which, as it were, remained apart from the activity of the other. While one side—that of the underveloped adolescent with its night fears and the dreams of the lost girl-mother—was engaged in an imaginative destruction of reality chiefly in the poetry and in a select group of tales, the other half of the mind was attempting to make sense of reality and to put logic back together: this side functioned in the tales of ratiocination, in the criticism, and in the philosophic prose-poem Eureka. The mind was split between, on the one hand, its delight in and horror at its own capacity for destruction and, on the other, its consciousness that the world was untouched all the time.

This fracture or dualism was, in Poe, only partly a question of his private mind or psychology; if it were wholly so, then all his writing would have been merely autobiographical, the outward expression of his own inner, private turmoil. The fracture was philosophical as well: it was part of the major stream of intellectual and artistic life from the seventeenth until well into the nineteenth, and even into the twentieth, century.


It was Cartesian dualism which left to future generations the problem of a split world. In science, the enlightenment derived from this division was enormous, but in art it willed to men's minds the question of the subject and its object, the artist and his material, the “I” and the universe. For the eighteenth century this division was a recognition of the highest convenience and potentiality: the world of reality left impressions on the mind, and those impressions, quite removed from the original stimulus in the world, were the subject of the artist's contemplation and composition. The artist thereby presented the general, the universal, the type, which existed in the human intelligence unquestioned by time and the variables of the world itself.

Romantic psychology and epistemology were, in great measure, an attempt to bridge this gap and to resolve this split. The artist's material could not be always conveniently “out there” as a matter for detached or even absent contemplation; the artist was an artist because, primarily, he underwent a continual process of reanimation by virtue of his very contact with the world. What the world contained, the mind knew; what reality stimulated, the artist could reduce to some order: but the knowledge and the order were not a set of determinants which philosophers, critics, and artists had agreed as existing (the leaf was not simply a generalized leaf, knowable from Aristotle to Pope) but were rediscovered, almost as if they had never existed before, every time an artist's mind and imagination sensed and knew them.

Philosophically, the question pertained to the relationship between the mind and the world. Do I know the world (to put the matter another way) because I have a mind which is capable of sensing and reflecting on the world apart from reality? Or is my mind an extension and still a part of what I might term “the world”? One question is rationalism or mechanism, the other idealism or organicism. And the answer which a writer or artist makes, instinctively or logically, determines the kind of art he will produce. On the one hand he may be Alexander Pope; on the other, Coleridge, Poe, or Wallace Stevens.5

The romantic artist has, generally speaking, subscribed to what Santayana termed “the higher superstition,” which he further defined: “This views the world as an oracle or charade, concealing a dramatic unity, or formula, or maxim, which all experience exists to illustrate.”6 That is, the “unity” exists as an ideal which the artist or philosopher seeks to realize, but always he is haunted by the necessary recognition that the world is sense and mind, matter and soul, thing and idea which he can never quite bring into any permanent, ultimate coherence. He is forever tantalized by a split universe which is, he keeps insisting, really one.

Poe attempted one more solution to this dualism within a unity.7 Subject and object, mind and matter, the artist and the world ought to exist in some functional and apprehensible design. If there is a split, then the artist's main business might be employed in demonstrating that there is one containing Reality within which are other modes and elements of being. Poe is an interesting example of one who acknowledged this fracture, the Cartesian dualism, and yet aimed to resolve some comprehensible and knowable design. Melville, as Mr. Charles Feidelson has shown, is an interesting example of another approach to the dilemma: Melville sensed that, if he permitted his own mind (as he almost did in Pierre) to shape the world in terms of his own private vision, the world of sensible reality was virtually annihilated; nothing would remain except the white foam from which Ishmael arose at the end of Moby-Dick; thus to render only the individual attitude toward the world would mean a retreat into introspection and loss of communication with the world. Melville's solution was only partial—and somewhat like Poe's: he allowed the Confidence Man his worldly masquerade and then assumed a private mask which he wore in his shorter poems, in Clarel, and in Billy Budd. The fracture was complete: the knowing mind was all; the world as perception was nothing or a chaos.8

Poe was more daring; he began where, as it were, Melville had left off. If Melville rejected the substantial world because it was a mass of unyielding, unknowable stuff, Poe early abandoned any organic conception which his basic monism told him ought to exist. Consequently, he had several methods of resolving the problem of a dualism within the One: he could, as Melville did eventually, abandon the world of substance and retire into the loneliness of the single perceiving self; or he could, as Emerson proposed and Whitman fulfilled, make the sensible world unite with or conform to the perceiving mind or self. Poe did neither. He was too much a rationalist, a child of the eighteenth century, to allow any condition but an epistemological separation between the mind and reality. But instead of retiring into the private imagination and making the world conform to the inner reason, or denying any existence to reality except what the imagination allows, Poe sent his imagination on a series of journeys which were means and acts of conquest of the mind over the material world.

Yet these were not always acts of “conquest.” The action might be reversed and the conquered might overcome the conqueror. For somehow, in Poe's art, the imagination tended to lose itself in the process of going out or of making the material world conform to the imaginative premise. The material world was too often unyielding; instead of the mind's willing a comprehension, the mind lost itself and became the object (as in “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”). By contrast, we might for the moment consider Whitman's “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” as an act of submergence and identification: the actors in this symbolic drama—the lilac, star, bird, the land, even the poet himself—all succumb to and go through death but, at the last, come out on the other side of death in a total transformation wherein the perceiving self has been able to reassert itself and its identity in the act of dying and being reborn.

Poe's usual method, from the time he abandoned the intensely autobiographical expression of his early poetry, was to send another self on the journey, an invented self which becomes or wills or understands; all the while the central “I” is detached, observing, and aware that what it knows or invents may be only an illusion, a fascinating masquerade which, for the moment, the imagination has been able to fashion from that reality which is ever diverse and separate from the knowing self.

In order further to explore and understand the implications of this “split,” both philosophical and artistic, which determined much of romantic art and, more especially, Poe's verse and prose, we should consider two formulations. The first is, What is the nature and condition of any art that renounces the world of sense and the accredited language of discourse which men for centuries have assumed as “real” and meaningful? Or, what happens to poetry, or to art in general, when it denies the perceptual world and takes for granted that what the mind makes is the only reality? The second and one more pertinent for Poe is, What might happen if the imagination not only rejected the world of sense and meaning but attempted to enter a range of expression and experience where the artist could make any word or sign mean anything he wanted, either a nothing or a completely abstract symbol? These two questions are means not only of describing Poe and his poetry but also of linking him with Coleridge, his critical mentor, and one of the main streams of early nineteenth-century philosophical thought. Our present problem now turns on the nature and act of the creative process; in Romantic idealism, the mind is not a mere reflector of the world, a dark closet into which jets of knowable light are projected and made into ideas, but is itself a creator and knower.


Kant had shown, by his distinction between phenomena and noumena, that the mind does not operate upon brute matter and form ideas out of mere sense-impressions, as though it were putting together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle; if that were so, then the mind were forever a prey to outer circumstance and deprived of any ideas in continuity. The individual human mind knows because it is itself a part and product of a unifying thought manifested throughout the universe; there is both the individual mind and the all-ordering mind which “think into” each other.9 For Kant the mind is both actor and creator; and in formulating this function of the mind in answer to Humean skepticism, he stipulated three elements of mental activity: Sensibility, by which we become aware of spatial and temporal objects; Imagination; and Understanding. The two latter functions are “transcendental,” in that they take their origin in sense-data but go beyond the limitations of human knowledge which Lockean rationalism had sought to impose. They are truly creative, and they make known to the mind the only final perceptions which the mind ever achieves of the world.10

The line from Kant to Coleridge is straight and direct. In the Biographia Literaria Coleridge took over bodily these three functions of mental activity and then put his special emphasis on the second, the Imagination; for Coleridge was concerned less with what the mind knows and more with what that special faculty of the mind known as the imagination does when it is creating a poem or any work of art.11

The imagination is itself, for Coleridge, dual. The “primary Imagination” is the first stage of perceptual insight and illumination; it is the fullest, the most complete agency of perception, for it is the all-comprehensive, “esemplastic,” or “building-up” faculty which takes the infinite diversity of experience and makes it into a whole; it does not leave experience a set of sporadic jets or flashes, as in Lockean thought, but instinctively combines experience into that continuity which men know exists. There is nothing special, Coleridge (and Wordsworth too) insisted, about this faculty; it is not given just to poets. It is the very basis of the most prosaic knowledge of the world; all men have it and use it. Poetry, though different as an expression of the mind, is only one way by which man has been able to make sense for himself of the sensible world; it is, in that respect, very close to science, philosophy, ethics, and religion.12

The primary imagination is, therefore, virtually an instinct in man: it is his faculty not only of deriving some sense of comprehensive unity in the world but also his capacity to “think back into” the world his own awareness of belonging in that whole. It is the highest reach of man's attempt to understand himself as participating in the design and as being shaped by the multiplicity which, nonetheless, he can know as a functioning one. Poetry is in this respect no different from other studies and knowledges: so to consider poetry as an expression of the primary imagination is to make it part of the same quest for understanding as can be derived from the science of the natural world or the philosophy of the mind itself. Here, then, romantic theory was sometimes content to leave poetry—in that nebulous range of expression and comprehension which might be all, or nothing.

Coleridge apparently saw the danger of such a program: of necessity poetry was different from other investigations, and its procedure was something distinct, if not unique. With the “secondary Imagination,” which is Coleridge's own term, we enter the special domain of poetry; it was this concept which required of Coleridge his most searching analysis; for Poe the implications of this Coleridgean view are enormous. The secondary imagination was the destructive force; it was the operation of the mind antecedent to poetic creation, even to the imaginative stimulus which might eventually lead to poetic activity. This secondary faculty breaks through the range of everyday perception: that world which Coleridge termed “familiarity and selfish solicitude” must be destroyed. The primary imagination is the mind's first comprehension; it sees all things put together, but that apprehension cannot produce poetry.13 The mind must pass through the world-as-all; “that world,” in the words of D. G. James, “is dissolved and dissipated; and, out of the same materials, operated on however by a revivified imagination, a new world is made. The first is adequate to the demands of ‘practical’ life; but the creative re-ordering of the secondary imagination results in a world adequate to the demands of the ‘contemplative’ life which, if sufficiently developed, issues in artistic creation.”14

This aspect of the life of the imagination may be regarded from another point of view. The primary imagination presents the world to the mind as substantively known and ordered. There may indeed be more for the mind to know, but such knowledge is merely the addition or further sense and intellectual data to the amount of knowledge already obtained. The secondary imagination is, contrariwise, a disordering or reordering of what is the known world and the mind's ideas. It consists, as it were, of a reverse process from the one by which the mind has reached its “primary” awareness. It brings to the attention of the mind, or imagination (the two are virtually synonymous in this respect), a constant skepticism and review of the world. The secondary imagination may very well end in dissolving what is “known” and end by creating a wholly new conceptual realm of idea quite on its own; and this new range of perception may become so “real” that the imagination or mind can live simultaneously in two dimensions or two worlds.

Poe's adherence to Coleridge's design was almost slavish; he never went beyond it or added to it but simply emphasized one element at the expense of several others. In nearly identical terms Poe made a tripartite division of the human faculties. The first is the Heart, the sensory or feeling organ (and is almost the same function as Coleridge's “sensibility”); its satisfaction is “Passion” or the “excitement of the heart.” Its operation is within a “homeliness” or common-placeness. The second is the Imagination, the perceiving or discovering power. The third is the Intellect or understanding; its satisfaction is “Truth”; its best realization is achieved in prose which “demands a precision.”15 These two latter functions, as in Coleridge's schema, are transcendental and therefore nonsensory; yet they alone can make the world fully known to the mind. Poe placed the imagination as the second or mediating faculty in order to denote its blending or esemplastic function between the other two; it is, however, a separate faculty whose principles and action form the domain of art.16

Poe's one significant departure from the Coleridgean design is in his assumption that these three distinctions are not so much components or parts of the human mind as they are separate actions of man's power of expression and communication. The imagination is, for Poe, the one truly creative or discovering faculty of the mind; the other two are either speculative, analytical, discursive, or descriptive.17 They are not “lower”; they simply employ a different idiom and vocabulary of conveyance. Thus the mind lives not so much on different levels or ranges of experience: experience is all “there” from the first or is developed as life goes on; the mind lives in varying ranges of expression or means of making things known to itself and to others. The heart or sensory faculty is the everyday and may not be expressive at all but mutely knowing, as with habit. The intellect deals in scientific formulas, with precise instruments of measuring, and with the inductive method of verifying what the mind regards as true and permanent. The imagination, however, both orders and destroys; it goes through the world of reality or “selfish solicitude” and conceives some comprehensible reality which only the rhetoric (Poe thought of it as music or poetry) of the imagination may express and convey. The heart and the intellect are barred from such expressive understanding simply because they do not have the right language. The mathematical symbol for the square root of minus-one may be a marvelous tool of intellectual perception, but it cannot do what a bar of music or a poem can do to convey the something-other which lies beyond mathematics or the sciences.

As an outgrowth of this insistence on the comprehending or rhetorical power of the imagination, the romantic mind was led to consider the question of originality. Did the imagination know or shape the same known world in different modes of expression (as Wordsworth thought), or was it a faculty of making things known which had never been known before (as Coleridge, and Emerson too, considered)? If the imagination is a faculty for originating and discovering, then does it make known only what it knows within itself or does it have the capacity of really penetrating to something and a somewhere “beyond”?

The imagination is original; and it is not original. This paradox Poe could never resolve. Perhaps his most concise statement is in some of the “Marginalia” of 1844, wherein, discussing the “pure Imagination,” he noted that the work of the imagination is, first of all, to “combine things hitherto uncombined; the compound … partaking, in character, of beauty, or sublimity, in the ratio of the respective beauty or sublimity of the things combined”; these are, nonetheless, simply to be regarded as restatements of “previous combinations.” Secondly, “the admixture of two elements results in a something that has nothing of the qualities of one of them, or even nothing of the qualities of either. … Thus, the range of Imagination is unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe.”18

By a curious twist of his critical terminology, Poe discussed imaginative originality under the heading of the “mystic.” This issue led him into some confusion: he had difficulty adjusting one view, as derived from Baron Bielfeld's Elements of Universal Erudition, that the mind can know nothing outside its own experience (therefore, the imagination is a chimera of the self) and that, contrariwise, the mind does receive impulses from the Ideal which it can reduce to shape and metaphor.19 In other words, the mind, or imagination, cannot know the world outside itself, and it can. The imagination is supernatural, and it is mundane. Or: the world is itself insensible to its own dissociation and atomism, and so too are most men in it; the poet, however, is so keenly aware of this dislocation of parts within the whole that he attempts, imaginatively, to put the universe as an idea back together again. Poe considered this faculty and exercise of the poet or artist as “invention”: the creative imagination makes the infinitely diverse knowables assume some conjunction and order. Poetry was, for Poe, the supreme act of inventive conjoining, and it was “mystic,” as Schlegel had demonstrated beforehand, because it could convey only a suggestive or even ambiguous meaning.20

A poem, or for that matter any act of the imagination, is really two poems or acts: there is the primary expression or “story”—that the generality of readers can receive; and there is the “mystic or secondary expression” (conforming to the Coleridgean distinction of the secondary from the primary imagination) which Poe defined in his review of Moore's Alciphron: “With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august and soul-exalting echo. In every glimpse of beauty presented, we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond.21 The aim of poetry is to penetrate the barrier of resistant fact or the merely ostensible relationship of things and enter the range of the Unknowable—a range which, in another phrasing of the idea, Poe relegated to the limbo of illusion.

Yet this paradox and confusion were not major questions in romantic critical thinking. The solution was really made on the basis that what the mind perceived was something quite different from what the imagination made into art. Art was a different reality, a “something from ourselves.” The imaginative insight and action was a “something from within” back upon the object which had given the imagination its first stimulus; “we imbue the object,” Washington Allston wrote, “making it correspond to a reality within us.”22 In the subject-object relationship, the object achieves artistic reality only by a subject's perceiving it and making it known. What Poe further attempted to show (with the whole Coleridgean logic behind him) was that there is some mysterious, indefinable faculty, inherent in all men however varying in its intensity. Owing to this universal, innate principle all men can basically agree on what constitutes human or poetic truth. The ultimate finality and proof of this agreement are not in nature or in changeless ideal forms, but in men.

Poe's aesthetic principles simply put this faculty and principle farther inward. He removed it beyond history or science and allotted it only to an “Eden” which the artist or true lover of beauty can know. So far, in fact, did he remove it from the world of cause and effect that only in the destruction of that substantive world could the artist, or poet, find his center and thereby build his imaginative vision of reality. Only that special endowment of originality gave man the power to penetrate the actual world and create ever anew, each time the poem was written or the work of art was made, something-other than what the object or idea once was, not because the object or idea changes the mind nor because the imagination subjectively makes the thing into its own image, but because the imagination is able to make something wholly new: the poem, the painting, the sculpture, the musical composition never existed before.23

A poem is therefore the imagination's report on that exploration and comprehension; it becomes a symbolic construct of Unity, but it should not be taken as being that Unity. A poem is not “like” the Unity; it is an illusion or a “something about” that Unity. This is an important distinction which keeps the poem or language from ever becoming “real.” The poem is a report by the imagination, but it is not what the imagination perceived. Words and language are man's reminder of his failure ever to make his own cognition real.

The logical end to this question regarding what poetry is and does is either failure or skepticism. The activity of the imagination is toward a powerful sense of the world's cohesion and unity as that world displays itself to the mind. Yet, contrariwise, as D. G. James has remarked, the “movement of the poetic mind … is towards a powerful sense of the world's limits; but it is compelled by an inward necessity to try to penetrate beyond those limits, and therefore to involve itself in inevitable defeat.”24 Skepticism is the realization that if words are not “real” in their conveyance of idea, then nothing is real; the poem and the imagination are illusory.

Poe could never escape the implications of this dilemma: either the imagination is real and reports reality in real words which have some durable meaning, or there is a world of fact that, though words are not “real,” forever resists any means of bridging between itself and the mind of man. In the later “Philosophy of Composition” Poe tried to reduce one verbal reality (that of the imagination) to understandable terms of another (skepticism or human rationality); the analysis attempted to retrace rationally what had once occurred imaginatively by means of “The Raven.” But, fully to appreciate the analysis, one must be where Poe was when he wrote the essay—on the other side of the imaginative journey on which the poem had taken him; yet one need not know the poem at all. “The interest of an analysis,” Poe confessed in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “… is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed.”25 The analysis or reconstruction is not the poem; each is a separate exercise, one of the imagination, the other of the skeptical intellect.

If, therefore, poetry is finally beyond analysis, if it is not subject to the norms of inquiry and judgment, then what is its domain and what should it do? Poetry, as Coleridge stated before Poe, aimed at “awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.”26 It was the action of the imagination outside itself and it reached toward endowing objects with existence and with relationship. Just as primitive man took for granted that his visible world was alive with voices and spirits, so the poet engages in a series of imaginative readings of earth. Ruskin's pathetic fallacy is not a “fallacy” at all but the demonstrative ascription of continuity and existence to sensible form around us. As Bacon long ago and Whitehead more recently have shown, there cannot be “just an apple” or “just a crocus” in a toneless, fragmented reality. Sensible objects are not fixed and dead.27 They are brought to life and made known to us by acts of the poetic imagination. This act is a difficult and complex ritual which presumes to render the material world, not to the sense or rational faculties, but to itself. But the poem was not so much the act or ritual as it was two acts of perception: one was the poet's, the other was the reader's. The two joined in order to make the poem, for without completing that metaphoric and symbolic cycle the poem had no existence.


In the language of poetry might be the answer to the question of whether objects are real or whether they become real because a mind “thinks” reality into them. The romantic poet, or any artist for that matter, faced the Cartesian dilemma of the relationship between thinker and object, mind and matter. Locke had long ago failed to answer the question of whether the mind knows an object or whether the mind is confined only to its own consciousness and thus, as Hume demonstrated, is lodged totally within its own illusion.

This, then, was the rift of nearly two hundred years and extended from Lockean rationalism to Coleridgean idealism. The implications of this rift were, for Poe, enormous. With hardly a question he assumed that there was a split between the mind and reality and that separate functions of the mind made known one or the other: the understanding or the rational faculties supplied the mind with sense impulses and, eventually, with knowledge of the world; the imagination, that other faculty (with its two aspects which we have already seen) of perception beyond mere resistant fact, offered enticements to and then visions of the infinite, the ideal. The imagination may take its start from and even overlap the rational understanding; but the understanding can never encroach on the special domain of imaginative comprehension. In Locke's epistemology the charts and boundaries of the rational mind were so clearly defined that an Age of Good Sense was content to remain within them.

It was not Locke's separation of the faculties which was so much at fault; the special weakness of his ideas in which a century put its trust was the “tabula rasa” theory, the concept that the mind enters the world as a blank on which life wrote the lessons of “experience.” Epistemology and psychology were thus happily joined—only to stimulate further confusion. At this point the German idealists and, more especially for Poe, Coleridge showed that the process or the “how” of knowing might be distinguished from the “what” of the mind's knowledge. The language question might be a means of solving this dilemma: for the rationalist words are not “real” because they are the links the mind establishes both sensorily and intellectually with the external world which, anteriorly, had impinged upon it; words are simply “made.” For the romantic like Coleridge and Poe words are “real” because they are the inevitable, organic result of the mind's and the imagination's apprehension of itself and reality. Or, stated another way, the post-Lockean made words only fictions of things; the idealist, from Coleridge through Emerson to Poe, assumed that words are not only images of natural facts but signs of essences and absolutes. One may find the statements for this concept where he may—in Emerson's chapter on “Language” in Nature or in Horace Bushnell's Introductory Discourse on language in his God in Christ; whatever the location, in Poe as elsewhere, words were more than splendid fictions and signs; they could become the only reality man knew; all else was illusion.28

Poe, for his own ill or good, was part logician and part psychologist, part philosopher and part semanticist. He inherited and then elaborated a crux in the nature of cognition which he was never able to solve. The idealist or organicist, as we have seen, considered that language was “real” not only because it was the only way the mind could make things and its own ideas known to itself but because words were the inevitable necessity of the interaction of the mind on the world and of the world on mind. The word “stone” must, of all possibilities for naming that object, be in English the word “stone.”

But the language-problem became acute when, however, the word “stone” need no longer have any relationship with the object stone; words could become stimuli for and avenues of meaning between mind and mind and might never again need referring to the object stone. One need never see a stone nor know what weeping is to be able to conceive of a “weeping stone.” On this condition of divorcing language from the objects they denote, words can become anything the user of words wants them to be.

Thus any word had a double purpose and existence. On the one hand, a word had a very immediate, denotative meaning; it was a divisible thing of sounds and precise demonstration in dictionaries. On the other hand, the word was a “something-other,” a suggestiveness, an abstraction, and a way into the farther range of perception beyond logic and beyond the normal discourse of man. By means of the poetic or incantatory process, the imaginative response of any reader could be enticed toward an ultimate symbolic meaning which defied the language of prose or rationality to define. Yet, all the while, this farther range of expression and thought was continually under the review of a critical, logic-making intelligence which was, of necessity, using the very same words, in whatever differing contexts, that had been employed in the poetic or imaginative discourse.

In addition to this view that language, even the same words, might have double functions, whether as precise meaning or as suggestive incitement to abstract, imaginative thought, Poe further complicated the language problem by conceiving that a poet could make words exist in a kind of third or separate dimension: a poet could make words, in the highly variable connotativeness of poetry, mean anything he might want. He could precondition what response the reader should have to the mood, texture, idea of a poem, and he could, even more, induce the same responses in all readers of his poem. If readers had differing ideas about or responses to a poem, then the fault was the poet's; the poem was not correctly made. Poe's savage attacks on his fellow poets were based, in most respects, on this assumption that poems are murky and confusing simply because poetasters have not properly exercised the techniques of their craft. Poems can even be original, quite unlike poems ever made before, by virtue of a poet's revitalizing the old or even inventing a new symbolism, a new use of language, out of which absolutely new poetic meaning could be obtained.

There was, nonetheless, a limit even to this imaginative freedom. Any word or symbolism, however revitalized or invented, had to be anchored in the world of sense perception; its beginning had to be in some objectification which men know as “real” in place and time. Thereafter, the creative imagination could proceed anywhere, so long as its symbolic order maintained some coherent and known relationship with the intelligible order of sense and reality. The stone is, in this context, not only a key to a sensible image (the object “stone”) which should call up in every hearer or reader of the word a precise image of that object but is also capable of being joined to other words and ideas to set up in every hearer or reader a pathway and process toward some knowable, ultimate idea of which the stone-idea was only an impetus or a very small part. In poetry, where language becomes almost totally metaphoric and symbolic, this implicit connotativeness of words should mean that all readers of the same poem might, within certain indeterminate limits, obtain the same idea and response the words were meant to convey. Critics might carp and dispute, but the phrase, “the weeping stone,” if set properly in the design and progress of the poem, should be universally the same in making an idea known through the communication of language.29

Here indeed was a paradox. Are words names for things or are they names for our ideas of things? If poetry were the symbolic expression only of our ideas of things, then the substantial world had been left behind or destroyed. The weeping stone is not an object; it is a metaphoric transference of the idea of weeping to a thing which has no power of itself to weep or feel any emotion. Is, then, the idea of a weeping stone existent only in the mind which is able to arrange words for the purpose of conveying the picture and the idea of a stone that weeps? The phrase and the attendant idea must lie either in the mind that can establish a set of congruences or in some extrasensory region neither of the mind nor of fact wherein the very words themselves have metaphoric existence.

Poetic language is therefore a denial of reality or the submergence of whatever seems real in the idea out of which the poem is made. Yet the destruction is only partial: it is the annihilation of the flat “given” world which threatens at all time to exercise its brute control over what the mind subsumes under meaning. Poetic language exists not in substance nor in the poetic mind which may have made the poem but in a neutral world, a kind of farther dimension wherein the mind or imagination functions as mediating between external reality and itself. Language, to rephrase our problem, is real and not real at the same time; in expressing an idea a poet is not expressing his view of that idea, for words are not inward nor even, as it were, mental. The neutral region of poetic language may, however, be so permitted to eschew any normal word patterns which designate the real that a poet might even be permitted to invent his own vocabulary—a vocabulary, it must be insisted, that could not be altogether his.

A century before these questions were fronting the Romantic mind Jonathan Edwards had raised the problem of the word as real, and he answered it in nearly the same terms. The word was, for Edwards, not itself “real,” but it was a comprehensible relationship established, in a variable realm of knowledge, between man here and God there. The image of the spider held over the candle-flame in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was not the actual condition of man but was the knowable situation of man held by a mere filament over hell.30 The only difference between the language theories, if so they may be termed, of Edwards and Poe is that Edwards conceived the word as inevitably and necessarily that word, whether “spider,” “candle,” or “God's wrath”; and only through that one articulate word could man establish any knowable relationship with the infinite. For Poe, language was, however well man might agree on meanings, a world of itself, neither man's intelligible mind nor observed fact; the word or phrase did not possess a meaning; it obtained meaning the moment it was put in an arrangement with other words to form an apprehension. Prose conformed to a logic and habit of man's agreeing minds; poetry should obey only its own logic: whatever the poet made of language was ever a new creation.

In concluding these generalizations on poetic theory we might well consider one final point: if the poem exists in a neutral region, outside the world and mind of the poet and basically outside the private mind and substantial world of the reader, then what is going on when a poem is, as it were, releasing its meaning through the special, even the unique operations of language which the poet has somehow ordained? Poe reasoned, from such a question, that if he could find the norms of mental behavior in that special response men call “poetic” or imaginative, then he might be able to set forth valid distinctions between good poems and bad poems.

A poem, on any subject whatever, initiates a process which impels or drives the mind beyond even what the words themselves connote. The poet did not make that process; he may have been quite wholly unaware of precisely what he was doing when he was writing the poem—an unawareness of which Poe himself offers a superb example in his own “Philosophy of Composition.” This process, for all that Poe tried to make a consistent logic of it, is not regular nor continuous. It may begin, initiate a train of thought or poetic response, and then skip any number of intermediaries or blocks and subsequently, even all unaware, reach a stage of comprehension beyond anything the words themselves can convey. Poetic language can operate so effectively in that midway or neutral phase of cognition that the ultimate and perhaps farthest range of poetry is a potential wordlessness; it was at this stage of music or the ideal fusion of word and sound that mere verbalized meaning would be of no consequence. “Meaning” would be in that pure neutrality of which poetic language is the only possible expression. Poetry would no longer be a thing or a sense experience but a unique drama in which the poetic imagination engaged itself differently each time a poem was written.

Poe attempted a blend of eighteenth-century rationalistic epistemology and nineteenth-century or Coleridgean ontology. Knowledge and being—these he sought to merge into a final construct which would be art or the expression of the imagination. He found most to his liking Coleridge's profound insight into the dual nature of the imagination and especially the activity of the imagination in the act of poetic or artistic creation. But he tried to go farther than Coleridge by setting up the imagination-in-process of the mind-journey along which the imagination could move from the illusion that is this sensible world to the fuller perception that is the truer reality beyond. Language was one of man's ways of making that journey; and though the language problem might never be solved, Poe continued his experiments … in his later poetry, in his short stories, in Arthur Gordon Pym, and in his philosophic criticism. They were all stages in a design which meant for Poe a struggle to reach a unitary vision, not necessarily of the absolute, but of some comprehensible system wherein everything, prose and verse, real and unreal, mind and substance, somehow cohered. The poetry of his later years … is one of the major expressions of that hope and that vision.


  1. Studies of Poe, like those of J. W. Krutch, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius (New York, 1926), and Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation (London, 1950), however stimulating they may be, rest a complete interpretation of Poe's writings on a single aberration of the man himself: find the aberration or the psychic dislocation and the total design of the writings becomes clear. Mme. Bonaparte represents an extreme of this mode of interpretation: Poe's imagination operated most characteristically in terms of his latent sado-necrophilism; thus the phthisic shade of the mother who died when he was an infant holds the key to the neurosis and to the art of the writer.

  2. Professor T. O. Mabbott has made some interesting conjectures on the vision of Poe's foster mother, Mrs. Allan, as she became embodied in the vision of Helen; see “Poe's ‘To Helen,’” Explicator, I (June 1943), 60.

  3. The “histrio” aspect of Poe has been the subject of N. Bryllion Fagin's absorbing study, The Histrionic Mr. Poe (Baltimore, 1949).

  4. See A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, 1926), chap. v: “The Romantic Reaction.”

  5. Treatments of this philosophical and artistic question are numerous. A summary mention might be made of these important discussions of the question: F. W. J. Schelling, Concerning the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature, 1807 (a convenient reprinting is in Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling, New York, 1953, pp. 323-364); Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, especially chaps. xiii and xiv. See also Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. I (Yale Univ. Press, 1953); Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard University Press, 1942), and Feeling and Form (New York, 1953); Martin Foss, Symbol and Metaphor (Princeton, 1949); Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago, 1952); Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism (Indiana Univ. Press, 1954), pp. 8-100; S. C. Pepper, World Hypotheses (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1948), chaps. viii and ix; F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York, 1941), especially “The Metaphysical Strain” and “The Organic Principle,” pp. 100-140.

  6. Character & Opinion in the United States (New York, 1920), p. 22.

  7. Important to an understanding of this problem in the mind and art of Poe are Margaret Alterton, Origin of Poe's Critical Theory (Iowa City, 1925), pp. 155-156, et seq.; Representative Selections, pp. xiii-xvi; and Marvin Laser, “The Growth and Structure of Poe's Concept of Beauty,” ELH, XV (March 1948), 69-84.

  8. Symbolism and American Literature, pp. 162-212.

  9. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. by N. K. Smith (London, 1933), pp. 257-275, et seq.

  10. Critique of Judgment, trans. by J. H. Bernard (London, 1931), pp. 45-100.

  11. Coleridge wrote: “… grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you”; Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford, 1907), I, 196. See also M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York, 1953), pp. 167-177.

  12. Coleridge coined the word “esemplastic,” to mean “to shape into one,” “because having to convey a new sense, I thought that a new term would both aid the recollection of my meaning, and prevent its being confounded with the usual inport of the word, imagination.” Coleridge's fullest statement (and one very close to Poe's conception) of how the imagination works “to shape into one” was the following:

    The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul … reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry

    (Biographia Literaria, II, 12).

    In so treating the imagination, we are necessarily concerned more with poetry than with prose. The imagination is not absolutely confined to poetry: Romantic theorists of literature thought it was, for they tended to assign poetry to the unifying and prose to the dispersive functions of the mind. Therefore, they judged poetry—Poe certainly did—against an indefinable and absolute standard which was the quality of the poet's imagination; and once having assumed that this special, expressive imagination was in a poet, then they easily veered away from criticism and into psychology as a means of finding what the poetry was and how it had been written by the special person, the poet; Romantic impressionistic criticism was born in this transfer.

  13. Biographia Literaria, I, 202.

  14. D. G. James, Skepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination (London, 1937), pp. 17-18.

  15. Works, XIV, 198.

  16. Poe's first major presentation of these Coleridgean ideas was in his review of J. R. Drake's The Culprit Fay and of Fitz Greene Halleck's Alnwick Castle, in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1836; see Works, VIII, 281-284; see also XII, 36-37. Poe continued to elaborate and extend these ideas of the tripartite, yet unified, qualities of the mind until his most complete statement in “The Philosophy of Composition.”

  17. See Works, X, 61-62, 65; XIV, 187, 189-190; XV, 13n-15n.

  18. Washington Allston, whose critical theories closely paralleled Poe's, similarly divided imaginative originality, first, “by the combination of forms already known,” and, secondly, “by the union and modification of known but fragmentary parts into a new and consistent whole.” Originality is the degree of sovereignty the artist maintains over either “the purely physical” or “the moral and intellectual.” Allston was concerned with the history and criticism of art, chiefly among artists themselves; Poe was concerned with how art came to be. See Washington Allston, Lectures on Art, ed. R. H. Dana, Jr. (New York, 1850), pp. 75-110 passim.

  19. Baron Bielfeld, The Elements of Universal Erudition, trans. W. Hooper (Dublin, 1771), I, 222-225, 236.

  20. Works, X, 65.

  21. Ibid., p. 66.

  22. Lectures on Art, p. 86.

  23. Allston, himself reared in the same aesthetic tradition as was Poe, denoted artistic or imaginative truth as of two kinds: “first, that the Idea of the Whole contains in itself a pre-existing law; and secondly, that Art, the peculiar product of the Imagination, is one of its true and predetermined ends.” Simply stated, the theory is very old, that of the microcosm and the macrocosm: the particle is a replica of the universe and the universe is itself sign and cipher of the particle. Whether one contemplates a planet or a grain of sand, he is instinctively impelled to move toward an awareness of something beyond that object: it is the whole or the All in which that object exists, not as separate, but as functional in a total design. The single object has the potential to call up a timeless, an absolute relationship with every other object and existence. This relationship is “absolute” in that it obtains only as a universal fact beyond human knowledge, beyond even good and evil. The human mind, by acts of its imaginative exploration and synthesis, is aware of this unity—a “law of Harmony,” “that mysterious power, which is only apprehended by its imperative effect.”

  24. Skepticism and Poetry, pp. 8-9.

  25. Works, XIV, 195.

  26. Biographia Literaria, II, 6.

  27. Science and the Modern World, pp. 74ff.

  28. See W. M. Urban, Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism (London and New York, 1939), pp. 25-27. Urban noted: “This is one possible answer to the question of the relation of language to reality. Language is not ‘moulded on reality,’ to use Bergson's terms. It is either a veil that has been woven by practice between us and reality, and which must be torn away, or else it is a distortion of reality which must be corrected by the invention of other instruments and symbolisms” (p. 51).

  29. Wordsworth, in analyzing the imaginative domain of language, employed the metaphor of the stone with telling effect in order to demonstrate that a poet uses language not merely to indicate objects but to compel his readers to create in their imagination the object as he himself imagined it. See Preface to the Edition of 1815; Poetical Works, ed. E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1944), II, 438-439. See also James, Skepticism and Poetry, pp. 75-81.

  30. Although there are many expressions of this language problem in Jonathan Edward's ministry and thought, his major statements are in A Treatise of Religious Affections (1746) and in Images or Shadows of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (Yale University Press, 1948), pp. 44, 65, 93, 97, and esp. 119-120, wherein Edwards differentiates between the “liveliness” not only of “things” but of “images” by which man truly knows things.

Alice Moser Claudel (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3673

SOURCE: Claudel, Alice Moser. “Poe as Voyager in ‘To Helen.’” In New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, edited by Richard P. Benton, pp. 33-37. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1970.

[In the following essay, Claudel suggests that Poe's “To Helen” is a more complex poem than is generally acknowledged.]

Unless one looks into literary histories of the United States which include poetry, one finds few of Edgar Allan Poe's poems in recent publications. The editors either do not find his work complex enough, or else, fascinated by the new instant poetry, they do not find it attractive. It may be that, hoping to engage the young with “relevant works,” they exclude Poe's work as too “pure.” If Poe is found in a new anthology, “To Helen” is the poem usually chosen. In some instances, a peculiar snobbery may be at work. If an editor has read Huxley (whose ear may have been less keen than he fancied, for he declares that the meter of “Ulalume” is galloping and gives no thought to the weight of the carefully arranged vowels and consonants), he may have been influenced; since we all know Huxley thought Poe vulgar. Another editor may feel that one should read three French poets to learn of Poe's influence upon them, because he has been assured that one cannot read Poe's own poems analytically; and still another may believe that he should recognize Poe only as a relative to apologize for, despite some talent, because Poe is not Dante or Donne.

It is difficult to read Poe's poetry analytically, not because he was shallow, but because he was subtle, and he was not writing metaphysical poetry any more than Samuel Johnson was. Poe's poetry, as well, tends to put one into a hypnogogic state in which one's pores, even unwillingly at times, absorb the magic spell. Although I resist “The Raven” as though it were a plague, a good reader can make me its victim. Poe's use of symbols seems to touch some depths in the subconscious mind that make a sensitive reader aware of many meanings along with the one closest to the mind. Long associations cluster around symbols. It is such associations that make a poem like “To Helen” more complex than some critics are willing to grant. Poe, by his own statements, chose his symbols carefully, almost clinically. He was not a slipshod writer of poetry nor a “jingle man.” We ought to be willing to give a little of the same kind of attention to Helen as we give to Prufrock. Mallarmé and Valery saw more in Poe's poetry than literary mirages.

In journeying through “To Helen,” several scholars, two of whom are poets, James Russell Lowell and Richard Wilbur, have been helpful guides to me. As long ago as 1845, in Graham's Magazine, Lowell wrote of Poe: “He combines in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united: a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed.” Although Lowell is writing about the tales, the observation is helpful in reading the poems. Again, he comments: “The Mystic dwells in the mystery, is enveloped with it; it colors all his thoughts; it affects his optic nerve especially and the commonest things get a rainbow edging from it. Mr. Poe, on the other hand, is a spectator ab extra. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches.”1 Poe's own comments on the way he worked support Lowell's insights. We have, as well, Professor Stovall's firm declaration: “I am convinced that all of Poe's poems were composed with conscious art.”2

Richard Wilbur, poet and scholar, points out that Poe's characters, particularly the women, are often symbolizations of ideal states, hopes and dreams, rather than women of flesh and blood. Wilbur, commenting on Poe's work, says it is “deliberate and often brilliant allegory,” and tells of Poe's desire to create and to possess “supernal beauty which is symbolized, in Poe, by the shadowy and angelic figures of Ligeia, and Helen, and Lenore.”3 When a poet tells us something about a poet, it is wise to listen. He is, or should be, especially endowed to understand those “undercurrents” which Poe endeavored to put into his poems. The Poem is not to be considered in its realistic meaning or seemingly realistic meaning alone, although on that level there is much of the appeal which even the unsophisticated reader finds in Poe's poetry. Poe wrote that every work of art should contain within itself all that one needs to know about that work.

Before attempting to find what “To Helen” contains within itself, besides the obvious meaning, and to discover the “undercurrent” that deepens and at the same time intensifies its effect, I accept Wilbur's observation that Poe's women are symbolic, even allegorical figures. Whether Helen was suggested by Mrs. Helen Stannard is not now important, except that she may be the means for Poe's writing the poem. We probably would have had the poem, in any case. As Susan Langner emphasizes in Problems of Art: “To read poetry as a psychological document, in a context of the author's life, putting in further meanings and personal allusions from circumstantial knowledge is to do violence to the poem.”4 I believe that Professor Langner here means by “personal allusions” such things as Poe's love life, diet, sickness, and so on, something quite different from the archetypal symbolism which Maud Bodkin discusses in her book and which does relate to poets like Poe.5 That “To Helen” was published first in 1831 and then again in 1843 in a superior final version shows that Poe polished this poem, perhaps his most beautiful, which gives the impression of passion controlled by an intellectual intensity sometimes wanting in other poems. Looking for the undercurrents of meaning, rather than the meaning which appears on the surface of the poem, is not a strange way of reading Poe. Hervey Allen makes this point: “Briefly, Poe vastly influenced all modern poetry by the way he used imagery to evoke and suggest rather than to picture and photograph with words what he had to say. … ‘To Helen,’ for instance, is a thoroughly modern poem. The imagery is evocative, its ‘logic’ is subliminal.”6

“To Helen” on its obvious level seems to be a love poem directed to a beautiful woman who is a source of comfort to an anguished soul, leading him by means of her idealized loveliness to his intellectual and spiritual home which has many abstract qualities encompassed in the lines: “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.” Gilbert Highet, the distinguished Classical scholar, emphasizing Poe's felicitous lines quoted above, sees Poe's Helen not as a girl the poet loves but as “the girl whose name and face image the perfection of Greek beauty” and whose loveliness is a symbol of Poe's love of classical culture. That beauty brings him back to the repose of classical culture and art after romantic adventure and what Highet calls “the visionary magic ‘of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’”7 Another interesting reference would have been Keats's “Ode to Psyche” (lines 64-67). Maud Bodkin in the work cited above reminds us of the ancient concept “… of woman as supreme embodiment of the beauty felt in the visible world and as a power quickening man's sensibility to that beauty, and linking it in love to all nature.” She gives Milton's use of Eve as an example and uses T. S. Eliot's phrase “disciplined dreaming.”8 In “To Helen” one cannot help but sense the figure of Helen of Troy in her role as history-creator, inspirer of love and creativity, and finally as one who, according to legend, leads men to Elysium to become immortal.

But what of the “pins and buttons?” Like Poe we ought not to leave them unnoticed. He gives the “poetic facts” in the first line. Helen's beauty is what transports him (and I have the double meaning in mind); it is a “carrier” as were those Nicean barks which bore home the “weary, wayworn wanderer.” The phrase connotes not warriors like Odysseus and his men so much as pilgrims and seekers, who after engagements and quests return to their own native shore, like exhausted Grail seekers, or to use a more sentimental example, like the children in Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. The motif runs throughout English and other western literature. But why Nicean barks? We find a correspondence later in the poem, but perhaps the choice of the word may have been made because of its religious connotations (in Poe's mind) and because of its strong connection with the New Rome. In Nicea the Christian religion found its dogma and shape and clarification with the formulation of the Nicene Creed which gave the church the order and unity Poe admired. Mabbott, in his new Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume I, Poems, states rather firmly: “A friend of mine once questioned whether the poem [“To Helen”] linked Christian and Greek traditions. There is a wanderer who fits well: St. Athanasius (whose name means ‘Deathless’), for he returned victorious from Nicea in Bithynia, after the formulation of the Nicene Creed; the perfume might be the odor of sanctity. There is no connection with Helen” (Note I, p. 169). In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (D. M. Low's abridgement) are many pages concerning the wanderings of Bishop Athanasius, but one sentence in particular fits in neatly with Mabbott's observation. Writing of the iniquitous trial at Tyre which humiliated, even degraded, the Bishop of Egypt, Gibbon has a telling statement: “He resolved to make a bold and dangerous experiment, whether the throne was inaccessible to the voice of truth; and before the final sentence could be pronounced at Tyre, the intrepid primate threw himself into a bark which was ready to hoist sail for the Imperial City” (p. 326). We have here a number of symbols important to Poe's “To Helen”: the bark, the wayworn wanderer, and the Imperial and Holy City of Byzantium.

If Poe had wished to use an adjective which would more strongly evoke legendary Greece and Helen of Troy, he could well have used the word “Mycenean” instead of “those Nicean.” Most critics agree that Poe was a rather careful chooser of words, even when they do not care for the words he chose. A recent text on American literature comments in an editorial note that perhaps the word “Nicean” was used because Poe was reminded of Milton's line in Paradise Lost (Book IV, line 275) in which he tells of “that Nyseian Isle.” Though anything may be grist for a poet to work with, I am not able to link Poe's use of the word with Milton's description.9 Anyone, even those who are not Classical scholars, can know from numerous works how, when the Roman Empire became unwieldy and sprawling, Constantine turned to the eastern part of the empire to establish a political and cultural center. It was in Byzantium, New Rome, that so many worlds and cultures met and fused. Almost a thousand years before, Megara had colonized Byzantium; and Pausanias, a Spartan, had ruled there with all the luxury of an oriental potentate, forgetting his rigorous upbringing. Byzantium was a place of unity and at least a degree of order, as well as of creative energy and zeal. One could find there, as well, strong evidence of “the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.” Herbert Couch, in his Greece reminds us that when on May 11, 330 a.d., Byzantium was inaugurated as the seat of government and given the name of New Rome (later Constantinople and now Istanbul) there began a “mingling of Greek, Latin and Christian interests.”10 That the region was inevitably led far from Classical culture later on does not alter the fact that Oriental, Classical and Christian cultures here achieved a fusion which would naturally fascinate Poe. This blending, unity, and balance in the Byzantine culture (as well as the strange mingling of two worlds, one terrestrial, the other spiritual) led Yeats, another creative pilgrim, metaphorically, for he writes, using the sea for his own questing and cleansing symbol: “And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.”

There are other Christian suggestions in “To Helen,” vague perhaps intentionally. Poe writes of Helen's “hyacinth hair.” The image clearly enchanted him. He describes Ligeia's tresses as “setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!’” We know that the hyacinth flower has various colors, among them pink, lavender, orange, and white, and that the jacinth (stone) is reddish-orange or amethyst, all exotic shades for hair (which Poe may also have wished to suggest) but from the point of view of “poetic logic” one can think of the curling petals of the flower, tightly winding but in a particular form suggesting the coiffure of a woman. He used the coiffure image in “The Assignation,” in describing the classical head of the Marchesa Aphrodite, which was clustered “in curls like those of the young hyacinth.” Can we ignore, however, the rebirth symbol? This flower, according to Greek mythology (and set forth in some detail in Ovid's Metamorphoses) grew out of the blood of the dead Hyacinthus, the beloved of Apollo, whom the God accidentally killed with his discus; and rites for the dead and reborn Hyacinthus were annually observed in Sparta. The idea of the reborn man, no doubt reinforced by the teachings of Jesus, was a compelling one for Poe.

“Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche” Helen stands like a statue. “Brilliant” is the adjective for “light” (which as “illumination” has a double sense), and it is also the adjective which means “wise.” “Brilliant” describes power of the mind, and so the power which draws Poe is mental and spiritual as well as physical. A niche, which is often shaped like an arched window, so that window-niche has a double meaning as well (a place for a beam to guide one: a place for a statue), is taken from the Latin word nidus meaning “nest,” as any good dictionary would have told Poe, in case he had forgotten his Latin. And “nest” is home, a place of warmth and safety (spiritual home here), where there will be unity of soul and mind and body.

Jack Lindsay's A Short History of Culture, which gathers together information from many scholarly sources, states that the ancient Egyptians believed that a statue was also another dwelling place of the soul.11 That Poe felt the sense of souls related to statues and especially to statues made of marble, we know from his story, “The Assignation,” cited above. The strange hero of this tale is an admirer of statues and names Canova as his favorite sculptor. Canova, who was born in 1757 and died in 1822, is best-known for his group of Psyche and Cupid. Most critics say that he revealed in this piece formal beauty and total lack of content. One would suppose this was an attempt to evoke feeling rather than to direct a message, an aesthetic principle Poe might have admired. In the conversation between the host and the visitor in “The Assignation,” there is reference to what Michael Angelo and possibly Socrates said about finding one's statue in the block of marble, as though the medium itself already possessed the soul of its statue to be. Paradoxically, Poe further emphasizes the affinity between a man and his statue when he has the hero quote from Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois: “He is up / There like a Roman statue! He will stand / Till Death hath made him marble!” This concept of one giving soul to the other, the marble to the man and the statue, the man to the statue after his own death, exchanging life for life, is somewhat like the folk belief of the soul of man in the mirror. From any reliable art history, one can learn that for the Byzantines a sculptured form or a form worked in mosaics was one's spiritual self or projection. In A Vision, Yeats has much to say about the effect of the two-worlds quality of Byzantine sculpture and art on his own mind and gives reasons why (and I believe the same magnetic qualities would have appealed to the earlier Poe) he wanted Byzantium to be the place where his own soul would be purged and where his creative work might live.

One of the more interesting symbols Poe uses is that of the agate lamp. On the obvious level of correspondence mentioned above, such a lamp is shaped like a bark of ancient design, and therefore the lamp is linked back as a carrier in the hand of his soul's carrier. The lamp is an illuminator, the source of illumination in the spiritual sense. The Biblical use of the word is probably best known from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, but there is wide use of “lamp” in the Old Testament in a symbolic sense. The classic figure of a woman carrying a lamp has long been a metaphor for watchful and spiritual waiting and guiding. For decades, the Christian Science Sentinel carried on its front cover (it is now on the inside of the front cover) a drawing of a woman robed in the draperies best known from Greek art, holding the traditional boat-shaped lamp. It is not impossible to believe that Poe, as did Mary Baker Eddy, thought of the lamp as a dual symbol, both Christian and Classical. Indeed, he now addresses (in the third stanza) Helen as Psyche, and few would doubt that she stands for his soul; certainly she is not the Roman goddess, lately arrived, whom Keats addresses in his ode. What reinforces the spiritual view here is that Poe uses the preposition from rather than of, and there are the fascinating lines: “Ah, Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy Land.” And again we think of Yeats's lines: “And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” For Poe as for Yeats, as for Tennyson, the quest, the pilgrimage, the gleam was the real reason for living.

The final line of “To Helen” supports my belief, or so I think, about a home in the Greek-Roman-Christian-Oriental Byzantium. Despite his love for classical culture, the phrase “Holy Land” could not exclude the Christian for Poe. As pointed out above, Greek and Roman culture found a fusion in Byzantium (and quite literally, as well, with much sculpture “lifted” from the ancient Greek shrines by Constantine's soldiers). Later, however, during the Christian dominance, art and handiwork were all for the glory of God; and everything, even men's bodies as spiritualized in their statues and mosaics, patterned themselves upon spiritual concepts, an offering of the soul, so to speak, to God for purgation in God's holy fire. An observation one cannot avoid making here, and not in line with what has gone before, is that if Psyche is soul and from, not of, those regions which are Holy Land, then in a transcendental sense, there is a strong suggestion of Wordsworth's “… trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.” It seems certain that in “To Helen” Poe saw the possibility of returning home, or achieving his longed-for union of the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the physical, the unspoiled vision and imagination of childhood, not through death but through art. Poe is seeking classical control and supernal beauty (still to be found on earth), both of which could surely be found in the ancient Greek-Roman-Christian culture, an idealized home, as it was for Yeats in our own century.

I have worked on the structure of the poem, and I think it is not an accident that it is divided into three stanzas, as three is the magical number (the Three Graces, the Trinity, the three-times-woven ring around the holy man in “Kubla Khan,” the innumerable examples from fairy tales and the Grail legends). Each shows woman in different aspects of her power, grace, and pure beauty, reaching in the third stanza a kind of revelation of woman as soul or spirit. In the first, the woman is a “carrier” (her traditional role of child-bearer, teacher of traditions to the young, and so on) and is equated with those Nicean barks of yore. Her loveliness and steadiness make the vessel which bears the pilgrim home. In the second, the woman's pulchritude, charm, and grace are not only the means of reaching home, but they are the givers (another womanly role is that of giver) of abstract gifts which are, paradoxically, gifts of the highest human achievement: glory represented by Greece, grandeur represented by Rome. The second stanza is not separate from but linked with the first one in a more complex way than in poems which seem more complex. There is no radical difference here, simply an extension, as in most trinities. The final stanza with the use of the word “statuelike” (as symbol equated with soul and for the womanly qualities of calmness and unwavering devotion) and the word “Psyche” presents woman in her most idealized state, as illuminator, beacon, healer, and—on the highest level of meaning—spiritual being from Paradise, Elysium, or Heaven, however one chooses to name “Holy Land.”


  1. “Edgar Allan Poe” is reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson, (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 13.

  2. Floyd Stovall, “The Conscious Art of Edgar Allan Poe,” College English, XXIV, (March, 1963), 419.

  3. “The House of Poe,” Poe, ed. Robert Regan, (Englewood Cliffs, 1967), p. 102.

  4. (New York, 1957), p. 153.

  5. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, (Oxford Paperback, London, 1963).

  6. Hervey Allen, “Introduction,” The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, (New York, 1938), p. vii.

  7. The Classical Tradition, (N.Y., 1957), pp. 440-441.

  8. Op. cit., 174, 177.

  9. Walter Sutton, ed., American Literature: Tradition and Innovation (Lexington, Massachusetts, 1969), p. 1305.

  10. 2nd. ed. (New York, 1953), p. 524.

  11. Fawcett World Library Premier Printing (New York, 1966), pp. 202-204.

L. Lynn Hogue (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841

SOURCE: Hogue, L. Lynn. “Eroticism in Poe's ‘For Annie’.” In New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, edited by Richard P. Benton, pp. 85-87. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1970.

[In the following essay, Hogue studies the erotic elements in Poe's poem “For Annie” while avoiding the conventional Freudian commentary on Poe's sexuality.]

Poe rarely used eroticism in his poetry—images and language which convey or reinforce impressions of sexual desire or activity. In fact, of all Poe's poems only “For Annie” reflect a conscious use of it, which deserves more than passing notice. Until now the sexual interpretation of Poe's poetry has been the domain of the Freudians, notably Roy P. Basler and Marie Bonaparte. Basler's study, commendable for its restraint in a field abounding with mountebanks, is limited to the work itself, avoids the personality of the writer,1 and actually has little to say about sex itself in Poe's work. He notes it only in “Ulalume” and there only in terms of underlying meaning rather than explicit expression: “… the poem narrates the struggle between a feared new passion for a flesh-and-blood woman and an old worship of an ideal image that is perfectly safe because separated long since from its objective reality.”2

Marie Bonaparte is another case. The instances of eroticism in both the poems and tales which she marshals to substantiate her view of Poe as a sado-necrophilist are too numerous to examine here. Her examination of “For Annie” ignores the evidence of eroticism that does not apply to “Annie” as measured by her Procrustean couch. In fact, Bonaparte has much in common with modern critics who would agree with her “that Poe's passions were as platonic as tempestuous, …”3 although they would scarcely attribute this as she does to “Poe's great and renewed yearning for union with the dead mother. …”4 Sexual interpretation is not the exclusive province of the Freudians, however, and, as this study will show, it can enlarge the reader's understanding of “For Annie” without commenting on Poe's sexuality.

Hints of the poem's eroticism have come even from more conventional critics. Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, has noted its “pulsing passion,”5 and Floyd Stovall once suggested that “the emotions thus indelicately laid bare must have been genuine and acute at the moment of writing.”6 These clues have been ignored in more recent studies by Richard Wilbur, Eric W. Carlson, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, and Floyd Stovall, who have regarded the poem as essentially nonsexual. Wilbur sees it not only as an outgrowth of “an intense Platonic relationship” but also controlled by it: “I have avoided, as distracting and reductive, any clinical interpretation of these poems; but it may as well be said here that ‘For Annie’ is a direct statement of Poe's Oedipal feelings, of his horror of the physical and his consequent devotion to fantasies of spiritual union in death.”7 Carlson follows much the same direction in his introduction to Poe: “The relationship was highly Platonic: in one letter he addressed her as “my own sweet sister Annie, my pure beautiful angel—wife of my soul—to be mine hereafter and forever in the Heavens. … Whether or not dead, the speaker lies ‘composedly’ in his narrow bed. It is the puritan ideal of love and loyalty (the ‘Puritan pansies,’ the rosemary and rue) that redeems him.”8 And E. San Juan, Jr., echoes the same view when he speaks of Annie's “metaphysical purity.”9

Both Thomas Ollive Mabbott and Floyd Stovall have continued the Platonic interpretation of “For Annie.” Mabbott asserts of Poe and “Annie” Richmond: “Her husband did not object to their Platonic relationship.”10 Stovall in his recent Edgar Poe the Poet proposes a similar view: “It is not a love poem, unless of the Platonic kind, for it contains no suggestion of physical passion.”11 Like Wilbur, Carlson, and Mabbott, Stovall draws upon biographical material in order to substantiate the poem's alleged Platonism: “In so far as the poem reveals Poe's state of mind in the late winter and spring of 1849, it suggests that he was relieved to be free of the uncertain and frenzied emotions with which he had courted and proposed marriage to Mrs. Whitman, and content in the more spiritual love of Mrs. Richmond. Since she had a husband and was loyal to him, the poet was not tantalized by the question of marriage. Annie was his “sweet sister,” the “wife” of his soul, a relation which remained the same in death or life.”12

Stovall errs, like his predecessors, in assuming that the speaker of the poem is Poe himself and, therefore, that the attitudes and events to which the poem alludes must somehow be squared with the biographical details known about Poe's relationship with “Annie” Richmond. Thus, as apparently Wilbur, Carlson, Mabbott, and Stovall would lead us to believe, if the relationship was Platonic, then the poem must be Platonic. Divorcing Poe from the persona should, of course, free the reader to examine the evidence of eroticism in “For Annie” without threatening his biographical understanding. Yet the eroticism of the poem fits easily within the framework of what we know about Poe and Mrs. Richmond.

Mabbott indicates the basis of the lyric “in a somewhat hysterical letter to ‘Annie’ from Fordham on November 16, 1848”: “Why am I not with you now darling that I might … look deep down into the clear Heaven of your eyes … whisper in your ear the divine emotion[s], which agitate me [?] … in Providence—I went to bed & wept through a long, long, hideous night of despair … I procured … laudanum and … took the cars back to Boston … I wrote you a letter, in which I opened my whole heart to you … I then reminded you of that holy promise, which was the last I exacted from you in parting—the promise that, under all circumstances, you would come to me on my bed of death … Having written this letter, I swallowed about half the laudanum … A friend was at hand, who … saved me … After the laudanum was rejected from the stomach, I became calm, & to a casual observer, sane … I am so ill … in body and mind, that I feel I cannot live, unless I can feel your sweet, gentle, loving hand pressed upon my forehead—oh my pure, virtuous, generous, beautiful, beautiful sister Annie!—is it not possible for you to come … until I subdue this fearful agitation … Farewell—here & hereafter—forever your own Eddy—”13

Although Poe may have “said that he thought that more than Platonic friendship for them would be unwise,”14 in “For Annie” he is certainly free to portray for the persona a more explicitly sexual involvement. Quinn, in fact, recognizes Poe's sincere passion for “Annie” Richmond.15 It is not surprising, therefore, that, in the throes of apparent suicidal impulse and unfulfilled desires, he would turn to erotic wish fulfillment through poetry. Although Poe's desires for “Annie” Richmond by his convalescent bedside remained unrealized, the consummation of the persona's love in “For Annie” is real enough. Apparently Poe constructed the fantasy out of his desire for Annie and included a description of her sexual union with the persona as well as her subsequent ministrations to him, transforming his convalescence into a joyful experience.

T. O. Mabbott is correct in asserting that the persona is alive. He follows Stéphane Mallarmé in viewing him as “one who has been so ill that he has fancied himself in the first moments of death but has been revived by the presence and affection of Annie.”16 Essentially, the poem reflects two views of the persona. “The crisis” is treated in lines one through forty-four, in which the speaker characterizes his emotional experience in allusive terms and lines sixty-seven onward where he depicts his erotic experience more explicitly. The intermediate lines forty-five through sixty-six contain an over-lapping of the two types of reflection, where the narrator gradually shifts his thoughts from the first more associational presentation to the second.

Although the two views of the experience are developed separately, they are by no means unrelated. The “crisis” (1)17 with its “lingering illness” (3) marked by “nausea” (25) and “pain” (26) is, in fact, a characterization of the speaker's passionate involvement. The “fever called ‘Living’” he will describe more pictorially later. The images of the first part are not explicitly erotic, though “napthaline river” (35) would seem appropriate foreshadowing. The speaker lies exhausted, only temporarily satisfied. His taste of “the river / Of passion” (35-36) having piqued and inflamed him, has aroused him to further pursuit with a “tantalized spirit” (53) when it is again physically possible. A second image—the vulval “spring” and “cavern not very far down under the ground,” may represent an impressionistic description of Annie as the speaker perceives her in sexual union. The crisis experience, however, and not the coital encounter, is the primary focus of part one.

Several references in the transitional stanzas (45-66) mark the gradual shift from a characterization of the sexual event to its more explicit expression. The speaker's bed becomes a place of significance: “to sleep, you must slumber / In just such a bed” (51-52). The commingling of the “rosemary odor” with that of the “Puritan pansies” (63-66) presages eventual sexual union with Annie. The description of being bathed by Annie's tresses, kissed and caressed, and then falling gently to sleep on her breast (71-78) is clearly erotic, picturing the foreplay and aftermath of sexual intercourse. The conclusion, in which the speaker focuses his thought on the love-light in Annie's eyes contrasts with “To Helen” where the speaker is drawn at last to the ideal conceptions of Beauty and Hope, in that his heart “is [now] brighter” (95), it “sparkles” (98) and it “glows” (99) in warm response to the passionate involvement reflected in his partner's eyes.

The passion expressed explicitly in this poem is unique in Poe's poetry and is important to an accurate understanding of the content of the poem. To say that the eroticism should alter our view of the Poe-Richmond relationship is to commit the same blunder in the biographical sphere that earlier critics have made in the critical. The eroticism should be judged rather for its contribution to the total impact of the poem on the reader.


  1. Roy P. Basler, Sex, Symbolism, and Psychology in Literature, (N.Y., 1967), p. 11.

  2. Basler, p. 185.

  3. Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, trans. John Rodker, (London, 1949), p. 184.

  4. Bonaparte, p. 179.

  5. Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography, (N.Y., 1941), p. 573.

  6. Floyd Stovall, “The Women in Poe's Poems and Tales,” University of Texas Studies in English, V, (1925), 206.

  7. Richard Wilbur, ed., Poe: Complete Poems, (N.Y., 1959), pp. 149-150.

  8. Eric W. Carlson, Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader, (Glenview, Illinois, 1967), pp. 570-571.

  9. E. San Juan, Jr., “The Form of Experience in the Poems of Edgar Allan Poe,” Georgia Review, XXI, (1967), 75.

  10. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, I, (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), 454.

  11. Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet (Charlottesville, 1969), p. 232.

  12. Stovall, Edgar Poe, p. 233.

  13. Quoted in Mabbott, pp. 453-454.

  14. Mabbott, p. 453.

  15. Quinn, p. 592.

  16. Mabbott, p. 454.

  17. All citations are from The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Floyd Stovall, (Charlottesville, 1965).

Arthur Lerner (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6940

SOURCE: Lerner, Arthur. “Edgar Allan Poe.” In Psychoanalytically Oriented Criticism of Three American Poets: Poe, Whitman, and Aiken, pp. 43-62. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Lerner examines psychoanalytical criticism of Poe's poetry, suggesting that the scope of such criticism should be broadened to cover not just the tragic elements of the poet's life but also to include his personal philosophy of poetry.]


Edgar Allan Poe's life (1809-1849) was so psychologically complicated that psychoanalytically oriented writers can easily find in it gold mines of information for their theories. Poe's writing includes, among other topics, such themes as love, horror, anxiety, fantasy, and strange conditions of the mind. His material, therefore, is also a “natural” for psychological theories that are concerned with personality aberrations.1 His life is extremely enticing in this direction and has led critic Vincent Buranelli to make the following comment:

Edgar Allan Poe is the most complex personality in the entire gallery of American authors. No one else fuses, as he does, such discordant psychological attributes, or offers to the world an appearance so various. No one else stands at the center of a mystery so profound. Hawthorne, Melville and Faulkner are, by comparison with Poe, easy enough to classify, while Edwards, Cooper and Hemingway emerge with crystal clarity. Poe resists easy interpretation and broad generalization. Any plausible analysis of his work, like any authentic story of his life, must begin with this primary and essential truth.2

Even the simplest of personalities contain complexity that is often misunderstood. And Poe's was no simple personality. With excellent understanding of the personality makeup of an artist like Poe, Buranelli also reminds us:

It is false to call him little more than an artist of nightmares, hallucinations, insane crimes and weird beauties, little more than an intuitive poetic genius dabbling in pretentious logic when he is not lost in the black forest of pathological psychology. Nor is he a frigid allegorist living in an ivory tower safely away from the contamination of the world. Poe is a dreamer (in the widest sense of the term), and that is where an analytical study may properly begin; but it must not end until it has accounted for Poe the rationalist, the scientist, the hoaxer, the humorist, and the literary and social critic.

(p. 19)

The fact that Poe's poetic genius was tied to a distorted personal life was bound to affect his feeling and thinking. These ideas and emotions in turn were naturally reflected in his work. But Philip Lindsay exhibits the real dangers of psychoanalytically oriented criticism when he shifts the focus from the work of art to the case history in a passage like the following:

Son of shiftless parents and at an early age fatherless and motherless, Edgar Poe was born to live in nightmare. His life, almost from birth, might well have been his own creation, following a pattern similar to one of his tales, macabre and frenzied and ending on a note of pointless tragedy. The story, “William Wilson,” was largely autobiographical, not only in external details, but in its emotional content. Here, Poe opened his heart and confessed that his own pitiless destroyer was himself. Most men, were they honest, might make a similar confession. Yet with Poe this was not entirely true. He might have destroyed himself but the seeds of that destruction were germinated in childhood. Always haunting him was the thought of death in love, of the death of his mother, then of the death of a woman he loved, then of the death of his foster-mother, and finally of his wife. These four he loved died as though his kiss were lethal. In the grave, surrendered to the conqueror worm, their once quick flesh rotted, and his desires turned naturally from life towards death. Death, the enemy, became the loved one, and he relished more the thought of dissolution than the living body he clasped, feeling always the skull beneath the hair he touched, the small bones moving in the hand he clasped, and the teeth felt under a kiss.3

Poe's strange life has been considered in several ways. One of the attempts as early as 1920 to study Poe as an aberrant personality was that made by Lorine Pruette.4 In addition to relating, along psychoanalytic lines, some of Poe's poetry to some of the early determinants of Poe's life, Pruette is also concerned with the “individual psychology” of Alfred Adler. “The organic inferiority of both lungs and mind, if we follow the theories of Adler, demanded compensation, which the youth found in drawing and in writing stories and poems” (Pruette, p. 375).5 Poe's “will to power,” Pruette believes, “would brook no superior, nor even equal, in either physical or mental pursuits, and it was this intolerance of the claims of mediocrity which brought upon him in later life the enmity of much of the literary world” (p. 375). Pruette also points out that Poe was of the belief “that his absolutely unswerving devotion to truth was responsible for his scathing criticisms” (p. 375). But Poe's own “devotion to truth” was still tied to a personality that was in a constant state of anxiety and unrest.6 And in her monumental psychoanalytical study of Poe, Marie Bonaparte7 emphasizes that Poe's achievement could primarily be understood in terms of the pathological trends in Poe's life. Freud made a special point of this when in the Foreword to Bonaparte's work, he wrote: “Thanks to her interpretative effort, we now realize how many of the characteristics of Poe's works were conditioned by his personality, and can see how that personality derived from intense emotional fixations and painful infantile experiences.”8


To enlarge our scope of understanding of the psychoanalytically oriented criticism of selected Poe poetry, an important point must be kept in mind. Poe's poetic endeavors were based on a definite belief that he had of poetry. He states his rationale as follows:

A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.9

So strongly was the above view a guiding belief in all of Poe's work that Norman Foerster remarked: “This was Poe's artistic creed, exemplified in nearly all that he wrote: in his poetry, his tales, his essays on literary theory, and his criticism of literature—on nearly every page of his sixteen volumes.”10

Poe's definition of poetry has been viewed by Pruette in a broader psychoanalytic sense as follows:

The poems of Poe are songs of sorrow: beauty is in them, most often dead beauty, love is there, most often the love of those who are dead to him, and madness is there, as if the expression of the prophetic powers of his unconscious. Often enough, in moments of extreme depression, under the influence of drugs or in the temporary insanity induced by the use of stimulants, must he himself have felt those “evil things, in robes of sorrow,” which “assailed the monarch's high estate.”

(“A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe,” p. 384)

Beauty and pleasure often appear together in dreams.11

Frequently these are intertwined with a desire for love fulfillment, and in real life give an impression of happiness, which is often referred to as a dream. That Poe has captured this feeling is indicated in the last eight lines of his poem entitled “Dreams”:12

I have been happy, tho' but in a dream.
I have been happy—and I love the theme:
Dreams! in their vivid colouring of life
As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife
Of semblance with reality which brings
To the delirious eye, more lovely things
Of Paradise and Love—and all our own!
Than young Hope in his sunniest hour hath known.(13)

These lines were published when Poe was still a relatively young man. It appears that he felt deeply apart from humanity at this time. Joseph Wood Krutch has stated:

It was natural that a young man who felt, as Poe did, desperately isolated from the rest of mankind should find his model in the most popular poet of melodramatic isolation and so, though traces of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge have been found in him, the dominant influence is obviously Byronic.14

Based on another poem, entitled “A Dream.” the critics give us further insights into Poe's past hopes and his present situation as well as a contrast between the world of reality and the world of fancy, all closely related to dreams, fantasies, day-dreams, and wish-fulfillments.15


In visions of the dark night
          I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
          Hath left me broken-hearted.
Ah! what is not a dream by day
          To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
          Turned back upon the past?
That holy dream—that holy dream,
          While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
          A lonely spirit guiding.
What though that light, thro' storm and night,
          So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
          In Truth's day-star?

(Stovall, p. 21)

In commenting on the above poem, Pruette points out that in “A Dream” one can see Poe in the midst of the experience of “the contrast between what he has and what he has wanted, between the real and the ideal world of fancy” (p. 382). Also, the poem uses such images as “the dark night,” “the past,” “holy dream,” “lonely spirit,” and concludes with a resounding statement. The last stanza, while taking into account the reality of the dark side of life, ends in the form of a question expressing a wish. The word “Truth's” in the last line points up something special here. Truth and science are closely related. Both have a way of shaking men out of their dreams. Both have a way of making dreams a reality if the dreams are based on verifiable assumptions.16 Hence, it is an easy step to go from this “A Dream” to Poe's “Sonnet—To Science.” Writing as though he were thoroughly acquainted with psychoanalytical theory, Poe's “Sonnet—To Science” offers some keen insights into reality and dreams.


Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
          Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
          Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
          Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
          Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
          And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
          Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
          The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

(Stovall, p. 24)

In asking many questions of science, Poe is actually revealing its power, especially in the use of the word “vulture” in the fourth line of the above poem. Poe is reminding science that she has forced the seer, the poet, to come back to reality, and that the Elysian fields of childhood are only dreams. Here we have Freud's concepts of the reality and pleasure principles further emphasized.17 Dreams may be forms of wish fulfillments, but science with its emphasis on reality and truth forces one to look at himself, into himself, and at the world around him with great honesty. He is saying all this while voicing the objection of the romanticist “that the scientific attitude reduces everything to the most prosaic reality.”18

Bonaparte argues that Poe looks upon science as a hated father. She also makes it a point to stress the idea that “true daughter of Old Time” in the first line is

the appanage of Time, thus being identified, in accordance with the process of the unconscious—which in this case troubles itself little about sex—with Time and so the “father.” This was another reason why Poe hated science and would hate it, as bitterly, all his life.

(The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, p. 56)

In light of Bonaparte's comments, one might be tempted to forget that beauty and truth were of vital concern to Poe. He writes about this while discussing “The Raven,” and touches upon beauty and truth in poetry:

When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation of the soul.19

Poe goes on to emphasize, in the same text, that passion and truth may be profitably introduced into poetry. For these two phenomena, passion and truth, may be employed when properly used as means of making the poem itself a more effective work of art and beauty.

Beauty, truth, and science also demand a disciplined appreciation. The reality of life, the remembrance of the beautiful, the realization that nature is oblivious to our desires require a high level degree of understanding. In the poem “A Dream Within a Dream” the last stanza reads as follows:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

(Stovall, p. 18)

The idea that truth, reality, and a moment of beauty are all ephemeral forms is put in the form of a question about a dream within a dream.20 And according to Pruette, “In ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ we find rebellion against the disappointments of life” (“A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe,” p. 382). Always then we are confronted in Poe's poetry with questions of truth, beauty, pleasure, reality, and dream, the very essentials of one's involvement with living and the core of modern depth psychology.

Modern depth psychologists believe that part of a creative person's contribution in his work is often a child-like quality of appreciation and awe; one can easily find these qualities in the poems of Poe, particularly in those that are intended to evoke a sadness or a yearning for the past or faraway places. The opening stanza of Part I of the poem “Al Aaraaf” certainly exemplifies this:

O! nothing earthly save the ray
(Thrown back from flowers) of Beauty's eye,
As in those gardens where the day
Springs from the gems of Circassy—
O! nothing earthly save the thrill
Of melody in woodland rill—
Or (music of the passion-hearted)
Joy's voice so peacefully departed
That like the murmur in the shell,
Its echo dwelleth and will dwell—
Oh, nothing of the dross of ours—
Yet all the beauty—all the flowers
That list our Love, and deck our bowers—
Adorn yon world afar, afar—
The wandering star.

(Stovall, p. 25)

This poem alternates between poetic passages of great beauty and obscure and rough lines. Bonaparte believes that “Al Aaraaf” was based on Poe's “ancient passion for astronomy”: “This passion for astronomy seizes many a child and adolescent when education demands the repression of instinctual urges, for the sky is the bourne of those who seek escape from earthly realities; realities to which, in certain ways, Poe was never to return” (p. 41).

Astronomy is a branch of science that provides youngsters, particularly, with many imaginative possibilities for flights of fancy. What better place to resolve one's conflicts than in a great beyond of infinite hopes and dreams? If one is to carry this idea to a finer point in Freudian theory, Marie Bonaparte's statement is most significant: “The passion for astronomy in the young and in adolescents indicates an attempt, under educative pressure, to escape from the tormenting violence of ‘guilt’ laden sex, and bathe in the calmness of infinite space” (p. 594).21 And like an astronomer Poe was careful with his work and precise in his poems. For Poe's claims to poetic genius rest primarily on a small volume of verse; he was constantly working over and refining his poetry.22

As in the work of the astronomer who deals with precision, order, and speculation, there was another dimension to Poe's work, as previously suggested. He was concerned with beauty: “He sought, not the varied pleasures of the world, but the interpretation of Beauty alone, the highest form of which he felt to be linked always with melancholy” (Pruette, p. 381).

One of the themes of Poe's poems is a desire to escape from the inequities and imperfections of this mortal world into a land of surcease, hope, joy, and complete childhood imagination. He speaks to the singing angel, Israfel, in the poem by the same name, as follows:

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
          Is a world of sweets and sours;
          Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
          Is the sunshine of ours.
If I could dwell
Where Israfel
          Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
          A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
          From my lyre within the sky.(23)

(Stovall, p. 49)

The escape into Elysian fields and the entire process of day-dreaming is, according to psychoanalytic theory, closely linked with a desire for a return to an omnipotent state of life where the pleasure principle fully operates and where the individual is in a constant state of wish-fulfillment.24 “The poet would change places with the angel if only he could, for he feels hampered only by his human condition, not by his genius.”25

It should be remembered that psychoanalytically oriented criticism lays major emphasis on unconscious determinants to explain underlying factors about human behavior and activities. Dreams often hide from the individual much of the meaning of his motives and wishes. Marie Bonaparte explained this in terms of the creative artist as follows:

Of all the devices employed by the dreamwork, that of the displacement of psychic intensities—apart from one exception—is the most freely used in the elaboration of works of art, doubtless because such displacement is generally dictated by the moral censor, which is more active in our waking thoughts than in sleep. The conceiving and writing of literary works are conscious activities, and the less the author guesses of the hidden themes in his works, the likelier are they to be truly creative.26

Poe's endeavors to escape from the feeling of being doomed did not prevent him from writing excellent prose and beautiful verse. His poetry abounds with images of beauty and probably forms part of his own wish ideal as regards the beautiful. But the beautiful is often surrounded with the desolate, death, loneliness, and other realistic aspects of life. And with it all Poe was an excellent craftsman.27

The first stanza of “The City in the Sea” is a fine example of Poe's perceptive powers combined with technical skill to bring out some poignant lines about death.

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.(28)

(Stovall, p. 50)

Pruette is of the opinion that “City in the Sea” is “a picture of beauty desolated, of death reigning in the courts of life and love” (“A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe,” p. 383). One thing seems certain about Poe's treatment of death in his poetry. His employment of the imagery of death along with that of sleep and dreamlike states has led Roy Harvey Pearce to remark: “Poe is quite obviously the poet of dream-work.”29 Incidentally, death and death-wishes frequently appear in dreams.

In “The Sleeper” a lady is asleep, presumably dead, as we read the following lines:

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!
This chamber changed for one more holy,
This bed for one more melancholy,
I pray to God that she may lie
Forever with unopened eye,
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!

(Stovall, p. 53)

In referring to “The Sleeper” Pruette is of the opinion that Poe “is occupied with his dominant theme, the linking of sex and death” (p. 385). The theme of love and death comes out again and again in such poems as “To One in Paradise,” the “Sonnet to Zante,” “Leonore,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” and the universal favorite, “The Raven.” There are many psychoanalytic, especially Freudian, overtones in all of these poems as indeed there are in most of Poe's works.

Probably no psychoanalytically oriented critic could offer a more telling explanation of death and beauty than does Poe himself. In his exposition of the composition and conception of “The Raven,” Poe writes:

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”30

Naturally, such an explanation is bound to arouse all kinds of Freudian psychoanalytic speculations. One of the experiences that would naturally be sought out in this regard would be Poe's early years. Poe's early life with women and even his later relations with women were filled with a good deal of tragedy and unhappiness of all kinds. Beauty to Poe was evidently tied to something in his psyche, which was to be lost, was not to be enjoyed, and above all was to bring a good deal of suffering. Beauty really meant dead beauty, as is clearly shown in his poems.

Poe's parents died early and under very unpleasant circumstances. His mother was reputed to be most gifted and beautiful. At a most impressionable age came another blow—the death of Mrs. Helen Stanard—his first Helen. Later, came the death of his foster mother, followed by the loss of three sweethearts, and the six years of fear for the life of his wife Virginia, who finally died at the age of twenty-five in 1847.31 Beautiful women to Poe were meant to be written about but never to feel secure with. “Little wonder, then, that he wrote of the death of beautiful women” (Pruette, p. 386).


  1. One of the most balanced and best-written biographies of Poe is Arthur Hobson Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1941). Another work of interest here is Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1934). For comprehensive bibliographical information on Poe, see Jay B. Hubbell, “Poe,” in Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963), pp. 1-46.

  2. Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961), p. 17. A further consideration of the psyche of Poe can be found in Killis Campbell, The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933).

  3. The Haunted Man: A Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1953), p. 11.

  4. “A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe,” The American Journal of Psychology 31 (October 1920): 370-402.

  5. For information on Adler's views see Alfred Adler, The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, trans. P. Radin (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1946); Alfred Adler, What Life Should Mean to You, ed. Alan Porter (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1931); Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher, eds., The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1956); and Kurt A. Adler and Danica Deutsch, eds., Essays in Individual Psychology: Contemporary Application of Alfred Adler's Theories (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1959).

  6. It is also interesting to note the following remarks of Pruette: “With woman poets, Poe was seldom, almost never, critical. His desire for superiority seemed with women to take an entirely different form. He had the characteristic over-valuation of the opposite sex which, according to Adler, is invariably connected with the neurotic constitution.” (p. 375)

  7. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker (London: Imago Publishing Co. Ltd., 1949).

  8. Freud also went on to state in the Foreword that while investigations such as Bonaparte's may not explain genius, underlying factors are revealed about phenomena that awaken the creative aspects of genius and the subject-matter that people of this calibre are destined to choose (p. xi). Interestingly enough, it should be quite evident by now that statements about Poe and/or his work from a depth psychology point of view are often quite inconclusive. In addition to the above comments, Poe's life has been studied in the present century by the neurologist Dr. John W. Robertson, who spoke of Poe in terms of a “bad heredity,” and by Joseph Wood Krutch, who thought of Poe as suffering from a “mother” fixation and hence created an abnormal world in order to compensate for sexual impotency. See John W. Robertson, Edgar A. Poe (San Francisco: B. Brough, 1921), and Joseph Wood Krutch, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965). Also, for an interesting and comprehensive article providing historical information about attempts to understand Poe's life psychologically, see the following: Philip Young, “The Earlier Psychologists and Poe,” American Literature 22 (January 1951): 442-54.

  9. “Letter to B———,” Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956), pp. 414-15. Pleasure and a high sense of beauty: these were two important aspects of Poe's criticism regarding all genres. But in Freudian psychoanalytic terms, pleasure and beauty have special meanings. Basic to an understanding of Freud's psychology is the concept of pleasure and unpleasure. In brief, Freud believes that when there is a feeling on the part of the individual's ego that tensions are being raised, one is encountering unpleasure, while the lowering or relaxation of tensions or absence of pressures is felt as pleasure. Beauty is thought of as closely related to the very experience of civilization; that is, Freud believes that the lack of beauty is something civilization will not tolerate. After speaking of happiness and love, Freud says: “We may go on from here to consider the interesting case in which happiness in life is predominantly sought in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever beauty presents itself to our senses and our judgement—the beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes and of artistic and even scientific creations. This aesthetic attitude to the goal of life offers little protection against the threat of suffering, but it can compensate for a great deal. The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar, mildly intoxicating quality of feeling. Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.” See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. by James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1961), pp. 29-30.

  10. American Criticism: A Study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962), p. 7. Foerster has a keen perception about Poe's view of pleasure and beauty. He develops these other themes with much wisdom in the section of the work entitled “Poe,” pp. 1-51. It is also important here to point out that one American critic in particular has disputed Poe's ability as a writer and has also questioned Poe's concepts, especially as regards “beauty” and “pleasure.” See Yvor Winters, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism,” Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1938), pp. 93-122.

  11. For those interested in the Freudian theory of dreams, see “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, Inc., 1938), pp. 181-549. Also refer to the following: Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1), vol. 4 (1900) of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, rev. and ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953); and Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (11) and On Dreams, vol. 5 (1900-1901) of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, rev. and ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953). For a discussion of the Jungian theory of dream interpretation, refer to comments in the following works: C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, in Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Bollingen Series 20, ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler. Gerhard Adler, vol. 9, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959), part 1; The Development of Personality, in Collected Works, vol. 17, trans. by R. F. C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954); Symbols of Transformation, in Collected Works, vol. 5, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956); and The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease, in Collected Works, vol. 3, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960). For those interested in an Adlerian point of view on dream interpretation, see: Alfred Adler, “Dreams,” What Life Should Mean to You, ed. Alan Porter (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1931), pp. 93-119; also, see references to dreams in the following: Alfred Adler, The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, trans. P. Radin (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1946); Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher, eds., The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1956).

  12. Floyd Stovall, ed., The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1965), pp. 13-14. Unless otherwise noted, all of the poems discussed herein are from this work.

  13. This poem, “Dreams,” was originally part of the volume Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). Marie Bonaparte believes that this work contained poems that were “all melancholy in cast.” She believes this may be partially owing to the romantic spirit of the age. (The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, p. 37)

  14. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius, p. 65. This same critic also develops the concept of Poe's wishes and dreams as being caused to a large extent by “ferocious and reckless egotism.” See Joseph Wood Krutch, “The Strange Case of Poe,” The American Mercury 6 (November 1925): 349-56. Also see Joseph Wood Krutch, “Genius and Neuroticism” in And Even If You Do (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1967), pp. 145-52. And since dreams are to Freud disguised wish-fulfillments, and since they are often related to childhood's state of omnipotence and a feeling of happiness, there is a coming together in these lines of the past and present. In Freudian psychoanalytic theory the time factor of past and present are inextricably bound up with the future insofar as the day-dream wish is concerned. This idea is given fuller treatment in the following work: Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” Collected Papers, ed. Ernest Jones (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1949), 4: 173-83.

    Incidentally, the concept of happiness as expressed in the above poem “Dreams” does not blind Poe to stark reality. For at the base of this poem is a wish-fulfillment. And in light of modern psychoanalytic theory, I suggest that Poe reveals a profound awareness of dreams without being a trained practitioner.

  15. Of interest here too is the fact that Walt Whitman relates a dream and concludes that the lurid figure appearing in the dream might be Edgar Allan Poe. Whitman was of the belief that all of Poe's poems were “lurid dreams.” See F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1941), p. 541. Matthiessen makes a point of reminding readers that Whitman's comment about Poe “defines by implication his own aims.” (p. 540)

  16. In writing of science and truth as contrasted with religious claims, Freud wrote: “Scientific thought is, in its essence, no different from the normal process of thinking, which we all, believers and unbelievers, alike, make use of when we are going about our business in everyday life. It has merely taken a special form in certain respects: it extends its interest to things which have no immediate obvious utility, it endeavours to eliminate personal factors and emotional influences, it carefully examines the trustworthiness of the sense perceptions on which it bases its conclusions, it provides itself with new perceptions which are not obtainable by everyday means, and isolates the determinants of these new experiences by purposely varied experimentation. Its aim is to arrive at correspondence with reality, that is to say with what exists outside us and independently of us, and, as experience has taught us, is decisive for the fulfilment or frustration of our desires. This correspondence with the real external world we call truth. It is the aim of scientific work, even when the practical value of that work does not interest us.” See Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. W. J. H. Sprott (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1933), pp. 232-33.

  17. In essence, the reality principle as propounded by Freud holds that the mature ego can postpone the need for immediate gratification, can learn to endure a degree of frustration, and pain, and can renounce certain sources of satisfaction for a greater gain at a later time. The pleasure-principle is the opposite, where the psychical activity of the individual is bent on immediate gratification. See Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. by Joan Riviere (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1943), pp. 311-12.

  18. Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1958), p. 137.

  19. “The Philosophy of Composition,” in The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, With Selections from His Critical Writings, ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edward H. O'Neill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1951), 2: 980-81.

  20. This idea of “dream within a dream” has special meaning in Freudian theory and psychoanalytic criticism, as is indicated in the following: “As for the judgment which is often expressed during a dream: ‘Of course, it is only a dream,’ and the psychic force to which it may be ascribed, I shall discuss these questions later on. For the present I will merely say that they are intended to depreciate the importance of what is being dreamed. The interesting problem allied to this, as to what is meant if a certain content in the dream is characterized in the dream itself as having been ‘dreamed’—the riddle of a ‘dream within a dream’—has been solved in a similar sense by W. Stekel, by the analysis of some convincing examples. Here again the part of the dream ‘dreamed’ is to be depreciated in value and robbed of its reality; that which the dreamer continues to dream after waking from the ‘dream within a dream’ is what the dream-wish desires to put in place of the obliterated reality. It may therefore be assumed that the part ‘dreamed’ contains the representation of the reality, the real memory, while, on the other hand, the continued dream contains the representation of what the dreamer merely wishes. The inclusion of a certain content in ‘a dream within a dream’ is therefore equivalent to the wish that what has been characterized as a dream had never occurred. In other words: when a particular incident is represented by the dream-work in a ‘dream,’ it signifies the strongest confirmation of the reality of this incident, the most emphatic affirmation of it. The dream-work utilizes the dream itself as a form of repudiation, and thereby confirms the theory that a dream is a wish-fulfilment.” See Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Basic Writings, p. 360.

  21. This discussion leads directly into fantasy and the life of the artist. See Freud's discussion of this point in A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, pp. 327-28. For those interested in the psychoanalytic interpretation of the artist, the following will be helpful: Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, Inc., 1955); and Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci: A Psycho-Sexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, Inc., 1947).

  22. Stovall in the Poems has interesting comments on the text of Poe's poetry in this regard and is most complete as to variant readings and textual notes.

  23. Harry Levin has also linked “Israfel” with Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “through the quoted metaphor comparing the heart to a lute. Roderick's heartstrings vibrate to the decline, the catalepsy, and the interment of Madeline. Heralded by a reading from a romance, she emerges from the vault in her bloody shroud, and brother and sister share their death-agonies.” (pp. 159-60)

  24. Joseph Wood Krutch in “The Strange Case of Poe” has captured some of the dynamics associated with this personality phenomenon and connected it with Poe's stories. “First reasoning in order to escape feeling and then seizing upon the idea of reason as an explanation of the mystery of his own character, Poe invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad.” (p. 356)

  25. Buranelli, p. 98. D. H. Lawrence has also made a keen observation of this phenomenon from the standpoint of man's survival, though he specifically refers to Poe in the following passages: “Poe had a pretty bitter doom. Doomed to seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process. And then doomed to be abused for it, when he had performed some of the bitterest tasks of human experience, that can be asked of a man. Necessary tasks, too. For the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive.” Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Thomas Seltzer Inc., 1923), p. 65.

  26. “Poe and the Function of Literature,” in Art and Psychoanalysis, ed. William Phillips (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1963), p. 61. Also see Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, p. 645.

  27. No less an authority than Baudelaire, who was responsible for introducing Poe to the French, recognized Poe's skill, versatility, and craftsmanship as a writer. See Baudelaire on Poe, trans. and ed. Lois and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr. (State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1952).

  28. All through this poem death reigns supreme in love and life. One can never forget, as Faust did, that he must not tarry for a moment. In “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud explains that the child's concept of death is alien to that of the adult. To the child, being dead means being gone. The child has generally been spared the sight of much suffering which precedes death. To the child's way of looking at things, according to Freud, the departed one ceases to trouble the survivors. Nevertheless, one of Freud's main underlying themes in one of his works is that the fear of death is closely related to the fear of being forsaken or deserted. The individual feels there will be an end to protection against every danger. Furthermore, the fear of death is closely related to the fear of being castrated. See Sigmund Freud, The Problem of Anxiety, trans. H. A. Bunker (New York: The Psychoanalytic Quarterly Press and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1936).

  29. The Continuity of American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 141.

  30. “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Quinn and O'Neill, eds., 2:982.

  31. All of these items are treated in the various biographies already mentioned. Three of the biographies tend to be more psychological than the others—those by Bonaparte, Krutch, and Robertson.

Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20160

SOURCE: Hoffman, Daniel. “‘O! Nothing Earthly …’/ The Poems.” In Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, pp. 18-80. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

[In the following essay, Hoffman discusses Poe's reputation as a poet, both in France and in America, claiming that many of Poe's rhymes, apparently drawn from his own experiences, are banal and are possibly deliberate hoaxes on his reading public.]

November 1956. I am brooding on the poems of Edgar Poe in Dijon, living with my wife and two babies in the only maison bourgeoise in a farm village three kilometres beyond the end of the bus line. All the other houses in Saint Apollinaire are attached to barns and have cows in the front yard, but our yard is given to a garden, the beds crowded between pebbled walks. It's getting chill. There's hoarfrost on the beet fields and morning mists hang from Madame Pagès' pear tree. Ever since my compatriot John Foster Dulles halted the Franco-Israeli conquest of Suez last month, oil, coal, rice, and soap have been in short supply. I spend every other day scouring the coal yards of Dijon along the rail line—have become an expert scrounger, putting to unwonted practice the vocabulary lists memorized while reading Lettres de Mon Moulin. Also other words, newly heard, and remembered. I can distinguish by their shapes and brand-marks the pressed coal briquets from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland. I buy wherever I can, hauling fifty-kilo sacks on the floor of my Anglia. I've built a coalbin in Mme Pagès' garage. It's cold. Today is the Fête des Fulbrights, the presentation of new American books to the Faculté des Lettres, the visit by the American Consul and the Fulbright Commissioner from Paris, the speeches of welcome and acceptance. Then my lecture, on the poet whose work is set for examination this year for the agrégé: Edgarpoe.

So, in Saint Apollinaire, surrounded by the sounds of lowing cattle in the barns and crowing cocks on the dunghills beside the lavage, with the medieval church down one road, the Renaissance château down the other, I spend the morning re-reading the poems of Edgarpoe. Now it is time. The lecture hall in the old Faculté is filled to the ceiling—all my students, and scores of teachers of la littérature Américaine in lycées from as far out in the hinterland as Besançon. Here, in Dijon, they have walked through narrow alleys and crooked streets bordered by Roman walls and overhung by swollen Renaissance balconies, walked beneath roofs upheld by flamboyant caryatids, and entered the gloomy gateway of the Faculté. They have climbed the treadworn stairs into the dim lecture chamber to hear le Professeur Visitant Chargé avec l'Enseignement des Etudes Américaines, himself said to be a poet, speak of Edgarpoe.

They are poised in a tiered semicircle around me, straining to hear my English words, ready for my American accent to fall flatly on their ears. I commence. ‘I cannot read the poems of Edgarpoe without feeling a sensation—of pain.’ A gasp clutches the breath of my auditors. ‘No poet in the English tongue who is still read with reverence has committed such gaffes against the genius of our language, nor has written lines of comparable banality.’ An indignant murmuration surges around the amphitheatre. ‘It cannot even be said of Poe that when he is at his worst he is awful in a manner peculiarly his own—need he have been Edgar Poe to write, in “Al Aaraaf,”

O! nothing earthly save the thrill
Of melody in woodland rill—

or, in “The City in the Sea,”

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest …

or, from “The Sleeper,” a line as tasteless as ‘Soft may the worms about her creep!’; or so vulgar a rhythm as that in “Lenore,” ‘A dirge for her that doubly died in that she died so young.’ Did it require a poet of Poe's sublimity or a critic as fastidious in the matter of the prosody of his contemporaries, to contrive such a rhyme (in “Ulalume”) as mated ‘kissed her’ with ‘vista,’ or such sustained banality as in this stanza from “Israfel”—

Yes, Heaven is thine: but this
          Is a world of sweets and sours;
Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
          Is the sunshine of ours.

or such evanescent balderdash as in the lines,

And softly through the forest bars
          Light lovely shapes, on glossy plumes,
Float ever in, like wingèd stars,
          Amid the purpling glooms—

None of these passages would be out of place in the ‘Poet's Corner’ of a weekly rural newspaper in my native country. In fact that's probably where the last quatrian I've quoted first appeared, for it is not by Poe at all, but by a justly forgotten poetess named Mrs. Amelia Welby. I mention her, and quote her lines, because Poe himself applauded her poem as ‘one that would do honor to any one living or dead,’ citing the passage about glossy plumes and purpling glooms as ‘unquestionably, the finest in the poem.’ A poet of such faulty taste would well be capable of writing, in his own poem, such bathos as

Save only thee and me. (Oh, Heaven!—oh, God!
How my heart beats in coupling those two words!)

or committing to print a description so gross and literal as

          seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

What claims, I asked, have such thumping doggerel, such sentimental clichés, on our serious attention?

Ah well, you can't take away from the French, already on short rations of rice and soap and enduring a pénurie d'essence, their reverence for Baudelaire's spiritual brother. Halfway through my lecture I recognized it as a piece of Poesque arrogance, a catastrophe inspired by some perverse imp of my own. For despite his blatant faults, Poe's poems do have a gaudy grandeur. Although marred by all the vulgarities and overwearied rhymes I have quoted and then some, when one has read “The City in the Sea” or “Ulalume” or “Annabel Lee,” one has had an experience he does not forget.

All this—the power of Edgarpoe—came back to me when I avidly read the mad adventures of Humbert Humbert, who seduced and was ravished by his twelve-year-old beloved in plain view of several hundred thousand voyeurs like myself:

Did she have a precursor? [Humbert asks on the very first page.] She did, indeed she did. In point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.

Humbert, whose mother had died when he was three (Poe's mother died when he was two), lived, a petted darling, on the grounds of his father's Riviera Hotel. It was there that he fell wildly, unrelievedly, in love with that ‘initial girl-child.’ Her name? A maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel. Name of Annabel Leigh.

Annabel Leigh, the archetypal lost love of the pubescent motherless boy in a princedom by the sea. They snatched a moment, a moment beyond her family's vigilant protection, a moment in a cave beside the sea, where they awkwardly groped for one another's pleasure-parts, tormented to a delicious frenzy by each ‘incomplete contact,’ until, at last,

I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.

And Humbert Humbert spent the rest of his life looking for her—‘that mimosa grove—the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.’

By incarnating her in another! Ah, Humbert, Humbert, had you re-read the works of Edgarpoe you might have found some other, some less dangerous means to break her spell! For you might have remembered not only the mellifluous rhythms and melodious periods of “Annabel Lee” but also the terrors, the horrors, the eerie and immitigable sufferings recorded by the narrator of “Ligeia,” the tale of one who, like yourself, assuaged his aching longing for a lost love by reincarnating her in another—or did she reincarnate herself in the dying body of his second wife, thus exercising her awful claim upon his devotion? Whoever did what, “Ligeia” should be a cautionary tale to any like Humbert Humbert, who tries to assuage the pain of a lost childhood love (in a kingdom by the sea) by incarnating her into another. It won't work. That other won't, simply won't, be just as was the initial child-love. She will exercise her own claims, live in the satiation of her own lusts, wrap you, Humbert, whoever you are, wrap you around her little finger, ride you, the lovely little witch that she is, to your doom.

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
                    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
                    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:—
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
                    In the sepulchre there by the sea—
                    In her tomb by the sounding sea.

To be the lover, or the would-be lover, of Annabel Lee, or Annabel Leigh, is a fate not easily avoided. On the one hand you end up yearning to lie down by her side in a sepulchre: necrophilia! On the other, you can't get her, can't get at her, can't consummate all those exacerbated urgings which you and she began to feel and which you haven't ever since ceased feeling, so you incarnate her in another. That way, Lolita. But Poe had been there, too.

Edgar Allan Poe wears all the medals of the sufferings his poems record and celebrate and revel in. The intensity of his sufferings is the badge of his honor. The garish light by which his verses flicker, the weird, wild, and wonderstruck helplessness of the personages in his tales, these are the expressions of a possessed and demonic writer, hatched from the one egg he has put in his haunted basket.

And what were these sufferings? Who doesn't know them, who can't infer them from the first perusal of his verses! The details are peculiar, the specific instances of a special type of woe accumulate upon the defenseless head of a little orphaned boy with a repetitious savagery which makes inescapable the conclusion that Fate itself had an obsessional interest in inflicting upon poor Edgar Poe one particular species of human woe. As though by intensifying that one suffering, he could be made to write of it in paradigms of all the lesser losses which the rest of mankind must endure. But what a capricious choice Fate made as the vessel through which its mordant yet exalted dithyrambs would be poured.

Fate waited, to enact this particular purpose, until a troupe of itinerant thespians was cast up on the shores of penury, ‘at liberty,’ in Boston, Massachusetts, in the dead of winter, 1809. On January nineteenth of that year a son was delivered of Elizabeth Arnold Poe. The father, David Poe, Jr., was, like his wife a treader of the boards. An indifferent actor, it would appear, thought to be of Irish descent, and, by all evidence, addicted to the bottle. Not a very stable or responsible fellow, David Poe, Jr., although his father had been an honorary Quartermaster General in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Elizabeth Arnold Poe was very much more popular, more versatile, more successful on the stage than her nearly ne'er-do-well husband. She'd been bred to the theatre by her mother, an actress of some repute in England before her emigration, with her little daughter, to these States. So Eddie was born into that most precarious profession, the art of feigning. And within a year his bibulous father had disappeared. Simply vanished, leaving the young and beautiful Elizabeth, with her great moody eyes brimming, to look after little Eddie and his elder brother William Henry and his younger sister Rosalie. Alas, Rosalie proved, when grown, to be mentally retarded; she plays no part in Edgar's development. Nor does his brother, who was raised by grandparents in Baltimore after the mother's death.

The mother's death! Mother, with her infants in her care, still had to provide for her family, still had to follow her profession, trudging from one provincial town to another for one-week or one-night stands, developing a cough, a paroxysmic seizure, at last, in 1811, in Richmond, Virginia, spitting blood. In Mrs. Osborne's boarding house. There, in her single room, with her infant son beside her, Mrs. Poe lay dying, attended in her misery by the charitable solicitation of several good ladies of that gracious city. Edgar was two years old, watching his beautiful mother die of consumption, or, as they called it in those days, phthisis. Spitting blood.

One of those good, kind ladies whose heart was touched by the sufferings of the unfortunate Mrs. Poe was the childless wife of an ambitious tobacco merchant. On Mrs. Poe's death, Frances Allan took little Edgar into her own household and raised him as her son. Her husband, John Allan, was not quite so precipitate—his part in the chronicle of Edgar's woes is complicated, and I'll defer its recital till a more appropriate page of this, my chronicle of Poe's life and work and reputation and influence and how Edgarpoe wormed his way into my guts and gizzard and haunted my brain and laid a spell upon my soul which this long harangue is an attempt to exorcise.

Of John Allan I will now say but this: he did not adopt Edgar Poe, the infant son of wandering actors so fortuitously thrust beneath his eaves. If there is a villain in Poe's destiny, a malign person insinuated into his fortune by the machinations of that evil fairy who always spoils the christening party, it may have been his nonadoptive guardian. For John Allan reared the boy in full expectations of becoming his heir and gave him half a claim on the rights and privileges accorded in the antebellum South to a would-be gentleman. (Actually, Allan, a merchant, was himself a pretender, in that cotton kingdom ruled by baronial planters, to those airs and graces.) But at the crucial moment, he cast Edgar adrift without a cent, without a foster-father's blessing, to make his own way in a profession still more precarious than the ill-starred career of his true parents: the profession of a Poet.

By that time, the kindhearted and beautiful Mrs. Allan, too, had died. Had died, like Elizabeth Arnold Poe before her, of consumption.

I skip a few chapters in the Life of Poe, skip over to his twenty-seventh year. He has been in and out of the army—yes, the United States Army—he has been in and out of the U.S. Military Academy, for Poe is our only great writer to have tried for a commission at West Point. He has been a magazine writer, has published two volumes of verse at his own expense, has won a fifty dollar prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle,” has become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and has married Miss Virginia Clemm of Baltimore.

Arthur Hobson Quinn, whose magisterial biography is still the authoritative source for all facts and figures about Edgar Allan Poe, finds it not unusual that a man of twenty-seven marries a girl of fourteen, his first cousin. Or that all throughout their married life he called her ‘Sis,’ or that her mother, his aunt Mrs. Clemm, lived with the couple, kept house for them, and was addressed by the husband, Edgar, as ‘Mother.’ Dr. Quinn exercised great ingenuity in recapitulating, inter alia, the complete dramatic career of Poe's grandmother, and in ascertaining precisely in which room at 2230[frac12] East Main Street, Richmond, Elizabeth Poe died. But to questions like the propriety of Edgar Poe's marriage to a scarcely nubile girl half his age, and his close blood relation at that, Quinn's powers of detection were not attracted.

On the other hand perhaps too much has been made of these rather odd circumstances by Joseph Wood Krutch and Marie Bonaparte.

What should I make of them? Right now I'll make little, merely mention the facts as facts, and complete this factual recital (carefully edited to emphasize certain effects—for as Poe advises, all must be bent toward unity of effect).

The effect toward which I'm trying to unify these sometimes intractable events is, well, it's the effect which is suggested by the next relevant fact: nine years later, in 1847, Virginia Poe—I forgot to say that Virginia had a beautiful voice, was trained as a singer—Virginia burst a blood vessel in her throat, and in a matter of months she sank into consumptive pallor, feebleness, much spitting of blood, and, at last, the surcease of an early death.

Virginia was twenty-three, the age when many young women are about to be married. She had been nine years a bride, yet, if Poe's posthumous psychoanalysts, Drs. Krutch and Bonaparte, are to be given credence, she died a virgin and a maid:

… a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
.....And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
          In the sepulchre there by the sea—
          In her tomb by the sounding sea

They so conclude, not, I must say in defense of their ratiocinative analysis of Poe's life, on the evidence of his poems. They examine his life, his circumstances, his whole personality, and conclude that he was psychically impotent.

That seems an impertinence, doesn't it? I mean, there's something rather tasteless in hypothesizing about the sexual relations of a man who died over a century ago. None of our business, that.

What is our business, though, is not what Poe did or couldn't do in the dark womb of his conjugal bed, but what he wrote. And that, of course, brings us around once again to what he lived, what he suffered. Whether he could get it up or not (the evidence of the tales is pretty one-sided), you don't have to have a certificate from Dr. Freud to recognize Poe's sad and crippling obsession, he put into his writing an intense energy as great as that which a libidinous seducer would have expended upon the breaching of a thousand virgins. Poe was born to suffer, to thrill to the exquisite torment of those sufferings, to transmute them by his symbolistic imagination into paradigms of man's divided nature, of man's heroic efforts to escape his fate.

But you might not guess all this from a poem like “Annabel Lee.”

I mean, would you be likely to hail, as an expression of imaginative power, Poe's sad, musical ballad of a lost love?

Poe, who had lost his three great loves—his mother, his foster-mother, his bride—all in the same way, all wasting on their sick-beds, all spitting blood, choking, all pathetically grasping and gasping for breath, while he, the infant son, the boy, the bridegroom, can but sit beside his beloveds in helpless anguish, watching them sink, sink, sink, and slip away until their pain-wracked seizures at last are stilled by their last, wakeless sleep.

How could such a boy, such a man, but ask, What are we born for? ‘What is beauty, saith my sufferings then?’ cries Tamberlaine in Marlowe's play (Part 1, v ii 97). One poète maudit, killed in a tavern brawl, speaks across the centuries to his semblable. Edgar Allan Poe, aged eighteen, chooses as his theme, for the title poem of his first book (‘by a Bostonian’), Tamerlane!

Tamerlane, 243 lines of Tamerlane (as finally revised, in 1845), ‘by a Bostonian,’ aged nineteen, recently rusticated from the University of Virginia for debts to his landlord, tailor, gambling companions, etc., etc.

In exile.

But, in this free country, exiled from what?

From childhood. From mother and from foster-mother. From all his dreams of temporal power and social supremacy, his dreams of an inheritance and his hopes of a college education and a secure place in society. At nineteen.

All that is left to this headstrong and penurious youth are his dreams, his vain imaginings, which he spells out in chiming, rhyming lines. Edgar has no recourse but to become the hero of his own imagination.

In 1827 that seemed a likely course. Not so much the hero of The Prelude, but—Byron. There's a hero for the age! Byron, with his romantic black locks, his brow streaked by the howling blasts of the tempest—how very like Byron is Poe, in Walt Whitman's dream, half a century later; the dream of Whitman, the only American poet who attended the dedication, in Baltimore, of that monument at Poe's grave for which Mallarmé had written his sonnet ‘Au tombeau d'Edgar Poe.’ Whitman had dreamed of Poe rushing toward the grave—

In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg'd ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seemed one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor'd, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island Sound—now flying uncontroll'd with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—themselves all lurid dreams.

Walt, perspicuous, magnanimous old man—how wisely he chose as an image of the poems a tableau which could have been drawn only from the tales! There is no poem of Poe's in which a figure, a dim Edgar, is hurtling toward destruction aboard a schooner-yacht; but wait until we come to “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym! Wise old Walt, who conceived, as his tribute to Poe, his only real rival as the nineteenth-century's Literatus, a perfect put-down: The poetry is in Poe's prose.

Neither Walt Whitman nor anyone else would have dreamed such a dream about Poe were he only, or chiefly, the author of “Tamerlane.” That's a poem nobody today would be likely to read for pleasure. The students in my Poe seminar read it—they had to—and were convinced that, during that week in the fall semester, they were the only ten souls in the entire nation so occupied. Plodding through the 243 lines of Tamerlane's lament, they read the confessional monologue of the Tartar peasant who left his native cottage to conquer the world, then returned intending to marry his beloved, but—guess what—found that she had died. As Richard Wilbur points out in his notes to the Laurel edition of Poe's poems, ‘It is not that Tamerlane has made an erroneous choice between Love and Ambition: it is that Time has inevitably estranged him from his boyhood and from the visionary capacity to possess, through Psyche, “the world, and all it did contain.” The fundamental contrast is between two kinds of power: the despotic imaginative power of the child, and the adult's struggle for actual worldly power. The first is judged ideal or “holy,” the second earthly or evil.’

Like all of Wilbur's comments on Poe's poems, this is both sensitive and accurate. But Wilbur forbears to judge the poems; he is content to describe them and to relate their images to one another. I'll be more temerarious and assert that “Tamerlane” is a poem nobody would read unless he had to, one which is valuable chiefly for what it suggests about the young Poe's reading and for demonstrating his limitations. He'd been reading Byron and Milton and was already mapping out the very special and peculiar territory in which his poetic faculty could function. But in “Tamerlane” he drew a huge overdraught on his poetic account. Who would read “Tamerlane” today, but a graduate student in Professor Hoffman's Poe seminar? Or Professor Hoffman? Yet, when I checked the early (1827) version (Complete Works, VII, 127-39) I found who else had been reading “Tamerlane”: in strophe xiii, ‘I pass'd from out the matted bower / Where in a deep, still slumber lay / My Ada …’ whose name does not appear in the later version. But this is the Ada whose name does appear (it was Byron's daughter's middle name), indeed is the title of, a novel, a prodigious creation of an anti-world, by Vladimir Nabokov, author of the pseudonymous Humbert Humbert's confessions and a confirmed, nay, an obsessional, reader—or should I say devotee, or enchantee—of Edgar Poe.

Why this modern creator of an anti-world should be—would have to be—in thrall to Poe isn't very clear from “Tamerlane,” but in Poe's next major (that is to say, large) poem it all comes clear. I mean in “Al Aaraaf.”

But first, what went wrong in “Tamerlane”? Poe was trying to do too many things at once: tell a narrative, project an epic, dramatize the conflict between earthly and spiritual power. His diction is more appropriate to lyric verse, his story remains static, his hero speaks to no respondent. Poe hadn't yet discovered exactly which form was required by his theme.

How could it be otherwise? He was only eighteen. Every week I have a bull session called a class with half a dozen student poets and would-be poets of just that age. The very best of them are likely to change their styles, meters, dictions, forms, stance, subjects, personae, three or four times a semester. A young poet must discover who he is, he must create himself as a poet. Even a genius must do this. It's a painful process, splitting your own skin and squeezing your soul and body out of it, even, sometimes, before you know the shape or color of the new self you are going to become. Poe, like any young man teaching himself to be a poet, made a couple of false starts.

But even in false starts there's a gain, an increment, an increase in technical skill and the uncovering of a part of one's own donnée. That's one gain. Another is the recognition of what won't be carried over into the next self-image of the poetic persona. So even losses are gains.

The poet discovers his self by creating it. However much tempted was Edgar Poe to imagine himself as puissant as Tamerlane, and to imagine Tamerlane as powerless in the coils of time as himself, he came much closer to defining the essential Moi who speaks in his best poems in a confessional meditation, first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1875, a quarter century after his death, but signed and dated ‘E. A. Poe. Baltimore, March 17, 1829.’ Nobody knows why Poe never included it in his books of verse—or rather, in his book; for, like Whitman, though on a very minuscule scale indeed, Poe's poetical productions comprised a single œuvre which was added to in each of the successive volumes he issued between 1827 and 1845. Perhaps the copy which came to Scribner's was unique, and not having that copy in his possession, Poe had lost the poem. But no. He'd have written it down again, with his prodigious powers of memory and concentration. Maybe “Alone” cut a little too near the bone for Poe, whose poems and tales are an elaborate repertoire of masks: Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe … We'll meet him as Hoaxiepoe, as Inimitable Edgar the Variety Artist, as Horror-Haunted Edgar, as … but I'm getting ahead of myself here. “Alone”:

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov'd—I lov'd alone—
Then—in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by—
From the thunder and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
When the rest of Heaven was blue
Of a demon in my view—

Although there are echoes here of Byron's Manfred (ii ii 50-56), this is Edgarpoe's own work, his own destiny, his own woe: The Alienated Poet come-to-life. Not alienated by the neglect of a materialist bourgeois society—that is the case of course, though here he doesn't complain of it—but alienated because of the fated specialness of his own nature. Edgarpoe is a marked man, one of the Chosen. Chosen to enjoy what others cannot even sense, chosen to suffer what others know not, to love whom he loves in an isolation as complete as that in which he feels suffering and joy. All this, because of ‘The mystery which binds me still.’

The poem is nearly a success, for though it begins with the tone and the commonplace diction of a song of Thomas Hood's or Tom Moore's, it modulates, by the end, to the intensity of early William Blake. The openness of diction is not as unusual for Poe as one would think, if one were accustomed only to the rhodomontade of “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and “Lenore.” Poe was quite able to write with clarity, indeed the language here is so ordinary it dips into the banal. But the last six lines redeem the poem from that. ‘A demon in my view.’ Poe really was a haunted man, and as a poet, in verse or prose, he had the power to haunt his readers.

I think of Edgar Allan Poe at nineteen, author of these poems and others I've still to re-read, making his bid for Fame and Immortality and Recognition and who knows what else by publishing his slender store of verses at his own cost—at his own cost who could scarcely afford the next night's lodging. Those humiliating letters he had to write to John Allan, the nonsire who had already cast him off, pleading for money, as gift, as loan, on any terms, money to publish, money with which to buy a suit, a shirt, pay the landlord, the grocer, the printer. How much self-abasement can a boy stand, how much abuse of the ego can he bear?

Richmond Monday [19 March, 1827]


After my treatment on yesterday and what passed between us this morning, I can hardly think you will be surprised at the contents of this letter. My determination is at length taken—to leave your house and indeavor to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated—not as you have treated me … my resolution is unalterable. …

… Send my trunk &c to the Court-house Tavern, send me I entreat you some money immediately—as I am in the greatest necessity—If you fail to comply with my request—I tremble for the consequence

Yours &c Edgar A Poe

It depends upon yourself if hereafter you see or hear from m.

So distraught he left off the second letter in the word me. The next day Poe writes to Allan again:

Dear Sir,

Be so good as to send me my trunk with my clothes—I wrote to you on yesterday explaining my reasons for leaving … I am in the greatest necessity, not having tasted food since Yesterday morning. I have no where to sleep at night but roam about the Streets … I beseech you as you wish not your prediction concerning me to be fulfilled—to send me without delay my trunk containing my clothes, and to lend if you will not give me as much money as will defray the expence of my passage to Boston ($12) and a little to support me. …

The following December, now in the army at Fort Moultrie, Poe writes:

I only beg you to remember that you yourself cherished the cause of my leaving your family—Ambition. If it has not taken the channel you wished it, it is not the less certain of its object. Richmond & the U. States were too narrow a sphere & the world shall be my theatre—

One can only imagine with what apoplexy Allan read this page, in which the ungrateful young whippersnapper he had fed and clothed like a member of his own family has the impudence to flaunt his insane ambition—and to revel in that allusion to the theatre, as though his proper parentage were something to brag up and down the market square!—

… There never was any period of my life when my bosom swelled with a deeper satisfaction, of myself & (except in the injury which I may have done to your feelings)—of my conduct—My father do not throw me aside as degraded I will be an honor to your name.

This letter pled with Allan to obtain Edgar's discharge from the army. Like his other pleas, before and after, it was ignored.

Such are a few of the sufferings which Edgar bore alone.

We have not done with his relationship to John Allan, who seems gratuitously to have dealt his helpless charge one blow after another. Yet Allan had a case, too, for Edgar was surely the least sympathetic boy in Richmond for him to have in his own household—headstrong, insubordinate, self-willed, forever making outrageous demands. Poor Edgar.

Where did we leave him? Down from the university, out from his enlistment, then a cadet and again pleading with ‘Pa’ to secure his release; that aid not forthcoming, Edgar is dismissed from the U.S.M.A. for being on sick call instead of on duty. And now he has published his second volume of verse—it's 1829, in Baltimore—Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Edgar is twenty years old.

What can we expect in the way of poems from a twenty-year-old genius? He will write poems conceived within the conventions of his age, and some of those poems will outlast the conventions within which they were conceived, while others will fade with the changing of taste and fashion. A poet has to start somewhere, he must plunge into the swim at the moment when he becomes aware of his own ambition. For Poe, that moment came during the notoriety of Byron and Shelley, during the popularity of such third-team minnesingers as Tom Moore and Thomas Hood, and during the influence on the best poets of the critical ideas of Coleridge. What would you expect but that the verse of a twenty-year old, even a genius, would be a hodgepodge of these and other influences?

Poe's genius announces itself in startling ways. More by his renunciations than by his achievements. His special genius was the kind that rules out, on principle, most of the subjects and themes that other poets spend lifetimes trying to deal with. For Poe, such materia poetica as physical love, the influence of the natural world upon human sensibility, and human history simply aren't on the page. Not in poetry.

What's left, then? A narrowing concentric circle of concern. Poe ends by asserting that poetry itself must be devoted to the presentation of a single subject. Yet even while foretelling these extreme exclusions, “Al Aaraaf” is very ambitious—too ambitious. It is Poe's most ambitious failure.

Before I sink in its ethereal vapors, let me quickly say which were those poems of Poe's that do transcend the conventions of his time. “Alone” is one of these. So are “Romance,” and “The City in the Sea,” and “Dream-Land.” These are all lyric soliloquys. His other successful genres are the brief lyric (“To Helen,” “To One in Paradise,” “Israfel”), the sonnet (“Sonnet—To Science,” “To My Mother”), and the literary ballad (“Lenore,” “Ulalume,” “For Annie,” and “The Raven”). Some of these poems transcend their time without being good poems; they may be terrible poems, but they are, undeniably, unforgettable. Some of them are very good indeed. Still, that's not much of an output for a genius who confessed ‘With me poetry is not a purpose but a passion.’ One hidden thread in this inquiry, a thread I will seize and draw taut at the right instant, will sew up the answer to the query, What went wrong with Poe's passion for poetry? Why did he dry up, and leave one of the teeniest bodies of verse of any poet the world has applauded for over a century?

But now, the ethereal vapors of “Al Aaraaf.” What a piece of machinery is this! “Al Aaraaf” exhibits extreme symptoms of what Poe was later to attack—after he had convinced himself that he could not write this way—as ‘the Epic mania.’ This piece reads like the first two of a dozen, or a score, of cantos in a Great Poem of Cosmological Revelation. But Eddie ran out of gas.

“Al Aaraaf” is the best he ever did in the line of Jumbo Productions. Fractured though it is, we have here a far more convincing imaginative experience and a much more adept show of versification than in either of his other two elephantine failures, “Tamerlane” and “Scenes from Politian.” (A word about “Politian”: this is a sketch for a Jacobean tragedy, using the same plot—fixated love, madness—as that in Simm's Beauchampe, Chivers's Conrad and Eudora, Charles Fenno Hoffman's novel Greyslaer, and Robert Penn Warren's poem Brother to Dragons. Poe's “Politian,” however, is no better than the least of these: an inflated, ill-managed costume drama set in Rome.)

In “Al Aaraaf” Poe finds a different way to evade dealing with the actual world from such efforts at archaic history as “Tamerlane” and “Politian.” He escapes into an imaginary future—well, it's not specified as future, so let's call it an imaginary time out of time—in which an apocalyptic vision may be vouchsafed to his supernatural protagonists.

So Edgar takes over the very machinery of epic which Toqueville six years later would deny the American poet because the American people no longer believed, or wished to believe, in the past, in gods, or in the intermediary creatures between Heaven and earth—be they angels, spirits, or merely (as in The Rape of the Lock) parodic sylphs. What the American public believed or wished to believe never cut any ice for Edgar. This lad not yet old enough to vote against President Jackson has his own vision of truth, of cosmological truth. He had been reading Milton and Shelley and Tom Moore, and let the reader who dares, follow, and be compelled to believe as Poe believes. For “Al Aaraaf” is a wild mishmash of things strayed, stolen, or transformed from Paradise Lost, from Queen Mab, and from Moore's The Loves of the Angels. Poe undertakes to believe, to write, and to live as a poet-prophet, delivering the Word—not from Ararat or Sinai or Calvary, but from that remote star which he alone has seen. Al Aaraaf, Poe's note informs us, is ‘A star … discovered by Tico Brahe which appeared suddenly in the heavens—attained, in a few days, a brilliancy approaching that of Jupiter—then as suddenly disappeared, and has never been seen since.’ This distant realm of beauty fading from our sight Poe describes, in another note; ‘With the Arabians there is a medium between Heaven and Hell, where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil and even happiness which they suppose to be characteristic of heavenly enjoyment.’ Thus Poe circumvents both mundane reality and Christian cosmology. ‘Kubla Khan,’ ‘Lalla Rookh,’ and the Brighton Pavilion attest to the lure of Arabian Nights felt by the Romantics. Poe is making the Arabic scene too, but he is making that scene his own.

As he makes his own his borrowings from Milton, Shelley, and Moore. For “Al Aaraaf” is puzzlingly original. It is a fable about the wholly aesthetic conception of ideality and of an afterlife in which participation in that ideality is possible. The cosmological scope of this production as well as the grand effect of some of its lines bears the mark of Milton (however little like Milton is the theology). Another of Poe's models seems to me to be Shelley's Queen Mab. As with Paradise Lost, the differences are just as revealing as the similarities.

Both “Al Aaraaf” and Queen Mab take place in an imaginary landscape, in both there is a Spirit named Ianthe, and truths unknown on earth are revealed. But where Shelley's poem is one of rebellion—of specific rebellion against the tyrannies of an oppressive class system; against war-mongering kings; against God, Christ, and the Church—Poe in “Al Aaraaf” doesn't deign to attack any such abuses. Instead he writes as though the real world were completely irrelevant. His poem is devoted to the evanescent terrain of the ideal, and the only resemblance to human life on Al Aaraaf is the presence, among certain of its inhabitants, of that impure passion, love. Poe's poem is a cosmological legend, a breathing-into-being of a realm of the ideal, to which he consigns the existence of the idea of the lost sculptures of our Classical antiquity. From such snippets of Christianity, Neoplatonism, and his own imperious designs, Poe constructs his non-Christian, nonplatonic star.

Much too ambitious. Yet the young Poe was already able to handle complex conceptions in his verse, and to vary the texture of that verse. In Part I the normative line is first, octosyllabic couplets, then pentameter couplets, with the interposition at lines 82-117 of a lyrical interlude in alternately rhymed trimeter-dimeters. Part II consists of pentameter couplets with the interposition at lines 68-155 of another lyric, this time in anapestic dimeters:

Ligeia! Ligeia!
          My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
          Will to melody run …

The whole opus runs to 422 melodious lines, more than four times the length Poe later decided was admissible in a true poem. Part I introduces Al Aaraaf, where there is ‘nothing earthly save the ray / (Thrown back from flowers) of Beauty's eye.’ This world, ruled over by Nesace, contains both the originals and the departed spirits of all earthly beauties. By a trick of synaesthesia, we attend

Fair flowers, and fairy! to whose care is given
To bear the Goddess' song, in odors, up to Heaven.

She sings her song (the first lyrical interlude), and then

She stirr'd not—breath'd not—for a voice was there
How solemnly pervading the calm air!
A sound of silence on the startled ear
Which dreamy poets name “the music of the sphere.”

From this eloquent silence speaks ‘the eternal voice of God,’ commanding Nesace, in couplets of Miltonic grandeur,

What tho' in worlds which own a single sun
The sands of Time grow dimmer as they run,
Yet thine is my resplendency, so given
To bear my secrets thro' the upper Heaven.
Leave tenantless thy crystal home, and fly
With all thy train, athwart the moony sky—
Apart—like fire-flies in Sicilian night
And wing to other worlds another light!
Divulge the secrets of thy embassy
To the proud orbs that twinkle—and so be
To ev'ry heart a barrier and a ban
Lest the stars totter in the guilt of man!

Nesace has already defined her embassy, in her hymn to Heaven:

And here, in thought, to thee—
          In thought that can alone
Ascend thy empire and so be
          A partner of thy throne—
By winged Fantasy,
          My embassy is given,
Till secrecy shall knowledge be
          In the environs of Heaven.

Thus the divine mission of Nesace, the agent of Beauty, is the revelation of her secret knowledge ‘in thought that can alone … By winged Fantasy’ ascend the throne of God. This thought can only be the creative imagination of the artist or the poet, earthly creators of beauty.

The message of “Al Aaraaf” is so evanescent, its language so opaque, that the argument is difficult to follow. If this be an epic, it is an epic without an epic hero; if it be legend, it is the legend of no people. Indeed there is not a living person in the poem—so far its only characters are a fairy, Nesace, and the voice of God. Poe is his own myth-maker. What relation there may be between his conception of “Al Aaraaf” and the beliefs of Christians, Arabs, or any other sect is completely accidental. Poe's ‘myth’ in “Al Aaraaf” is about as cloudy and as self-determined as that of Shelley in Queen Mab and of Keats in Endymion. Indeed, Poe is writing his screed across the heavens in the manner of these greater English poets a decade before him. There is not one word in “Al Aaraaf” by which a reader, unfamiliar with its authorship, could infer it to have been written in Baltimore, by an American.

The second canto gives no better clue to the author's nationality than did the first:

High on a mountain of enamell'd head—
Such as the drowsy shepherd on his bed
Of giant pasturage …

This is the world of Romance, of pastoral, actually a world as yet unknown, for we are on Al Aaraaf, where

A dome, by linked light from Heaven let down,
Sat gently on these columns as a crown …

—an image reminiscent of Shelley's ‘dome of many colored glass.’ On these columns are sculpted the lost ‘Achaian statues,’ and

Friezes from Tadmor and Persepolis—
From Balbec, and the stilly, clear abyss
Of beautiful Gomorrah! O, the wave
Is now upon thee—but too late to save!

This demonic suggestion of the flooded city prefigures Poe's later poem, “The City in the Sea.” So far, in Part II, we have been given a spiritual tableau vivant. This sets the scene for the return of Nesace, who sings her second hymn. This time she invokes the divine spirit of harmonious correspondence of idea with ideal:

Ligeia! wherever
          Thy image may be,
No magic shall sever
          Thy music from thee.

Nesace urges, in anticipation of the last hundred lines of the poem,

And true love caresses—
          O! leave them apart!
They are light on the tresses,
          But lead on the heart.

For the divine throne to which Ligeia, the spirit of ideal beauty, may ascend, does not tolerate earthly passion. This is Poe's hymn to intellectual beauty, the attainment of which requires the abnegation of the dross of our flesh, our world, our life, our loves.

Not until line 174 of Canto II do we find anyone like a person in the poem, and what pass for persons prove to be the risen ghost of Michelangelo and the fallen spirit of one of Nesace's minions, Ianthe. There they are, on that distant star, doomed not to know true Heaven because they love one another. The last hundred lines of the poem speak of their unavailing love; the passage concludes as it began ‘They fell: for Heaven to them no hope imparts / Who hear not for the beating of their hearts.’ This couplet holds the germ of half of Poe's other poems and of his best-known tales.

The Angelo-Ianthe episode has very much the look of an original cadenza upon an ancient theme, one much favored by other Romantic poets before and after Poe. The motif is the love between a supernatural being and a mortal; always a bad show, since either the goddess loses her gleam and sinks into mere mortality (Undine); or the lover must be made an immortal too (Endymion) and so is translated out of this life altogether; or the punishment of the gods is visited upon the lover—as an evil transformation or a curse—for his hubris in desiring to ravish a lady so far out of his class (Actaeon; Tithonus, Yeats's At the Hawk's Well).

But Poe works it out still another way. In “Al Aaraaf” both lovers lose. Angelo isn't actually a man, he is a ghost or spirit of a man—in fact the spirit of the man who was the world's greatest lover and creator of beauty, the incarnate Artist's ghost. As such, in Poe's cosmology he is only demi-divine and semimortal, for such a spirit is not conducted directly into Heaven.

Ianthe, too, although a nymph, is not fully spiritualized. Enough of Earth's grossness and the mortality of flesh pertains to her that she may undo her equivocal status among the higher beings by succumbing to passion. In Poe's aesthetic universe, any creature who feels the stirrings of his heart is thereby damned.

Any such representation of a romance between an earthling and a spiritling is bound to run certain procedural risks, not the least of which is sheer incredibility. It must have galled Poe, who followed the state of his own reputation with the care of a speculator reading the daily tickertape, that a decade after “Al Aaraaf” had appeared—and nearly disappeared, so little was it noticed—the most touted poem written by an American was Joseph Rodman Drake's ‘The Culprit Fay.’ This piece of paltry frivolity Jacksonian America could safely extol, since it made no serious challenge to the premises of a go-ahead, materialistic society but offered merely the safe diversion of a pretty and fanciful story. Not to wonder that Poe slashed ‘The Culprit Fay’ in his review in April, 1836, of a posthumous edition of Drake's poems. What may be surprising to some, however, is the tone of light irony and easy humor with which he outlines the defects of ‘The Culprit Fay,’ defects which we may be sure his own amibitous poem had successfully avoided:

We are bidden, in the first place, and in a tone of sentiment and language adapted to the loftiest breathings of the Muse, to imagine a race of Fairies in the vicinity of West Point. We are told, with a grave air, of their camp, of their king, and especially of their sentry, who is a wood-tick. We are informed that an Ouphe of about an inch in height has committed a deadly sin in falling in love with a mortal maiden, who may, very possibly, be six feet in her stockings. The consequence to the Ouphe is—what? Why, that he has ‘dyed his wings,’ ‘broken his elfin chain,’ and ‘quenched his flame-wood lamp.’ And he is therefore sentenced to what? To catch a spark from the tail of a falling star, and a drop of water from the belly of a sturgeon. What are his equipment for the first adventure? An acorn-helmet, a thistle-down plume, a butterfly cloak, a ladybug shield, cockle-seed spurs, and a fire-fly horse. How does he ride to the second? On the back of a bull-frog.

And so forth. Poe continues for half a page his catalogues of these twee fancies, then adds,

Such are the puerilities we daily find ourselves called upon to admire, as among the loftiest efforts of the human mind, and which not to assign a rank with the proud trophies of the matured and vigorous genius of England, is to prove ourselves at once a fool, a maligner, and no patriot.

To dispraise an American poet took courage; to raise above the Muse's temple the Union Jack on a higher staff than that of Old Glory took even more. To sink forever the specious repute of the ridiculous ‘Culprit Fay’ Poe cites, not his own superior practice in “Al Aaraaf,” but Shelley's invocation of Queen Mab:

It will be seen that the Fairy of Shelley is not a mere compound of incongruous natural objects, inartistically put together, and unaccompanied by any moral sentiment—but a being, in the illustration of whose nature some physical elements are used collaterally as adjuncts, while the main conception springs immediately, or thus apparently springs, from the brain of the poet, enveloped in the moral sentiments of grace, of color, of motion—of the beautiful, of the mystical, of the august, in short of the ideal.

Poe is of course making clear the distinction between Fancy, such as Drake's, and Imagination, such as Shelley's—and, by implication, his own. He has brought into the criticism of American poetry the division of these lower and higher imaginative faculties first proposed by Coleridge, distinctions which will become very important in his own criticism, though to be sure he wields them in ways and toward ends which would have surprised Coleridge himself perhaps more than they would have pleased him.

Coleridge, proposing Imagination as the esemplastic power, had further distinguished between the primary and the secondary imagination. ‘The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.’ The secondary imagination he defined as ‘an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will,’ like the primary in kind but differing in degree and in the manner of its operation. The secondary imagination, says Coleridge, ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create. … It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.’ The lower order of thought is Fancy, which ‘has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites,’ and is thus ‘a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space.’

May I be forgiven for summarizing this familiar doctrine from Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIII. The point I want to make about “Al Aaraaf” and about Poe's poetry in general is, Poe tries to operate only in the realm of the primary imagination, arrogating to his own creative powers the ‘repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.’ Even the secondary imagination is too impure for Poe, since it accepts the world of dead objects in order to vitualize, idealize and unify. In “Al Aaraaf” Poe had to depend upon his own imaginative distortions, through synaesthesia, of common objects (like flowers, stars, and meteors) in order to make tangible his wholly imaginary world. So his flowers sing hymns, his silences speak, the twilight murmurs as it falls (II, 40-41). Even so, the irreality of Al Aaraaf is conceived in terms of the objects and sensations of the earth to which it is designed as a preferable alternative. In certain of his later poems, Poe creates a landscape which is further supposed to be an evidence of the primary imagination, because so little like any sensible objects, because apprehended by no sensations already known to the reader. This is a course at once heroic and hazardous for a poet, since it debars from his art practically all of the experiences of mankind and makes his poetry completely self-defining, self-limiting, solipsistic.

As though the primary imagination were a self-begotten, self-renewing power, independent of human relationships, carrying out its imperious directives with the same independence and autonomy as does the infinite I Am.

Poe, poor Edgarpoe, the penniless orphan, the abandoned and lovelorn boy, cognizant of his impotence in the affairs of men and the love of women, conceives himself as a self-begotten deity, the infinite I Am made finite, given a habitation and a name. Name of Edgar Allan Poe.

This reads indeed like psychotic behavior. And it is not surprising that Poe's psychiatric critics, like Krutch and Mme Bonaparte, have declared him psychotic and insane. As for me, I too am a psychiatric critic of sorts, and I hereby expound another doctrine. Edgar Poe was both insane and sane, but sane mostly, especially sane when writing his poems, his criticism, and his tales. For these are composed not, as he would have dearly hoped, out of the disinterested stirrings of the primary imagination alone; they are composed out of the sufferings and wounds of his bruised and beaten yet resilient ego, his ego that had the extraordinary power of dipping, slipping, ripping down into his unconscious and, while not surrendering its willed control of the shape and form of what he wrote, yet depending for its content—always for its latent content, sometimes even for its manifest content—upon the id. The work of Idgar I Am Poet.

For such a youth the power of fancy is beneath contempt, the power of secondary imagination is but secondary. He must aim beyond the known stars, for Al Aaraaf. Out of the extremity of his own miserable life he imagined a life as little like our life as can be the life of spirit like our raw sufferings. His principles are aesthetic—that is to say, he pursues the pleasure principle until, like Freud, indeed, anticipating Freud (as we shall see in Eureka), he goes beyond the pleasure principle. One side of his art is the effort to create the ineffable, the bower of unutterable delight. But the road thither is terrifying, frightening, for, like the lover of a spirit, Edgarpoe must put in direst jeopardy the only life he knows—this one, miserable as it is—in his quest for a realm of being more sublime. Therefore delight and terror are everywhere mingled in a weird harmony in Poe's writings.

This heroic abandon of the poet to live by imagination alone, this insistent effort to create a contra-world, has made Poe the hero of symbolist writers and readers from Baudelaire until our own time. The absolute autonomy of imagination is not a tenable doctrine, but it sounds like a siren's song in the mind of Nabokov, as it tempted Wallace Stevens, and, through Baudelaire, a line of great French poets running from Mallarmé and Verlaine to Yves Bonnefoy.

But what, in fact, did Poe accomplish? I've placed a heavy load of historical influence upon poor Eddie's shoulders, all because of “Al Aaraaf.” The brief poems with which he prefaced and followed “Al Aaraaf” help to clarify the urgency in “Al Aaraaf” to escape from this world. The prefatory poem is “Sonnet—To Science”; the coda, “Romance.”

What else would a young poet in 1827 try his hand at besides an Epic Poem of Cosmic Revelation? What else but a sonnet! To write a good sonnet you usually have to have climbed over the bones of your fourteen apprentice sonnets, each good line putting paid to the ghost of a failed poem. It's a devilish difficult form, the sonnet, though it always seems, in a good one, to be so simple, so logical. Edgar must have burned his apprentice sonnets, for the earliest one we have from him is “Sonnet—To Science,” a poem worthy to appear beside the great sonnets of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats—to say nothing of Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, et al.—as in fact it does appear, in The Penguin Book of Sonnets, where I first read it. In 1945. Surrounded, as it then was, by more familiar Romantic masterpieces—‘To Ozymandias,’ ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’—how could one help but take Poe's lone sonnet as an outcry against the antipoetic materialism of the modern scientific age, the utilitarian logic which drives imagination ‘To seek a shelter in some happier star?’

Of course we read into the poems we read the needs we need those poems to serve. And when I first read Poe's sonnet, that was my need. It's true, I could have read “Sonnet—To Science” in that first volume—The Poems [The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe]—of Poe's work in which I had scribbled an inscription, having endured a troubled sleep after reading “A Predicament.” But I had bought that book to own other poems in it—“To Helen” (I knew a girl named Helen then) and “The Raven” and—I confess it—“The Bells.” At fifteen one is ready, one needs, to be swept away by the sheer tintinnabulation of a poetry of sound, of incantatory spells, a poetry of hypnagogic trance which will possess one's whole consciousness with a tomtom and a chime. Sonnets march to a different drummer, one I wasn't ready then to heed. But when on a weekend pass, in Cincinnati, in a bookshop, stealing forty-eight hours from my quasi-scientific military assignment, I was ready for the disciplined argument of a sonnet and especially for the seeming rejection, in Poe's sonnet, of Science which preyed upon the world and drove Imagination into exile. In those days I was writing abstracts of aeronautical literature—articles, captured documents, tech reports on aerofoil design, strength of materials, power plants, superchargers, injection pumps. Sometimes a single word, or the design on the edge of a page would snag my attention, and I'd start up half an hour later from a trance in which I had been hypnotized by the meaningless repetition of injection-pump, injection-pump, injection-pump. Start up guiltily, for it was my duty that had been neglected, and I had no poem to show for my dereliction. Being thus entrapped by science, stifled by technology, manacled by duty, you can imagine how I longed for the guiltless indulgence of my wayward and indolent imaginative faculties. Such was my need, when I first read Poe's “Sonnet—To Science”:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
          Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
          Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
          Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
          Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
          And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
          Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Ah well, I'd never actually seen a tamarind tree (had Edgar seen one?), but I'd had summer dreams, and now, thanks to duty, to science, to the Cartesian spirit which had disenchanted the magic casements of imagination by congealing the world of appearances into a realm of fixities, exact measurements, concrete objects, facts, causalities—my summer dreams had vanished as the Milky Way before the light of a wintry sun. Neither Edgar Poe nor I had, at this time, any of Whitman's hospitality and amplitude regarding science. We couldn't and wouldn't say, with Walt,

Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!
This is the lexicographer, this the chemist, this made a grammar of old cartouches. …
This is the geologist, this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.
Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!
Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling.
I but enter them to an area of my dwelling.

‘An area of my dwelling.’ Walt Whitman is still dwelling on this earth, and so the discoveries of geologists and chemists are useful to him. But where was the area of Edgarpoe's dwelling?

Al Aaraaf. A somewhere other. Since Imagination has been driven from the glades and groves of this earth, it must seek its proper home ‘in some happier star,’ not on earth at all, not at all in this life. There, on Al Aaraaf, among the spirits of the vanished beauties of both the Parthenon and Gomorrah, alongside still greater beauties never yet experienced here. So Poe's poem is really not concerned primarily, as I was when I first read it, with merely fretting against the dominance of the Cartesian mind. Its first concern is to insist upon the necessity of Imagination creating its own world.

And the real enemy in “Sonnet—To Science” isn't even science. It's ‘Old Time,’ whose ‘true daughter’ Science is. For Time is the father who has hatched the vulture-like Science, therefore Time, too, plucks at the carrion of things, feeding upon the dead body of this world. Science is thus imagined as the monstrous offspring of a monstrous parent, the second generation of the original sin against Beauty and Imagination. That original sin is personified as Time.

And Edgarpoe longs, longs, desperately longs to return to that paradisal time before Time began or was begotten, before that original sin. Longs to return there, even if it kills him.

The image of vulture Time appears again in “Romance,” this time in opposition to another bird image, that of Romance itself—

Romance, who loves to nod and sing
With drowsy head and folded wing,
Among the green leaves as they shake
Far down within some shadowy lake,
To me a painted paroquet
Hath been—a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild wood I did lie,
A child—with a most knowing eye.

In this first stanza Poe has summoned an image at once autonomous and archetypal, a reflection of a shadowy, painted bird—thus already at two or three removes from reality. That bird is one which, when tamed, can speak. And from it he learned ‘my alphabet to say.’ This is a tellingly compact symbol of the source, within the ‘most knowing eye’ of his own infantine being, of the very art by which he depicts it.

This power he had ‘While in the wild wood I did lie, / A child,’ but, as the second stanza makes clear, ‘Romance is a poem lamenting the loss of that power, and invoking the recurrence of imaginative vision:

Of late, eternal Condor years
So shake the very Heaven on high
With tumult as they thunder by,
I have no time for idle cares
Through gazing on the unquiet sky.

The tumult of the Condor years breaks up the calm tranquillity in which the paroquet taught the dreaming child its ABCs.

And when an hour with calmer wings
Its down upon my spirit flings—
That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away—forbidden things!
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.

The consistency of the poem is flawed in the end, as the governing metaphor undergoes an illogical transformation, from bird to lyre. The threatening, tumultuous Condor years may be fitfully evaded under the ‘calmer wings’ of ‘an hour,’—a species of bird not specified, but one which flings its down upon the poet's spirit. In the Cartesian world, described in “Sonnet—To Science,” from which Imagination has been banished, ‘with lyre and rhyme’ to while away that brief hour are now ‘forbidden things.’ Yet the poet's heart speaks the truth of its own nature and would transgress another, higher law ‘Unless it trembled with the strings.’ If we bridge the mixed metaphor, what the poem tells us is that the true language of the heart is the alphabet taught it in childhood by the dream-image of ‘Romance, who loves to nod and sing, / With drowsy head and folded wing.’ Dreams, then, are more ideal and beautiful than the tumultuous realities beneath the condor wings of the passing years.

The imaginative authority of dreams will be explored in such poems as “Dream-Land” and “The City in the Sea”; but first let's follow another image from “Romance,” the trembling of the strings which the poet feels vibrating with a music like his own heart's beat.

This is the music of ‘the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God's creatures,’ an epigraph which Poe, incorrectly, attributed to the Koran. As Killis Campbell pointed out many years ago, the quotation itself is incorrect too: it seems adapted from a phrase in George Sale's Preliminary Discourse to an edition of the Koran (1764) which read, ‘the angel Israfil, who has the most melodious voice of all God's creatures.’ Of course what's lacking is the most telling part of the epigraph—whose heart-strings are a lute. But another epigraph of Poe's supplies the missing phrase. His most terrifying tale of horror, the one in which Roderick Usher buries his twin sister alive, is prefaced with a couplet from Béranger (who actually wrote ‘Mon coeur …’):

Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne.

This suspended lute is of course an Aeolian harp, that favorite image of the Romantics for the songs made by the breath—that is, the spirit—of Nature herself. But Poe's songs are not those of Nature, they are songs of the spirit which has successfully escaped its bondage to Nature, realm of mortality, suffering, and corruption. How it is that the wind-harp hung above the House of Usher corresponds to the lute-like heart of the Arabian angel Israfel is one of the mysteries in Poe's work it would take a detective like Monsieur Dupin to solve. Perhaps I'll yet untangle it.

Israfel's lyre! Poe would, if he could, have always smitten those angelic strings. Poetry, to him, is song; and this one option bends his verses on its stave, making inaccessible to Edgarpoe all those other marvellous effects attained by Romantic poets from Wordsworth to Williams, the poets for whom poetry is speech. No, it's song, song, song, as in Shelley's lyrics, in Byron's ‘Hebrew Melodies,’ in the Songs and Anacreontics of Moore. It was the ear, the taste, the craving of the age, this conscious confusion between the music of rhyme, the music of melody, the music of music, the music of the spheres. Ideality, that perfect beauty on which Poe gazed with such longing, that perfect beauty he attempted to imitate and enshrine in his verses, is for him attainable, if at all, through the effects of musicality of sound and indefiniteness of meaning. The nearest Edgarpoe gets to that heavenly music in “Israfel” is in the first and the last stanzas:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
          ‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sings, so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
          Of his voice, all mute.
If I could dwell
Where Israfel
          Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
          A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
          From my lyre within the sky.

When Edgarpoe has really set his lyre within the sky he is capable of a lovely music, a lyrical movement, a fortuitous lilt of chiming sounds. The lyrical interludes in “Al Aaraaf” are quite delicately managed, the brevity of their trimeter/dimeter lines hastening the reappearance of the rhyme sounds, and those sounds invariably mating soft and mellifluous syllables with one another. Occasionally Edgarpoe strikes on the lute-strings of his heart a few chords which sound as sweetly as do any struck by Shelley or Byron. Who cannot but be charmed by the melodiousness of rhyme and alliteration, the lulling lilt, and the indefiniteness of meaning imposed by a syntax purposely inconclusive, of the last stanza in “To One in Paradise”:

And all my days are trances,
          And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy grey eye glances,
          And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
          By what ethereal streams.

You wouldn't think the author of such a lovely lyric could be the perpetrator of those walloping bloomers, those resounding clichés, those lines of tawdry vulgarity, with which I tried to shock my audience of Poe-worshippers at Dijon into a realization that their angelic semblable was, at times, incapable of sublimity. The wild vagaries in tone and execution between a poem like “To One in Paradise” and a set of verses like “Eulalie—A Song”; or even the divagations in finesse among the stanzas in “Israfel” I've just quoted and those which Poe insisted upon interposing between them, suggest that Poe had, at best, a very uneven ear. It may suggest, too, that his poems weren't as totally committed to the strains of the wind-harp in his heart as he would like us to think. What else then, besides singing the angelic tones of the soul, is his poetry trying to do?

Or, to put it differently, what, in fact, is his soul trying to sing on that harp, which is his heart within the sky? In “Al Aaraaf” his soul is revealing a tableau of the Great Good Place and, in Part II, a fable of the exile from Heaven of the artist who allows passion to divert him from the quest for ideality. In “Israfel” and “To One in Paradise” Poe actually sings a lyric, a song. But even in these melodious lines he is also telling a story—a truncated story, true, but there is the seed of a narrative: How I, Edgar Allan Poe, would exchange my mortal melodies, if I but could, for the immortal strains of Israfel, and in “To One in Paradise,” the song in fact conveys the rudiments of a story: ‘Thou wast that all to me, love, / For which my soul did pine. …’ It's the same old story. The lament for the departed beloved. As indeed the title might have tipped us off.

All of Poe's poems are at the same time committed to the conception of poetry-as-song and of poetry-as-narrative. Each of his poems is the metrical account of an action. The common denominator of this action in the poems, the archetype of their plot, is this: Someone goes somewhere. The Imagination goes to a happier star; the ‘thou’ who ‘wast all to me’ goes to Paradise; I the Poet go to Heaven as Israfel perhaps comes down to earth. The highest common denominator among these poems is they are all poems of journeys, and the journeys are all quests. The Journey and the Quest! Those Great Archetypes!

Whither journey we, and for what are we questing?

Two poems announce our destinations: “The City in the Sea” and “Dream-Land.” Maybe the one is the other? Both are tales dreamed and sung: the strains Romance has plucked upon the poet's lyre. In these dream-poems the function of rhythmic regularity is primarily to induce in the reader that trance-like helplessness which Richard Wilbur has called the hypnagogic state. It is exactly the same use of meter that Yeats, half a century later, described in his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900). The meter favored for this purpose is the octosyllabic couplet, perhaps because so employed by Coleridge in ‘The Pains of Sleep.’ It's a meter that will dull the mind with its metronomic insistence and its lack of either the quickened music of trimeter rhymes or the sinewy movement of caesura-filled pentameters. Once the dream mood is established, once the reader has been mesmerized and has suspended his workaday rational faculties, the imagery of the poem takes command of both the dreamer's and the reader's minds, and the meter can also be commanded by the imagery—commanded to indulge itself in the freer movement, the more lively displacement of stresses, by which we distinguish a flexible rhythm from a mechanistic meter.

Poe has a really dreadful poem on the same dream-subject as his two good ones. If we compare “The Sleeper” to “Dream-Land” or “The City in the Sea,” the difference between his meter and his rhythm, between his originality and his balderdash, becomes clear. How long are we going to stay with a poem that begins,

At midnight, in the month of June,
I stand beneath the mystic moon.
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,
Exhales from out her golden rim …

If we stick around for a few more lines, we have to rhyme musicálly with valley. This language is as dead as the meter. Yet the vision the poem is trying to evoke was, I don't doubt, as genuine for Poe as that in “The City in the Sea”:

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West. …

What a beginning! That first ‘Lo!’ makes a spondee when followed by Death, and in the next line metrical distortion places the heaviest accents right where they belong, on the adjacent syllables stránge cíty. This distortion of iambs into spondees recurs twice in the next line—Fár dówn … dím Wést. The only words to receive vocal stress are the operative words which determine the meaning.

But the next couplet nearly blows it:

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.

What a string of banal clichés—the worst line in the poem. But I forgive it, for the rest of the poem really does create the weird wild sunken scene promised in the title.

If we went aloft in “Al Aaraaf,” “Sonnet—to Science,” and “Israfel,” this time the trip we take heads the other way: beneath the sea. Yet both noplaces are the home of the shades of the dead. Here we are, among ‘Time-eaten towers that tremble not,’ where ‘melancholy waters lie,’ where ‘No rays from holy heaven come down,’ but the light—ah, the light!—comes

                    from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently—
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free
Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers—
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.

This is a venue outside of Nature, where, we would expect, light would ‘from holy heaven come down.’ Instead, a weird light clambers up, up, up, encompassing the entire city which, with its domes and fanes, its freizes and bowers, is as opulent as Xanadu. The unearthly light reveals the images—the sculptured artifices—of music (the viol), of natural beauty (the violet), and of that intoxication (the vine) in which we recognize music as a simulacrum of the ideal beauty of nature. I'm divided between admiration for this stanza's astonishing creation of an unreal reality and regret that the path of the light wasn't more consistently from the bottom to the top of the scene.

So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seems pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There, above all the fanes and domes and bowers, Death reigns. What an effect! Pendulous … gigantically … The diction is perfectly controlled here, these magniloquent words effectively pointed against lines of clear and simple Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. Death, imperious and all-presiding—but what he presides over is yet another surprise: it's the dissolution of his own city. The City in the Sea now slips and shudders …

The waves have now a redder glow—
The hours are breathing faint and low—
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

This conclusion is more impressive than communicative. We sense a terror that we cannot explain. If the City in the Sea was the home of the shades of ‘the good and the bad and the worst and the best,’ who, then, is in Hell to do it reverence? It's worth remarking that for all we know the city is actually unpopulated, for we never see any of these best or worst shades. Possibly I've been wrong in calling it a city of the dead spirits; it may be the Earthly City at some apocalyptic moment when all who were alive ‘Have gone to their eternal rest’ leaving behind them the ‘Time-eaten towers’ that at first ‘tremble not’ but then, after Death has looked ‘gigantically down,’ sink into the sea.

Whatever the cryptic and aborted epic tale whose foreshortened terrors are evoked by the poem, we cannot miss being gripped by the weirdly frozen aspect of “The City in the Sea.” At first the city is absolutely immobile in an environment which inverts our expectations of a natural world; then, in the only action of the poem, the eerie light climbs up from the sea to the highest tower, Death looks down and the city slides beneath the waters. An apocalypse—but what is the significance of its inexplicable terror?

Poe is describing, with his customary energy and invention, the most dramatic moment of all human perception: the End of Everything. For some poets the most dramatic moment is the union of the soul with nature, for others the juncture of soul with soul in the physical union of love. For others it is the image of their own death. For Poe it is the death of the universe.

Why is the death of the universe Poe's most powerful image? How can such a conception be a powerful image for a poet, unless he be St. John revealing the Book of Revelation?

The answer leaps ahead like a vast electric charge splitting from this world to the next, as we will be told in Eureka and in various preliminary sketches Poe has still to write between “The City in the Sea” and his great apocalyptic treatise in 1845. But how to make the end of everything a poetic theme—that was Poe's problem. He kept on trying, tried again (in 1845) in his poem “Dream-Land”:

                    By a route obscure and lonely,
                    Haunted by ill angels only,
                    Where an Eidolon, named Night,
                    On a black throne reigns upright,
                    I have reached these lands but newly
                    From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
                                        Out of Space—out of Time.

This is the trip Poe's poetic persona is forever trying to take, ‘Out of Space—out of Time,’ denying the actual world—‘Bottomless vales and boundless floods … Mountains toppling evermore / Into seas without a shore,’ as though we could even imagine a sea without a shore or a mountain that abused its own mountainhood by forever toppling. When we arrive by this impossible route at that inconceivable destination,

There the traveller meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past—
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by—
White-robed forms of friends long given,
In agony, to the Earth—and Heaven.
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

Although I have omitted such infelicities as Poe's rhyming ‘still and chilly’ ‘With the snows of the lolling lily,’ the poem still seems a Hallowe'en scare, or a Gothic parody. Until we think about it. For Poe isn't always in as full control of his language as he is of his vision. This of course is no excuse, a poet must be a poet clear through; but Poe sometimes (like Melville, like Hardy) seems trapped by a set of conventions inadequate to express the radical clarity of his vision. His diction is that of the Gothic spook story or ghost poem, his vision that of a man struggling to say what he has seen in a world so unlike ours that he has difficulty using the language of ours to describe it. What he is trying to say in “Dream-Land” is that only in dreams can we follow that ‘route obscure and lonely,’ which, though it leads us through terrors (however banal), reunites us with the dead—who are in Heaven. The phrase lifted from St. Paul who told us that we now see through a glass darkly, does not allude to his faith at all but rather to Poe's own conviction that after death the soul will join the spirits in “Eldorado” (not a happy phrase, that). Poe does not propose their salvation, their redemption, only their contentment in a realm we cannot view or know until we join them. Once again the poem seems more portentous than communicative, and what communication it achieves is more a matter of the mood than of the matter. I spoke a moment ago of Poe's vision being clearer than his language, but the fact is, what he so clearly saw was a vision of something inexpressible. In poems. In his tales, this poet to whom ‘poetry is not a purpose but a passion’ succeeded in creating what his poetry failed to create.

This is not to say that his poetry is all failure. He cannot bring himself, while using the conventions of poetry—principally the convention of Being A Poet—to speak of certain truths at the very dead center of his own psychic life. He can say things in tales like “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “The Purloined Letter,” “Ligeia,” “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” which none of his poems found words, images, syntax to express. Yet none of his tales speaks with the memorable haunting tone of his cameo masterpiece, “To Helen.”

No one who knows any poem of Poe's does not know this one. I can't remember when I didn't know it. I recall being made to memorize it in the eighth or ninth grade—in those days poetry was properly taught by being learned by rote—but I seem to remember that that was no problem, for I already knew the poem. Long before buying The Poems, volume I of the Works [Complete Works], before reading “A Predicament” and starting to twitch at night in response to Poe's spell. Long before I went steady in high school (beginning with the Senior Class trip to Washington) with a lovely girl named Helen. I always knew “To Helen” by heart.

Helen, thy beauty is to me
          Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
          The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
          To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
          Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
          To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
          How statue-like I see thee stand,
          The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
          Are Holy-Land!

See, I can't forbear from reciting it yet again. It seems inconceivable that in the first version of this poem, in 1831, Poe hadn't yet thought of the two lines everybody remembers, and had written instead,

To the beauty of fair Greece,
To the grandeur of old Rome.

Even Israfel nods at the lyre. He didn't change it ‘To the glory that was Greece’ until 1841, or ‘And the grandeur that was Rome,’ until 1845.

I've said that all of Poe's poems are narratives as well as songs. What about the tale told as the poet sings “To Helen”? Someone goes somewhere, the Journey, the Quest: where are they?

Right in the poem. It's Helen who goes on the journey, it's the poet who is then left with the quest still to make—but the poem doubles back on itself since his recognition, in “To Helen,” of the quest he had still to make is actually a form of his making it.

Helen in the first stanza is a living woman, a lovely woman, whose beauty is to me like … (I'll get back to what it's like; let's stay with her, with Helen, for the moment). In the second stanza, though, Helen is no longer an imaginable woman in the room. Nor are we in present time. Indeed, the very first simile has moved us with the swiftness of thought from 1831, or 1845, or right now, back into a world of Nicéan barks of yore. Which yore? The yore of Classical antiquity so idealized by Keats's ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ the antiquity which Schliemann's excavations at Troy were making known and accessible to imagination, known as a Golden Age of repose, balance, beauty. A woman in Poe's poem is being idealized as an image of Ideal Beauty, and so her hair is ‘hyacinth,’ her face ‘classic,’ her airs ‘Naiad’; these qualities ‘have brought me home

          To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Home, because the ‘me’ in the poem is in exile, dreaming wistfully of the Nicéan barks which ‘gently, o'er a perfumed sea, / The weary, way-worn wanderer bore / To his own native shore.’ Nicéan must be Poe's spelling of Nikean, pertaining to Nike, goddess of Victory—his wanderer may be Ulysses, returning from his victorious campaign against Troy, weary, wayworn, approaching Ithaca at last … Or is it Agamemnon, son of Atreus, returning to Peloponnesus and disaster from the same victory—in the war fought because of Helen's beauty? For Edgarpoe's Helen is also Homer's Helen, the Helen of the ages, Perfect Beauty. With ‘Naiad airs.’

Helen is getting away from us, she has been turned, or has turned herself in our imagination, from a human girl to a Grecian Naiad with hyacinth hair. (It was years before I figured out what that means. Not dyed purple, but coiffed in tight curls, like a hyacinth bloom.)

Helen's apotheosis is completed in stanza three, where she stands like a statue in a ‘brilliant window-niche’—like the statue of a saint or, better still, of the B.V.M., in a church, a church which is interchangeably a temple to Helen-as-Aphrodite, a temple like the Parthenon from which Lord Elgin took the marbles celebrated by Keats. Whether in a Temple to Aphrodite or a Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, Helen is suddenly transformed yet again—with ‘The agate lamp within thy hand’ she is now the goddess of Wisdom—not Athene merely, but the Spirit of Intellectual Beauty—

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
          Are Holy-Land!

Psyche! Whose soul would her statue-like image represent? Whose but the poet's, who alone has perceived her, perceived her dimly limned in the actual woman who is the occasion for the poem—the occasion for the vision which is the poem's subject—the woman so swiftly subsumed by Imagination into first the image of classical beauty, then the still more remote images of which classical beauty is only a nearer approximation than the living woman. From girl to Naiad to statue—to Psyche! The further we get from life, the closer to ideality: from life to antiquity, from antiquity to myth, from myth to art, from art to Intellectual Beauty, the ethereal spirit revealed at last. And with his vision of Psyche, the poet knows whence she has come: ‘from the regions which / are Holy-Land.’ Lucky the days, in 1831, 1843, and 1845, when that vision was vouchsafed to him, for then, then, he had briefly dwelt on Al Aaraaf.

W. H. Auden has said that ‘Poe's best poems are not his most typical or original. “To Helen,” which could have been written by Landor, and “The City in the Sea,” which could have been written by Hood, are more successfully realized than a poem like “Ulalume,” which could have been written by none but Poe.’

On the contrary, I would say that it's Poe's failures which could have been written by other (and lesser) poets. His successes, however much they seem to use the meters, forms, or themes of his contemporaries, are the poems indefinably stamped by the handmark of none but Edgarpoe. Hood's ‘The Sea of Death’ (I find it in Mr. Auden's and Norman Holmes Pearson's Poets of the English Language, vol. 4, Blake to Poe) is superficially like “The City in the Sea”; but on inspection Hood's fragment proves a standard piece of graveyard poetry, notable only for its nautical venue. His sea filled with the dead, ‘garmented in torpid light,’ is a mood-piece, sad and faintly mysterious, but quite lacking in Poe's special light, which is lurid and rippling with energy, not torpor.

What made Auden think of Landor when he read “To Helen”? Was it these lines from ‘Ianthe’?—

Past ruin'd Ilium Helen lives,
          Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; 'tis verse that gives
          Immortal youth to mortal maids …

Or perhaps the more familiar ‘Rose Aylmer.’ In “To Helen,” and only in “To Helen,” Poe seems to emulate Landor's characteristic qualities without using his themes. In “To Helen” we find a Landor-like economy of means, the reliance upon classical imagery, the cameo whittling of the action down to the barest essentials and those essentials presented with a maximum of lyrical energy. Such Augustan Romanticism is not Poe's usual métier. Nothing could be further from the style he adopts for “Ulalume,” or “Lenore,” or “The Raven.” I like to think that “To Helen” is a poem that Landor might have wished to have written. None of his—much as I admire them—can equal its stunning compression and swift imaginative movement.

Curiously, however different in tone, diction, rhythm, and form are “Ulalume” and the others I've just named from “To Helen,” these longer poems of Poe's equally bear his hand-print, for all share the one theme whose variations we've already found everywhere in Edgarpoe. Someone goes somewhere: a maiden dies, and her lover journeys in search of her spirit toward Dream-Land, or Paradise, or The City in the Sea, or ‘To regions which / Are Holy-Land.’ That's the master-plot in The Poems of Edgarpoe. It makes no matter whether the poem be a lyric, like “To Helen,” or lyrical ballads, like “Ulalume” and the rest. It's even the plot half-hidden in Part II of “Al Aaraaf,” where Ianthe and Angelo fell, Poe told us,

          for Heaven to them no hope imparts
Who hear not for the beating of their hearts.

But what kind of love is this, which Poe can express only when the beloved is dying or dead, a love to which passion is inimical?

Edgarpoe abhors passion. The love he seeks is incompatible with life. He imagines that it is the pure exercise in pure freedom of the pure imagination. He imagines—because it was true of his own life—that life itself, with its unassuageable physical passions, is a disease to be endured:

The moaning and groaning,
          The sighing and sobbing,
Are quieted now,
          With that horrible throbbing
At heart:—ah, that horrible,
          Horrible throbbing!
The sickness—the nausea—
          The pitiless pain—
Have ceased, with the fever
          That maddened my brain—
With the fever called “Living”
          That burned in my brain.

(“For Annie,” lines 19-30)

The throbbing at heart is simply the remorseless muffled beating of our built-in pacemaker, our Time Machine. A heart-beat is the pitiless refrain of our exile from Ideality. Poe's poems are all wild and yet wilder efforts to escape from the fever of living either backwards or forwards in time, and to attain either by dream-vision or by the intensity of a lover's devotion to his departed Ideal, a momentary residence in that never-yet-experienced realm of Ideality which he calls Al Aaraaf, Paradise, Aidenn or whatever else.

His longest and most familiar poems either chart the fever or recount the escape of the beloved to a happier star, or tell of the bereaved lover's attempt—often baffled and incomplete—to rejoin her there. A poet with a tale to tell, alive and suffering in the first half of the nineteenth century, would, expectably, find at hand a very fitting form for his narrative. That form is the literary ballad.

A ballad, as everybody knows, is a narrative poem in regular stanzas, often with a refrain: a tale told in song, the song residually suggesting dance. How wise of Wordsworth and Coleridge, when they plotted the downfall of Augustan literary decorum, to imitate folk ballads, the archaic form of poetry most compatible with democratic sympathies. Wordsworth even thought he was imitating the speech of actual men. But Edgarpoe has no such demotic sentiments. If, like his contemporaries Longfellow and Whittier in this country, like Mangan and Davis and Ferguson in Ireland, or Coleridge and Wordsworth and Scott and Barnes in Britain, Poe writes literary ballads, he nonetheless remakes the ballad form into the servant of his own peculiar needs.

I propose that Edgar adapted the ballad convention in two ways. One set of his lyrical ballads—“El Dorado,” “Annabel Lee,” and “For Annie”—tell their tales in straightforward fashion, without refrains, the style approximating that of “Israfel,” “To One in Paradise,” and the songs in “Al Aaraaf.” The narrative content in these poems deals with the putatively successful escape of the speaker from the ‘horrible throbbing / At heart,’ from ‘the fever called living.’ The other set of Edgarpoe's ballads includes “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “The Raven”: ballads wildly declaimed to a madder music, an insanely inescapable meter and the demented recurrences of far-fetched rhyme and interior rhyme. In these the speaker is desperately trying to burst out of the prison of his passions, but he cannot do so; he is trapped, and can only endure the thumping repetitions of a refrain like ‘Nevermore.’

There's one poem which doesn't lend itself very well to my clear schematization. This is “Bridal Ballad,” which has one of the most unfortunate rhymes in American poetry this side of Thomas Holley Chivers. The rhyme I mean comes toward the end of the third of five stanzas. The ballad-speaker is a lady who has just been re-married after being widowed; but alas, her new husband's ‘voice seemed his who fell / In the battle down the dell, / And who is happy now.’ Already we are supposed to feel a shudder that the bride is not as happy as her dead first husband is. But her new husband—

… spoke to re-assure me,
                    And he kissed my pallid brow,
While a reverie came o'er me,
And I sighed to him before me
(Thinking him dead D'Elormie),
                    ‘Oh, I am happy now!’

Edgar, how could you bruit a name so preposterous as ‘D'Elormie,’ so patently a forced rhyme for ‘o'er me’ and ‘before me’? I can see Edgar chewing his pencil, thinking of a name that would rhyme: Boremie, Coremie, Doremie, Foremie, Goremie … How could he invent so absurd a name?

But that rhyme isn't all that's wrong with “Bridal Ballad,” it's only a symptom of its graver flaw. Poe is trying to sing the sweet music of “Israfel” in a situation requiring the hysterical ballad-cadenzas of “The Raven” or “Lenore.” The short lines, the insistent feminine rhymes, strain for a lilt at odds with the matter of the tale, a tale he tells more successfully in the prose of “Ligeia.”

If I'm right about “Bridal Ballad” then maybe there's something in my theory that Poe's ballads differ from each other because they attempt two separate variations on his master-plot. In the sweet ballads the speaker escapes his mortality. In “Eldorado,” the knight sets out on his quest for that place, grows old without finding it, at last meets a ‘pilgrim shadow’ who directs him to press onward, ‘Over the Mountains / Of the Moon, / Down the valley of the Shadow.’ That's all; nothing is specified, not even the knight's name. It's nothing but the archetype, sung to a tune that suggests the quest may yet be accomplished. If we read “For Annie” with only its plot in mind, we learn—as we have already learned—that the speaker has been delivered into the quietude of his death-sleep, freed at last from the torments of passion. He is now in good case because reunited in death with ‘A dream of the truth / And the beauty of Annie.’ In “Annabel Lee,” the quest is likewise successful although the speaker is still alive. The intensity of his love for his bride ‘in her sepulchre there by the sea’ is so great that he can sing triumphantly of their ‘love that was more than a love,’ a love coveted by the angels who sent a cold wind ‘killing and chilling my Annabel Lee.’ Now that she's been chilled and killed, he can go on worshipping her. This must be so because their love was never a gross passion but a Pure Ideality even when she was alive. After all, she was only a child and he was a child in that kingdom by the sea.

“Lenore,” on the other hand, is a ballad of a love thwarted and a lover tormented. The first and third stanzas lament her death—Richard Wilbur suggests that these lines are spoken by ‘either the family priest or one of the false friends of the dead Lenore.’ Whoever the speaker, he calls for conventional exequies—‘Let the bell toll! … Come, let the burial rite be read—the funeral song be sung!’ and he upbraids her dissenting lover: ‘And, Guy de Vere, hast thou no tear?—weep now or never more!’ The second and fourth stanzas are Guy de Vere's impassioned and contemptuous reply, in which he attacks her wicked family (‘Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth, and ye hated her for her pride; / And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her—that she died’). He refuses to join in their hypocritical rituals which would but mock her soul ‘from the damnéd Earth’; instead,

And I—tonight my heart is light—no dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight with a Paean of old days.

Poe worked this poem over and over, publishing it first in 1831 as “A Paean,” written in simple quatrains, with only one speaker, the bereaved husband. This poem is so different from “Lenore” (it does not even contain her name) that it may be read as yet another of Poe's ballads; the dramatic contrast achieved by dividing the tale between two speakers first appears in the 1843 version, in short lines and sixteen-line stanzas. The final version of 1844 made numerous changes of diction and improved the poem further by regularizing the meter into fourteeners. The diction is full of operatic gesticulation—‘Ah, broken is the golden bowl. … See! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore. … Peccavimus; yet rave not thus. … Avaunt! avaunt!’ The mise en scène, evidently contemporary in “A Paean” has been made vaguely medieval in “Lenore,” and the conflicting views argued and ranted by Guy de Vere and the friend or priest—I think he is a priest who advises ‘let a Sabbath Song / Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong!’—this dialogue casts the priest as the villain in the piece, a convention familiar to readers of Gothic romances about wicked prelates and evil monks. So “Lenore” is a Gothic ballad in the operatic mode, in which Guy de Vere upholds the ideality of his pure devotion, while the priest is the spokesman of a corrupt conventional Christian piety.

For years and years I thought “Lenore” ridiculous; now, having figured it out, have I proved too clever by half at the expense of my own taste? I won't go so far as to say I like the poem, but I find myself more tolerant of its excesses than I ever thought possible. Now when I read “Lenore” I no longer think, Who can suspend disbelief in such incredible language? No, I imagine the stage of the Met, murky in a dull amber light, and a scene in an unwritten opera by Berlioz.

Not even the stage of the Met can provide a reality, or an artifice, sufficient for the mental staging of “Ulalume.” This ballad has to be taken on its own terms, or not at all. And what are its own terms but that the reader or hearer surrender his own will, his own sense of how things are, how poems move, how the language embodies a meaning—surrender all this to the hypnotic spell of “Ulalume.” Here Edgarpoe has contrived a meter of mechanical precision and a diction of portentous obscurity. He tells his tale slowly, doubling back with line after line of refrain-like redundancy, nearly smothering the story-line in a concatenation of improbable rhymes. Reading “Ulalume” is like making a meal of marzipan—there may be nourishment in it but the senses are deadened by the taste, and the aftertaste gives one a pain in the stomach.

For years, “Ulalume” made me sick. I refused to surrender my will, my rhythms, my hold on the reality of language, to go along on the trip Edgarpoe's melancholy ballad-singer describes. I have had on occasion—the occasion was the yearly recurrence of Poe in my course on American Literature—to flog myself through the poem again and yet again. And to read all the exegetes and commentators. Of whom Richard Wilbur is, as he is so often, the most helpful. And now, by God, now at last I've got it! Look—

The skies they were ashen and sober;
          The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
          The leaves they were withering and sere:
It was night, in the lonesome October
          Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
          In the misty mid region of Weir:—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
          In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Simple. What's he saying but that on a certain October night, an unforgettable sad anniversary, he went for a walk in the woods? But why is so slight a message delivered in such a pompous, inflated, elephantine style? When Poe chants ‘The skies they were ashen and sober,’ doesn't that periphrastic they indicate his loss of control of the rhythm, the mark of a frantic hack padding out the meter of his line? Ye gods, he does it again in line 2, and yet again in line 3! And then, introducing his ‘dim lake of Auber’ and his ‘misty mid region of Weir,’ what does he do but repeat these lines! Not until I took seriously the full title of the piece—“Ulalume—A Ballad”—did I recognize what he was up to. A ballad has incremental repetition, tells its story in song. Poe's tale can't move any faster than the music, the music is more important than any of the words. Poe even scores his words for a particular composer—for who is Auber but Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, whose piece ‘Le Lac des Fées’ was in the popular repertoire at the time (1847). Lewis Leary, who uncovered this, also identified ‘the misty mid regions of Weir’ as alluding to the artist Robert Walter Weir of the Hudson River School, a romantic landscape-painter. So I have to conclude that Poe, setting his scene with the help of a faëry ballet and a wispy painting, is not actually in the woods of Westchester County at all, but is already in an ideal landscape imaginable only to artists and bereaved lovers. At first convinced of madness in Poe's method, perhaps, I began to suspect, there was also method in his madness.

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.

Ten lolloping lines to say, ‘I roamed with my Soul when my heart was as turbulent as a volcano’—in fact, like Mount Yaanek, which Edward Davidson identifies as the recently discovered Mount Erebus in the Antarctic, hence ‘the ultimate climes of the Pole.’ Well, all this sound and fury signifies something, doesn't it?

The ballad continues as a debate between Self and Soul, conducted in an allegorical nocturnal landscape. Self is swayed by the heart, when

                                                  a miraculous crescent
          Arose with a duplicate horn—
Astarte's bediamonded crescent
          Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Which in the language of “Ulalume” means the planet Venus, the image of the Goddess of Love. ‘And I said—“She is warmer than Dian: / She rolls through an ether of sighs …”’ Better watch out, Self, for this Astarte may be warmer than Diana but not as chaste: she's the figure of passion, so not to wonder that your enthusiasm for her makes Psyche droop her wings. Self ‘pacified Psyche and kissed her / And tempted her out of her gloom’; they take off in pursuit of Astarte, since Self thinks she'll lead them ‘To the Lethean peace in the skies’—but they're brought up short

          By the door of a legended tomb:—
And I said—“What is written, sweet sister,
          On the door of this legended tomb?”
          She replied: “Ulalume—Ulalume!—
          'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Ulalume? There's a chiming euphony among the names of Poe's lost loves: Ulalume, Eulalie, Helen, Lenore, Ulalume, surely, is a nonce-word, and it has been suggested that it means ‘light of the dead,’ for Ule is the Turkish word meaning ‘dead,’ as in ‘Ule Deguisi,’ which Poe misquoted in a note to “Al Aaraaf” as the Turkish name for the Dead Sea. With these exotic names—Auber, Weir, Yaanek, Ulalume—Poe is being at once exact and diaphonous, imputing the meaning in the music, such as it is.

The rest of the tale goes on another two stanzas—Self's heart ‘it grew ashen and sober,’ and Self recollects that tonight is the very date that he ‘brought a dread burden down here’—that is, he buried Ulalume a year ago, and now, on this night of October (what can it be but the 31st, All Hallow's Eve, when the dead have a special influence upon the living), he has unwittingly revisited her tomb. And Self and Psyche conclude that the ‘woodlandish ghouls,’ that is, the spirits of the dead who possess the dim woods of Auber on this night, have tried to assuage their grief with ‘the spectre of … This sinfully scintillant planet.’

Self, Self, how could you be so unwitting? How wander through such unforgettable landscape without knowing you'd been there before? The fact that Self doesn't even know where he is should tell us, this ballad-singer is mental. He has been driven wild with grief, his heart is a seething volcano of scoriac rivers, and he wanders in a trance. Some have thought that the Astarte image signifies that the singer's heart has been drawn away from the path of Psyche—the unending worship of his dead Ulalume—toward a new love, a more gross, less pure, heartfelt passion for a living woman, from which Psyche only with difficulty—and with the aid of the ghouls, or shades of the dead—redeems him.

That seems reasonable. But why, why, so many obfuscations in the telling? Why bury this kernel of meaning under such rivers of lava that roll?

Typical of Edgarpoe. His art conceals while it reveals, reveals while it conceals. Nothing is further from his intention than to sing a simple song, or use the language of clear and common speech. These meters, rhymes, redundancies, the portentous tone, the inflated diction, all, like the early references to musician and painter, put the actual experience at an aesthetic distance, impose upon it a new form, an expression completely different from that given to gross affairs like passions and hungers of the flesh, a language other than that in which this workaday world haggles over prices and orders breakfast. To explore his inward soulscape Edgarpoe had to take the vocables of this workaday dialect and from such unpromising stuff create moods and meanings ne'er attempted yet in prose or rhyme. Mallarmé understood his intention, but—I have asked it before and I ask it again—did Edgarpoe really ‘donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu’? Un sens plus pur? Aux mots de la tribu? Or did he obfuscate—not purify—the language of the human tribe, in order to disembody language from its gross husks of meaning. And what remained—what Edgarpoe wanted—was the rhythms of the songs sung by ghouls.

Ballads sung by ghouls and madmen. For the narrator of “Ulalume” is in a scoriac frenzy, insane with grief and frustration. So is the ballad singer of “The Raven,” although Poe very cleverly doesn't have him begin his ballad as though aware of the fact. But the ballad he sings tells us, shows us how it happened. In the course of his own ballad he traces the inexorable course of his condition, from his initial weakness and weariness, through his regretful grief at the death of Lenore, to a frenzied and masochistic persecution of his own soul. The plot of the ballad is, This is the way the narrator went mad of grief for Lenore. (The narrator is doubtless that same Guy de Vere whom we left at her bier in an earlier ballad.) All this is told in stanzas which combine inexorable metrical regularity with a rhyme and interior-rhyme scheme of fiendish complication—everything not only ending with but tending toward the one unbending, shiver-sending word in the refrain: ‘Nevermore!’

Edgarpoe at last wrote a poem based upon the repetition of a single word, that word said o'er and o'er until its meaning becomes as nothing, or legion; the mesmeric spell of the same repeated syllables overpowering the mind of his narrator, the sonorous chiming and sorrowful repetitions of ‘Nevermore’ sweeping away all propensity for independent thought.

Thus the mind of his narrator (Guy de Vere)—and of his reader—me—is paralyzed by all those Nevermores. They work their spell all the more inexorably because spoken by no one, spoken by a bird—the only bird (save the paroquet in “Romance” who taught young Edgar his alphabet to say) with the power of imitating human speech. The bird repeats its one-word glossary of woe with an insane regularity, a regularity which invites the still madder plausibility lent it by the narrator's arranging his questions not only so that they occupy the regularly spaced interstices between the bird's cacophonous utterances, but arranging them so that the raven's single word becomes a lingua franca of an oracular world, giving the inevitable reply as though decreed by the fates to the increasingly self-lacerating and desperate questions of its interlocutor.

Or so it seems, as long as we willingly sink into the intellectual stupor which Edgarpoe's pounding rhythms and clanging rhymes are intended to produce in us. Just let your mind fight back, just a little, against the maniacal regularity, the hypnotic fanfare in which the same combinations of rhyme recur with the inexorability of a Chinese water torture—just resist the spell a little bit, and the whole contraption suddenly comes apart at the seams. You shake your ears and your tongue gasps for a fresh breath. A body'd have to be stark raven mad to go along with Poe's ludicrous poem! What an imposture. Are we supposed, supinely, to admit the plausibility of a raven knocking on the door of a lonely chamber on a stormy night, entering as the door is flung open, installing itself upon the bust of Pallas, and forever croaking ‘Nevermore’? Are we expected to believe that the youth in his chamber actually would address the errant bird as

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird
          or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee
          here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

And we're not supposed to laugh when

                                                            Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Now, I confess that one of the chief powers exercised upon me by the poems of Edgarpoe is the power to make me wince. As I once told an audience in France. I'm prone to wince because—well, maybe not so much because of Poe as because of my own taste in verse. Growing up, as I did, when the New Criticism was shaking the periwigs from their Chairs in the graduate schools and each new issue of the Kenyon or Sewanee review exposed still another poem of Donne's or Eliot's to the deft scalpel of a skilled explicator, I took it as a matter of faith that the highest art in poetry is that which heals dissociation of sensibility, the poem that thinks and feels simultaneously. Being a child of the age, I didn't question the cognate apothegms (a) that poetry which thinks at the expense of feeling is but versified prose; and (b) that verse which feels without the analytical aid and enrichment of the intellect is but slush or musical nonsense. How could I fit the strophes of Edgarpoe into a sensibility so straitened by training and circumstance?

Not only the foregoing, but also other, later accretions of the Sensibility of the Age worked on me against the poems of Poe. The idea that the language of poetry should not be a special, artificial diction, but should partake of the demotic power of street-corner speech—this notion, enacted in an out-of-date way by Wordsworth and revived in cracker-barrel fashion by Frost and Williams, is rampant in our land. It is intrinsic with other muzzy notions about democracy, hatred of elitism in art as in politics, and a widespread need to accept—even to make imagination dine upon and digest—the very banality of the thing-ridden life which surrounds us. All of these impulses militate against one's finding plausible Edgarpoe's entire poetic enterprise. His desperate avoidance of ordinary life, of usual language, of the flexible rhythms of actual speech, all tend to make his verse seem either grotesquely incompetent or purposively artificial, mannered, and ridiculous.

So, although it was Eliot who helped to rescue Edgarpoe from the opprobrium of an age which, in English-speaking countries considered his œuvre jejune, it was also Eliot who had earlier on urged Anglo-American taste away from any possibility of appreciating what Edgarpoe had wrought. History has many cunning passages. Turn the corner once again, and look—it's Edgarpoe himself who has so well instructed us in explication de texte that for years, for decades, we've used his own analytical method of reading poetry—against his poems. For what, after all, is Poe's famous essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” but a demonstration of how he wrote—and how we should read—“The Raven”? Unless, by an act of will (like that by means of which I wrote those appreciative paragraphs about “The Raven” a page or so ago) we allow Poe's fantastication of language and the insistence of his meter to mesmerize our judgment, we will be likely to agree with Eliot's remark about “The Philosophy of Composition”:

It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting, that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it!: the result hardly does credit to the method.

I propose to re-read “The Philosophy of Composition” and to try to determine—once and for all!—whether Poe's professed method has merit, or whether the whole show is a put-on. We mustn't forget how much Edgar A. Poe liked to trip us up—us, his readers, the very ones on whose complicity with his designs his fame and immortality depend. Is Poe a mad dog, biting the hands that would clasp his hand? Or is his setting of intricate intellectual traps indispensable to the exercise of his genius, and those traps being baited for and then sprung upon us the unavoidable circumstances to which we must accommodate ourselves in order to savor the strange gifts and visions which Poe's genius dictates that he give us on no other terms? What, then, is the ‘philosophy’ which Poe secretes in his poetic compositions so that he may have the duplicitous pleasure of revealing it, so that he may revel in both the witless ignorance of those who cannot comprehend him and in injuring the sensibilities of those who can but find that they've been diddled by his mastering mind? Let me not conclude so prematurely: for perhaps in Edgarpoe's philosophy there is a verity about the poetic process—how the poet makes the poem, what the poem does to the reader, what the meaning of the poem means. That's what he says is there; let's see.

Richard M. Fletcher (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6393

SOURCE: Fletcher, Richard M. “The Later Poems.” In The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 47-62. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.

[In the following essay, Fletcher discusses Poe's limitations as a poet, suggesting that Poe's own awareness of those limitations caused him to revise his poetry extensively.]

Our findings from previous chapters [of The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe] include the following. Poe's creative development in poetry, far from being the spontaneous development he so fondly would have us believe it was, resulted only after arduous effort over a period of approximately fifteen years. Nor can we truthfully say that he ever achieved that instantaneous and effortless act of creation in verse that he sought to give the impression of possessing as an inborn capability. Instead, even after he had written a poem Poe continued to be plagued by uncertainties about the soundness of its tonal values, a sense of insecurity conditioned by a youthful egotistical assumption that what he had set to verse must be perfect could only the placement of punctuative devices within it somehow be improved to make its expression more forceful and eloquent. Thereafter, his relatively late insight into the importance of vowel and consonantal values in verse led him reluctantly in his last years to revise his poems in line with these more valuable considerations, which further intensified his by now habitual tendency to tinker and experiment with his earlier poetry.

Not only was Poe uncertain and hesitant in applying the proper word to the proper situation, he matured as an organic poet only by slow and painful stages. But dimly perceiving the potential philosophical content of his early poems, oftentimes he later modified and rewrote them merely to create novel sound values, unconcerned, since what he had written no longer contained special meanings for him, with modifying sound into a semblance of philosophical sense. Although many of his poems contain messages and significances that were not as meaningful to Poe as they have been to later critics, he cannot altogether be blamed for the absence of philosophy and cohesion in his poetry, however. Poetry was for him an act of dedication, which required exactly the right inspiratory moment of creativity coupled with exactly the right conjunction of hypnotic sounds in exactly the right proportions, factors obviously difficult to bring into proper harmony, and seldom completely within his control. Oftentimes, too, Poe's inspiratory moment was either of short duration or it was intruded on by other considerations, so that even his better poems contain inferior lines and stanzas.

Depending for inspiration on key words and expressions around which to compose the remainder of the poem, whenever he was driven to match by dint of labored effort an inspiratory momentum that had become stale and pallid Poe succumbed to whatever came easiest to mind. Unfortunately, what came easiest to mind was usually the trite, the inflated and the banal, which suggests that Poe's ability to discriminate among sound values was highly vagarious. During the incessant revisions he made to individual poems he also relied heavily and capriciously on alterations in punctuation within lines to effect miraculous clarifications between sound and sense, at times changing the spellings of words or capitalizing or hyphenating them, apparently for that same purpose. The result, which leaves an impression of inconsequent whimsy rather than reasoned logicality, suggests a poet who is inspired only on infrequent occasions to write poetry and who endeavors to cover up his various poetic deficiencies by using the same bag of supernumerary and ineffectual tricks from one poem to the next.

In Poe's defense, the point should again be emphasized that for the weight of other pressing affairs he had relatively little time to devote to poetry. His revising his extant poetry as frequently and conscientiously as he did, indicates his seriousness toward his craft as poet and his awareness that his work in print did not always show him at his best. Caught between his natural desire to see his efforts published and his finicky fastidiousness, we may assume that Poe felt suspended between need and vanity, the haste of the moment on the one hand and the wish to be considered a first-class poet on the other. We may assume that he was deeply chagrined and offended at being called a ‘Jingle man’ and conjecture that the careful and painstaking revisions he made of “The Raven”, the poem that brought him his greatest fame during his lifetime, reflected his burning determination to persuade his doubting American audience once and for all time of his mastery with metrics and verse.

Otherwise, in his later poetry Poe seems more sure of himself than in his earlier periods. Since he reworked none of his other final poems as assiduously or carefully as “The Raven”, he may either have felt more confident about them or less concerned about their reception by the public. Possibly, too, his fairly sustained poetic output during these last years provided him with the continual exercise he needed to maintain his skills at their tautest. The production of these years is scarcely large, however. Working forward from the beginning of this last, major phase, after “The Haunted Place” appeared “Sonnet—Silence” (15 11.), January 4, 1840; “The Conqueror Worm” (40 11.), January, 1843; “Dream-Land” (56 11.), June, 1844; “The Raven” (108 11.), January 29, 1845; “Eulalie—A Song” (21 11.), July, 1845; “A Valentine” (20 11.), February 21, 1846; “To M. L. S—” (18 11.), March 13, 1847; “To My Mother” (14 11.), July 7, 1847; “Ulalume—A Ballad” (104 11.), December, 1847; “An Enigma” (14 11.), March, 1848; “T—” (27 11.), March, 1848; “To Helen” (66 11.), November, 1848; “Eldorado” (24 11.), April 21, 1849; “For Annie” (102 11.), April 28, 1849; “Annabel Lee” (41 11.), October 9, 1849; and “The Bells” (113 11.), November, 1849.

Many of these seventeen poems were composed considerably earlier than their publication dates indicate. Killis Campbell speculates that “The Haunted Palace”, first published in the Baltimore American Museum for April, 1839, may have been written following Poe's departure from Richmond in 1837, two years before it first saw print.1 Campbell also surmises that “The Raven” was probably “not written before 1842”.2 The histories of others of Poe's poems suggests, however, that he was not accustomed to allow any more time to elapse between composition and publication than he could possibly help: financial need—and doubtless authorial pride—were too great for that. “The Bells”, for example, he wrote in a 17 line version in the summer of 1848; he sent a revised variation to Sartain's Union Magazine that autumn, but before it could be published he delivered to the editor a revised version, followed by still a second, the version that was finally published in November, 1849.3 “Annabel Lee”, written in the spring of 1849, he “sent to Griswold in May or June to be included in the tenth edition of Poets and Poetry in America, which was published in December, 1849, though dated 1850”.4 “Eulalia—A Song”, which was first published in the American Review for July, 1845, was “sent by Poe to Robert Carter, associate of Lowell in editing the Pioneer, in a letter dated February 16, 1843”.5 By ill fortune the Pioneer, which had published Poe's “Lenore” in that same month's issue, folded soon thereafter, and the delay in having his manuscript returned to him and difficulties in getting it placed elsewhere probably account for “Eulalie's” not appearing in print earlier than it did. Of course we will never know exactly when Poe wrote this or that poem, yet the evidence from what we do know is sufficient to make the statement categorically imperative that the interval between composition and publication was as short as Poe could humanly make it, so keen was his need to be published. It is highly improbable that intervals of as long as two or more years occurred between composition and publication without binding cause. Poe, in a word, never leaves the impression during his career that he was inclined to lay his compositions aside merely to allow them to ‘age’ or ripen. He preferred to revise his creations after rather than before their publication.

Of the 17 poems that stem from Poe's last years beginning with “The Haunted Palace”, eight, or nearly half, are ephemeral and inconsequential. Their themes hark back to those in which the earlier, romantic, cavalier Poe had taken delight in addressing the various women in his life in amorously poetic terms. They include “Eulalie—A Song”, “A Valentine”, “To M. L. S—”, “An Enigma”, “T—”, “To Helen”, “To My Mother”, as well as the contemplative, ‘philosophical’ “Sonnet—Silence”. “Dream-Land” and “For Annie” are of interest for various reasons as we shall observe presently, although not for reasons that are altogether complimentary. This leaves seven poems, not all by any means first class: “The Haunted Palace”, “The Conqueror Worm” “The Raven”, “Ulalume—A Ballad”, “The Bells”, “Eldorado”, and “Annabel Lee”—poems which total 478 lines, however, or approximately a sixth of Poe's total production in verse.

If they are not all masterpieces, there is enough in these poems to warrant considerable interest and respect. Add to them “To One in Paradise”, “Israfel”, “To Helen”, and “Sonnet—to Science”, and we have a body of poetry that automatically includes Poe among the near greats, no matter how poorly he might otherwise have written. The point is of course that the other poems in his canon are the experiments and ‘scratch work’ which made these more formidable efforts possible. One may question whether in the long run any of his lesser poems were really necessary. Yet without them Poe probably would have derived less experience than he did; and considering the lengthy period of his maturation into the kind of poet he became, if nothing else they provided him experience with working in sounds and allowed him the satisfaction of gaining pleasure and confidence in writing poetry.

As for other intangible considerations, the time and effort Poe devoted to these lesser poems undoubtedly enabled him to express attitudes and feelings that he might have experienced more difficulty treating in prose. Mirrored in them is his fondness for amorous verse, possibly his subjective means for achieving the self-expression he could not as adequately delineate in other terms. To the modern ear a great deal of this poetry takes on a maudlin, self-pitying aura that verges on the bathetic; and the modern critic has been fascinated to discover that in half of Poe's total poetic output, 26 poems published either during his lifetime or in the Griswold edition of 1850, he is concerned in some idealized form with the subject of love.6 These love poems are also strikingly similar in mood and attitude to a further group of 10 poems which deal with dreamy, contemplative philosophizings on life's meaning, so that in better than three cases out of five Poe limited himself to one of two themes.7

His remarkably consistent devotion to these two themes throughout his career can be indicated, too, from another side. Only two of the 12 poems that saw publication after “The Raven”—“Eldorado” and “The Bells”—are not concerned with love in some guise, while two of the 14 poems added to the edition of 1845—“The Conqueror Worm” and “The Haunted Palace”—are not related to this topic. ‘Love poetry’ is a term that is not appropriate to Poe's verse, since in much of it he treats women not as objects of veneration or passion, but as mystical or supernatural representations of the beautiful. Nor is he varied in his range of romantic interests, which are limited to the pathetic and tragic, the agony of loss and the tortured repining for the might-have-been. Yet if Poe found the balm of surcease and the joy of tranquil fulfillment either unrewarding as poetic subjects or impossible to describe coherently through the poetic medium, critics never tire of reminding us that the aura of etiolation in his verse coupled with an omnipresent sense of ethereal unreality contribute a coating of charm to what is essentially mawkish and insipid. Indeed, comparing what Poe felt were topics for poetry with later attitudes toward his choice of subject matter, the terms used to characterize them—their air of unreality, their ethereal nature out of time out of place—make it appear that Poe was attempting to deal with concerns that do not exist.

Were he aware of these strictures about his verse, Poe probably would have remained unconvinced and undismayed, however, and for good reason. I have remarked that approximately half his verse deals with love as its theme, but this does not tell the whole story: 12 of these 26 poems are addressed to specific women and should be regarded as occasional verse that is philosophically unimportant, which is how Poe seemed to view them. Three others—the early “To Helen”, “For Annie”, and “Annabel Lee”—may be accorded a more tenuous niche in this same category, since they are not so definitely concerned with a specific woman and which possibly is why they are superior to the others in their evocative aura of the connotative and imaginative. The remaining nine are experiments with various attitudes and poses concerning love's implications and consequences on the sufferer or repiner and hence deal with love as a theoretical topic for poetic expression. Few of them come off successfully, for either they veer toward the nostalgically sentimental, like “To One in Paradise” (patently a weakness, too, of “For Annie” and “Annabel Lee”), or they are overly onomatopoetic and become unintentionally amusing, which is a major weakness in “The Raven”, “Eulalie”, and “Ulalume”.

The other principal category in Poe's poetic interests, his devotion to haunting, melancholy daydreams, reaches its apogee in “Dream-Land”, first published six months before “The Raven”. In this poem Poe plummeted to the lowest level in his development along this line with verses in which repetitive onomatopoetic sound values become inadequate substitutes for meaningful verse.

Their lone waters—lone and chilly
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

Here the vowels i and o were intended to create a mournful plaintive effect, but the result is nursery rhyme nonsense. Poe also experimented with a repeated refrain—“From an ultimate dim Thule”—in which he employed i and u vowel sounds. By itself this line is not ineffective, but in context it is so reminiscent in sound to an unintentional lisp that the suggestive romantic aura of the exotic which it should conjure up is destroyed. What is significant is that Poe's dissatisfaction with the poem is suggested not in emendations to these obviously banal lines but in changes in lines around them. We may conclude that if he was not unaware of the incongruity in sense of the words I have indicated, either he did not find their banality offensive or he was convinced that his audience would not notice that its leg was being pulled; possibly it would not even find these lines objectionable.

Although the element of the charlatan in Poe's writings will be of more concern to us when we investigate his prose stylistic methods, especially since they are more easily identifiable in his prose than in his poetry, here I should like to suggest that his success in duping his public in “Dream-Land” prompted him to try once more in “The Raven”. His success with “The Raven”, in turn, led him to concoct one of the very worst poems in the language, “Eulalie—A Song”. Curious in this conjunction, although of course not necessarily significant, is the bizarre fact that “Eulalie” followed “The Raven” in print by six months, just as “Dream-Land” had preceded it by the same time span, which suggests that Poe felt the need to test his audience's reaction between poems before perpetrating another hoax.

I am not suggesting, however, that Poe was only the ‘jingle man’ that he is oftentimes called. Earlier I remarked that “The Raven” and similar poems were aberrations from his normal, motivated development. Even at this late juncture in his career I believe this statement can be substantiated. An element of whimsical charm underlies much of his poetic as well as his prose writings and seldom is Poe so bowed by grief or overwhelmed by sorrow to take himself with complete seriousness. Oftentimes the poignant or dramatic effect in his poetry depends on his reader's assuming that Poe and the speaker or narrator in his poems are the same. If this establishment is made by the reader, Poe succeeds in effecting a sentimental empathic relationship without having to wrest the conviction of suffering or sorrow by assuming the role of mysterious narrator or world-weary hero. Contrary to customary belief, the role of Byronic hero was one that Poe did not find congenial to his temperament for long. As we shall observe, he was most at ease when he could conceal himself behind some figment hero of his creation like Auguste Dupin or Roderick Usher. In his poems, because of their shortness, he was even more hard pressed to establish a persona, nor did he ever succeed in creating an effective one, or one that becomes a unified representation and synthesis of his attitudes and sentiments. In his early poetry he indulged in bombast and an aura of Gothic gloom and mystery, but achieved disappointing results with “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf”, whose heroes are too derivative and Byronesque to be taken seriously either by his audience or by Poe. Thereafter he created his mythical as well as genuine feminine persona to adore, with a speaker as idolizing worshipper. The results of this change in emphasis are apparent in the charming and evocative “To Helen” and “Romance”, although in the process the narrator ceases to function even nominally as a conjecturable person. Instead he becomes a disembodied voice that is even more indistinct and ethereal than the women who are being rhapsodized. Either regretting that he had blotted out the personal identity of his narrator, or eager to experiment in new ways with old materials, Poe soon abandoned such experiments in favor of poems like “Israfel”. Here we are not concerned with heroes at all; the narration is recounted in the third person. Yet Poe still felt compelled to introduce a first person observer in the final stanza to envy Israfel and yearn that

          I could dwell
Where Israfel
          Hath dwelt, and he where I …

Happily, since this pattern was not irreversible, Poe could experiment both ways. In “The City in the Sea” he once again established his auctorial philosophizings through the impersonality of third person narration, and with better success. With its companion pieces, “The Haunted Palace” and “The Conqueror Worm”, “The City in the Sea” is his best realized effort at creating a patina of gloomy Gothic description with an overlay of suggestion foreshadowing the onset of some indefinable and agonizing catastrophe. Although the poem is frequently awkward in expression and sing-song in meter, the reader is carried along on a flow of suggestive and evocative rhythmic cadences which address the ear and the eye.

While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave—there is a movement there!

Other lines in the poem are less felicitous and remind us that Poe experienced considerable difficulty with this poem. Later he excised several portions of his original version. Despite extensive revisions, however, the opening verses remain gauche and awkward.

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.

Nor, although it was written nearly a decade later, is the opening stanza of “The Haunted Palace” necessarily an improvement over these earlier lines.

In the greenest of our valleys
          By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
          Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion—
          It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
          Over fabric half so fair!

What is evident in this latter poem is Poe's increasing command of onomatopoetic devices as well as his growing realization that meter, as surely as any other poetic device, can be employed solely for effect. His indifference to metrical regularity, which is particularly apparent by the fourth stanza of “The Haunted Palace”, is suggested by his dexterously moving the pattern of sound vowels from the open and sonorous vowels of the first few syllables to the high-pitched, constricted close to the stanza, ending with the work king.

Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
          And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
          Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
          The wit and wisdom of their king.

Here, as again in “The Conqueror Worm”, Poe's command of sound is matched by his fluency in handling cadences and his accurately delineated distinctions between accented and unaccented syllables in each line. The structure of “The Conqueror Worm” indicates that Poe was at his best whenever he allowed his inclination to experiment with sound values take precedence over ordinarily accepted rhyming conventions. In this poem he did not achieve a complexity that in any way seems intellectually reasoned; what we are given is a tour de force of suggestive meanings which are not encumbered by his usual self-conscious awkwardnesses of expression and consequent infelicities in sensory and tonal balance. If “The Conqueror Worm” is one of Poe's better poems, it is also one in which he made the fewest emendations. Although published seven times before his death, twice in his tale “Ligeia”, Poe effected but four changes in this 40 line poem, a fact which in view of his earlier tortured labors with his poems demonstrates how far he had come in the task of reassuming the role of poet after the extensive period during the 1830s when he had set nothing to verse. The language of “The Conqueror Worm” also indicates that Poe's capacities now extended beyond the mere ability to establish felicitous sound values through poetic rhymes. His command of onomatopoetic devices suggests that he was beginning to master his materials with a virtuoso's range of insights and skills. Beginning with line two, “Within the lonesome latter years!” Poe establishes an alliterative resonance in the poem which he successively reiterates through repetitions as “bewinged, bedight”, “Mutter and mumble low”, “shift the scenery”, “self-same spot”, and “scenic solitude” as the stanzas progress. In his earlier poetry he had not always so capably been in command of his material, his tendency having been to sacrifice sense at the expense of arresting sound values. Here, however, his images make meaningful sense to the mind as well as to the ear. His newfound skill and assurance become immediately apparent from the vivid description of the cosmic rout with which the poem begins.

Lo! 'tis a gala night
          Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
          In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
          A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
          The music of the spheres.
Mimes, in the form of God on high,
          Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
          Mere puppets they, who come and go
At the bidding of vast formless things
          That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
          Invisible Wo!

One can not satisfactorily define the artistry of these two stanzas by calling them musical or hypnopaedic. These elements are of course evident in the ‘musicality’ of the lines and in the repetitive effects which are established here and there through similarities and resemblances in tonal values among the various stanzas. Repetition and ‘musicality’, however, are not employed until late in stanza one, Poe first having experimented with the consonantally repeated b in “bewinged, bedight”, and the l in “lonesome latter”, while alliterating “drowned in tears” with “hopes and fears” and pairing the sibilance of “orchestra breathes” with “music of the spheres”. Although he did not abandon similar sound patterns in stanza two, he shifted his major sound emphasis elsewhere, from the m of music in the last line of stanza one to the opening word of stanza two, Mimes, which thereafter progresses through successive repetitions in form, Mutter, mumble, mere, and come, to formless and from. By mid-stanza this letter reiteration has subtly shifted to the next consonant in the alphabet, beginning with things at the end of line five to scenery, Condor, wings, Invisible. And in this stanza Poe also repeatedly employed f and w sounds for their tonal values to effect an amalgam between sound and sense, sound which is suggestively connotative of more than what is conveyed by the sense of the passage, but which does not intrude on or make amusingly facetious whatever possibilities of imaginative suggestion may be evoked in the reader's mind by variations in the structure of what is being expressed.

Thus, the products of Poe's maturity as poet are not the consequence of that cold-blooded assembly line approach to art which in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe sought to persuade his audience was his poetic, almost God-given ability. Instead, Poe's method can be regarded as the disciplined expectation of a sustained inspiratory thrust extensive enough for its momentum to carry him through successive stanzas rather than merely through successive lines. If this statement does not refute Poe's frequently derided assertion that the manner of composition as well as the content of his poems were elements which he shrewdly plotted out before setting himself to the task of actual creation, the weight of evidence from the internal structure of his verse as we have been examining it points to his having done exactly that. What Poe apparently needed for creation to proceed effortlessly was the evocative inspiratory suggestion which certain words offered him under certain conditions or in certain contexts. Once their connotative implications had begun to stir his imagination, and once the indefinable suggestiveness conveyed to him by this special vocabulary had become established in his thoughts, Poe's task was to unravel the poem as a seamless whole, using this imaginatively creative associative framework as points of reference.

One problem which these surmises about Poe's poetic method immediately raises is the fact as we have seen that within the larger context of his collective poetry Poe fumbled with this or that word or this or that individual line. Yet it will also be noted that through successive revisions the meanings of his poems scarcely change. However frequently he amended individual words or lines, it was never Poe's way in his poems to make such basic structural alterations that they affected either the content or the atmosphere of the original. We are left with the inference that Poe was convinced success in communicating his meaning would be altogether his if his words could be properly attuned to his readers' emotional sensibilities. For this reason Poe placed his primary emphasis on the sound rather than the sense of the words he used in his poetic vocabulary, believing that once the proper conjunction of sound had been established, the correspondence between his range of responses and that of his reader would instantaneously and intuitively elucidate of its own volition the meaning or meanings he wished his poetry to express.

What is being said here is that in a certain sense Poe was a symbolist. He used words in the same symbolic manner that characterizes the symbolist's efforts to communicate some general if not actually inexpressible significance within the framework of tangible concepts and entities which thereby assume the wider function of delineating the inexplicable or universal. Yet thereafter Poe's intentions diverge from those of the symbolist in the conventionally applicable meaning of the term since he was concerned solely with conveying emotional mood reactions rather than anything expressive of philosophical relationships or moral profundities. And it is on this point where Poe and the symbolist as he is customarily thought of diverge in their attitudes: Hawthorne as we noted earlier sees in the scarlet letter some symbolic connection with the mystery of life's meaning; Poe on the other hand perceives in his individualized ‘symbols’ a way to reach his reader's ‘soul’ or emotions. Hawthorne, therefore, is a symbolist as we would understand the term today in that he endeavored to speak through his writings to the mind, the intellect, whereas Poe's desire was to reach his reader's emotions and manipulate his moods.

If Poe's purpose was scarcely intellectual, his method can not be called transparent, however. On the contrary, it is extremely complex and subtle despite the obvious limitations to its scope, the constricted emotional response that can be wrested from the reader, and the restrictions that its narrow spectrum of emotional possibilities places on the writer's vocabulary. Of necessity Poe was forced to employ the same handful of special particularized words again and again in his works to achieve the effects he desired. Moreover, Poe's reader must somehow also be persuaded to read enough of his writings for this vocabulary, limited though it may be, to become fixed and familiar in his mind. Indeed, like Pavlov's dog, unless the reader is sufficiently conversant with Poe's terminology, he might fail instinctively and correctly to register the proper emotion at the proper moment in the given story or poem, which would negate Poe's purposes. Thus, in addition to whatever other ingenuity he might apply to them, Poe had to face the task of making his writing dynamic and interesting enough to induce his audience to sample widely from his works.

Although none of what has just been said is necessarily new or startling, interesting and significant in Poe's attitudes toward words is his evident belief that the poet's and his reader's responses to sound values can be made to coincide exactly. It is the poet's task to come up with a vocabulary that will bring this correspondence into focus. Readers may of course be affected by words in different ways because of their differing individual connotative reactions to their meanings. Yet Poe apparently believed that after natural distinctions in accent and dialect have been taken into consideration, every reader's response to words as sounds is the same. Expressed in other terms, if words are written in their conventionally accepted forms, the sounds they produce will be the same to every individual reader. Thus Poe was convinced that as a sensory stimulus sound is superior to sight because in silent reading the eye serves as a substitute for the aural sense in conversation by enabling the ear through visualizable representations of sound values to ‘hear’ what is written on the printed page.

To test ways in which Poe applied his theory about the importance of sound values, let us examine one of his later poems, which is also one of his best. Although “Ulalume” may not rank with the greatest short poems in the language, in terms both of Poe's attitudes toward the purposes he felt poetry should serve and his manner of achieving in his poems the results he desired, this work must rank among his several masterpieces. In it are fused in their finest form the proper mixture of sound and mood whose consequence is an unmistakably and unforgettably Poe-induced evocation of mystery, gloom, wonder and despair, all the elements of the technical repertoire which he believed were necessary if the beautiful is to be created effectively in visualizable terms through the written word. The evident lack of sophistication in the content of the poem has imbued it to the modern ear with a gauche and somewhat ridiculous naiveté; possibly for that reason Poe is neither today, nor ever was, a writer who is altogether satisfactory to the sophisticate. An attitude of romantic insouciance is necessary for a tolerant acceptance of many writers besides Poe; yet he need not be relegated to reading matter for children, either, especially if his reader is as aware as was Poe of the potentialities in sound values for creating illusions which are at variance with mundane reality. Witness the effective use to which background music can be put in sound tracks for horror films and the like, which depend on the same principles of suggestion and effect as governed Poe's uses of words.

Another observation that bears scrutiny is that within the limitations imposed by his frame of reference, Poe's works are realistically delineated. Although by using this term we face the danger that by analogy Poe's writings will be associated with tendencies which emerged in American literature after his time, the point is that Poe's most successful poems and short stories are as ‘real’ as they are dramatic. Which is to say that once he establishes the framework within which he proposes to operate, Poe consistently handles his material in terms of a dimension which is consistently visualizable, i.e., realistic. There are no surrealistic incongruities to the world of his devising, no inconsistencies or irrelevancies which do not fit logically and explicably into his fictive environment. Indeed, whereas the customary attitude toward Poe is that since he so frequently deals with the macabre and the grotesque the world of his creating must be disjointed, ‘unreal’ and misshapen, within their boundaries Poe's fictions are perfectly oriented, almost mathematically exact in their organization, and readily capable of being visualized by the mind's eye.

Returning to “Ulalume” as our example, let us observe how Poe goes about converting the ‘unreal’ and occult into the visualizable and ‘real’. Edward Davidson has pointed out that the place names Poe employs in this poem are readily identifiable, “Weir” referring to Robert Walter Weir, a popular landscape painter of the time; “Auber” the name of the French composer, Jean François Auber; while the region described is distinguishable as a stretch between Fordham and Mamaroneck, where Virginia, Poe's wife, was buried.8 In discussing this poem Davidson also remarks that it “is more than an autobiographical moment, concealed behind an elaborate and rather absurd masquerade; it is a nightmare journey of a self which has been deluded into thinking that external reality is not real but can be shaped into anything the imagination decrees”. Somewhat later he adds: “… at the end the protagonist has come to a spot where death exists as a fact and where place and time are not elements to be manipulated according to the mind's desire”.9

The ingeniousness of this and other interpretations of the poem give graphic demonstration of the skill Poe was developing in the handling of his materials.10 The poem's first line depends on the hard sibilance of s sounds, with the adjectives ashen and sober providing a somber mental picture which, if ‘unrealistic’ in their incongruous conjunction to each other with respect to their denotations, evoke exactly the gloomy picture of gloom and despair which Poe wishes the reader to visualize. This line

The skies they were ashen and sober …

is followed by a refrain that relates this universal despair of the elements to the despair of the physical world of reality:

The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere …

And immediately we are drawn into the real world through various successive pieces of information which seem to tell us something concrete without in actuality being more factual than the indefinite and illusive ‘details’, vague and generalized, which have been given us thus far in the poem's first three lines.

It was night, in the lonesome October
          Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
          In the misty mid region of Weir:—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
          In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

At a later point [in The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe], when discussing Poe's major themes I propose to return to possible levels of meaning in “Ulalume”. But since I am limiting myself here to these brief introductory remarks on the poem's structure and the way in which it is put together, it is reasonable to propose that although “Auber” and “Weir”, for example, refer to concrete persons, for Poe's purposes they do so by accident rather than design. Poe took names where he found them, his intentions usually being to create certain definite effects rather than to establish associations to real events or persons in his readers' minds. In the first stanza of “Ulalume”, needing a rhyme for “October”, he used “Auber”, quite by coincidence making an effective pun on the way it probably would be pronounced by a native of English. Similarly, he used “Weir” because it rhymes with “year” and because Poe found w sounds mournful and poetic. We should take care, therefore, not to assume that Poe used certain words because of their symbolic connotations or associative resemblances within given contexts to other things. In Poe's writings meaning is forever subordinate to sound; and whenever sound produces effective meanings, the inference lies near at hand that the correspondence has occurred by accident more than by design, and that profundities in Poe's works should be appreciated as largely gratuitous.

It is not my intention to denigrate Poe's writings or to belittle his literary accomplishments. The evidence is strong, however, that those who derive meanings and subtleties in Poe's writings are serving interests other than those that concerned Poe. If fascinating as a stylist, I can not regard Poe as an intellectual nor as a reasoned, systematic thinker. To him technique was of paramount importance—the way in which elements in writing fit together; meanings, of secondary interest in his scheme of things, he frequently neglected or ignored. When late in his career he attempted with Eureka to evolve an intellectual system, he resorted to derivative borrowings to construct a philosophy which is murky and illogical at best. As a stylist, however, and methodologist, Poe remains pre-eminently the American artist par excellence.


  1. Poems of Poe [Floyd Stovall, ed. The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. (Charlottesville, Va., 1965]. 237.

  2. Poems of Poe, 247.

  3. Stovall, Poems of Poe, 276-279.

  4. Stovall, Poems of Poe, 287.

  5. Stovall, Poems of Poe, 266.

  6. Davidson, of a somewhat different mind, states that “One of the major themes in Poe's whole corpus of writing is his longing for the mother, for a kind of female night-shape, who is never there and will never come” (p. 47). [Davidson, Edward. Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957.]

  7. See Stovall's capsule summary of various critics' attitudes about Poe's writing, pp. xxvii-xxxii.

  8. A Critical Study, 93-94.

  9. A Critical Study, 96.

  10. The poem will be appended at a later point in this discussion. See Chapter IX [of The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe], pp. 179-182.

Shoshana Felman (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9049

SOURCE: Felman, Shoshana. “On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches.” In Edgar Allan Poe: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 119-39. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1980, Felman examines the limitations of psychoanalytic criticism that links Poe's life to his poetry and thus concludes that the poetry is symptomatic of sickness or abnormality.]

To account for poetry in psychoanalytical terms has traditionally meant to analyze poetry as a symptom of a particular poet. I would here like to reverse this approach, and to analyze a particular poet as a symptom of poetry.

No poet, perhaps, has been as highly acclaimed and, at the same time, as violently disclaimed as Edgar Allan Poe. The most controversial figure on the American literary scene, “perhaps the most thoroughly misunderstood of all American writers,” “a stumbling block for the judicial critic,” Edgar Allan Poe has had the peculiar fortune of being at once the most admired and the most decried of American poets. In the history of literary criticism, no other poet has engendered as much disagreement and as many critical contradictions. It is my contention that this critical disagreement is itself symptomatic of a poetic effect, and that the critical contradictions to which Poe's poetry has given rise are themselves indirectly significant of the nature of poetry.


No other poet has been so often referred to as a “genius,” in a sort of common consensus shared even by his detractors. Joseph Wood Krutch, whose study of Poe tends to belittle Poe's stature and to disparage the value of his artistic achievement, nevertheless entitles his monograph Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. So do many other critics, who acknowledge and assert Poe's “genius” in the very titles of their essays, and thus propose to study “The Genius of Poe” (J. M. S. Robertson), Le Génie d'Edgar Poe (Camille Mauclair, Paris, 1925), Edgar Allan Poe: His Genius and His Character (John Dillon, New York, 1911), The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe (John R. Thompson, privately printed, 1929), Genius and Disaster: Studies in Drugs and Genius (Jeannet A. Marks, New York, 1925), “Affidavits of Genius: French Essays on Poe” (Jean A. Alexander). “It happens to us but few times in our lives,” writes Thomas W. Higginson, “to come consciously into the presence of that extraordinary miracle we call genius. Among the many literary persons whom I have happened to meet, … there are not half a dozen who have left an irresistible sense of this rare quality; and among these few, Poe.” For Constance M. Rourke, “Poe has become a symbol for the type of genius which rises clear from its time;” The English poet A. Charles Swinburne speaks of “the special quality of [Poe's] strong and delicate genius;” the French poet Mallarmé describes his translations of Poe as “a monument to the genius who … exercised his influence in our country;” and the American poet James Russell Lowell, one of Poe's harshest critics, who, in his notorious versified verdict, judged Poe's poetry to include “two fifths sheer fudge,” nonetheless asserts: “Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius. … Let talent writhe and contort itself as it may, it has no such magnetism. Larger of bone and sinew it may be, but the wings are wanting.”

However suspicious and unromantic the critical reader might wish to be with respect to “that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius,” it is clear that Poe's poetry produces, in a uniquely striking and undeniable manner, what might be called a genius-effect: the impression of some undefinable but compelling force to which the reader is subjected. To describe “this power, which is felt,” as one reader puts it, Lowell speaks of “magnetism”; other critics speak of “magic.” “Poe,” writes Bernard Shaw, “constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty.” T. S. Eliot quite reluctantly agrees: “Poe had, to an exceptional degree, the feeling for the incantatory element in poetry, of that which may, in the most nearly literal sense, be called ‘the magic of verse.’”

Poe's “magic” is thus ascribed to the ingenuity of his versification, to his exceptional technical virtuosity. And yet, the word magic, “in the most nearly literal sense,” means much more than just the intellectual acknowledgment of an outstanding technical skill; it connotes the effective action of something which exceeds both the understanding and the control of the person who is subjected to it; it connotes a force to which the reader has no choice but to submit. “No one could tell us what it is,” writes Lowell, still in reference to Poe's genius, “and yet there is none who is not inevitably aware of … its power.” “Poe,” said Bernard Shaw, “inevitably produced magic.” There is something about Poe's poetry which, like fate, is experienced as inevitable, unavoidable (and not just as irresistible). What is more, once this poetry is read, its inevitability is there to stay; it becomes lastingly inevitable: “it will stick to the memory of every one who reads it,” writes P. Pendleton Cooke. And T. S. Eliot: “Poe is the author of a few … short poems … which do somehow stick in the memory.

This is why Poe's poetry can be defined, and indeed has been, as a poetry of influence par excellence, in the sense emphasized by Harold Bloom: “to inflow” = to have power over another. The case of Poe in literary history could in fact be accounted for as one of the most extreme and most complex cases of “the anxiety of influence,” of the anxiety unwittingly provoked by the “influence” irresistibly emanating from this poetry. What is unique, however, about Poe's influence, as about the “magic” of his verse, is the extent to which its action is unaccountably insidious, exceeding the control, the will, and the awareness of those who are subjected to it. “Poe's influence,” writes T. S. Eliot, “is … puzzling”:

In France the influence of his poetry and of his poetic theories has been immense. In England and America it seems almost negligible. … And yet one cannot be sure that one's own writing has not been influenced by Poe.

Studying Poe's influence on Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry, Eliot goes on to comment:

Here are three literary generations, representing almost exactly a century of French poetry. Of course, these are poets very different from each other. … But I think we can trace the development and descent of one particular theory of the nature of poetry through these three poets and it is a theory which takes its origin in the theory … of Edgar Poe. And the impression we get of the influence of Poe is the more impressive, because of the fact that Mallarmé, and Valéry in turn, did not merely derive from Poe through Baudelaire: each of them subjected himself to that influence directly, and has left convincing evidence of the value which he attached to the theory and practice of Poe himself. …

I find that by trying to look at Poe through the eyes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry, I become more thoroughly convinced of his importance, of the importance of his work as a whole. [Eliot's italics]

Curiously enough, while Poe's worldwide importance and effective influence is beyond question, critics nonetheless continue to protest and to proclaim, as loudly as they can, that Poe is unimportant, that Poe is not a major poet. In an essay entitled “Vulgarity in Literature” (1931) and taxing Poe with “vulgarity,” Aldous Huxley argues:

Was Edgar Allan Poe a major poet? It would surely never occur to any English-speaking critic to say so. And yet, in France, from 1850 till the present time, the best poets of each generation—yes, and the best critics, too; for, like most excellent poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Paul Valéry are also admirable critics—have gone out of their way to praise him. … We who are speakers of English …, we can only say, with all due respect, that Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry were wrong and that Poe is not one of our major poets.

Poe's detractors seem to be unaware, however, of the paradox that underlies their enterprise: it is by no means clear why anyone should take the trouble to write—at length—about a writer of no importance. Poe's most systematic denouncer, Yvor Winters, thus writes:

The menace lies not, primarily, in his impressionistic admirers among literary people of whom he still has some, even in England and in America, where a familiarity with his language ought to render his crudity obvious, for these individuals in the main do not make themselves permanently very effective; it lies rather in the impressive body of scholarship. … When a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.

The irony which here escapes the author is that, in writing his attack on Poe, what the attacker is in fact doing is adding still another study to the bulk of “the impressive body of scholarship” in which, in his own terms, “the menace lies”; so that, paradoxically enough, through Yvor Winters' study, “the menace”—that is, the possibility of taking Poe's “greatness as a writer” as “self-evident”—will indeed increase. I shall here precisely argue that, regardless of the value-judgment it may pass on Poe, this impressive bulk of Poe scholarship, the very quantity of the critical literature to which Poe's poetry has given rise, is itself an indication of its effective poetic power, of the strength with which it drives the reader to an action, compels him to a reading-act. The elaborate written denials of Poe's value, the loud and lengthy negations of his importance, are therefore very like psychoanalytical negations. It is clear that if Poe's text in effect were unimportant, it would not seem so important to proclaim, argue, and prove that he is unimportant. The fact that it so much matters to proclaim that Poe does not matter is but evidence of the extent to which Poe's poetry is, in effect, a poetry that matters.

Poe might thus be said to have a literary case history, most revealing in that it incarnates, in its controversial forms, the paradoxical nature of a strong poetic effect: the very poetry which, more than any other, is experienced as irresistible has also proved to be, in literary history, the poetry most resisted, the one that, more than any other, has provoked resistances.

This apparent contradiction, which makes of Poe's poetry a unique case in literary history, clearly partakes of the paradoxical nature of an analytical effect. The enigma it presents us with is the enigma of “the analytical” par excellence, as stated by Poe himself, whose amazing intuitions of the nature of what he calls “analysis” are strikingly similar to the later findings of psychoanalysis:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects.

Because of the very nature of its strong “effects,” of the reading-acts that it provokes, Poe's text (and not just Poe's biography or his personal neurosis) is clearly an analytical case in the history of literary criticism, a case that suggests something crucial to understand in psychoanalytic terms. It is therefore not surprising that Poe, more than any other poet, has been repeatedly singled out for psychoanalytical research, has persistently attracted the attention of psychoanalytic critics.


The best known and most influential psychoanalytic studies of Poe are the 1926 study by Joseph Wood Krutch, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius, and the 1933 study by Marie Bonaparte, Edgar Poe: Étude psychanalytique, later to appear in English as the Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. More recently, Jacques Lacan has published a more limited study of one tale by Poe, “The Seminar on The Purloined Letter,” first published in 1966.


For Joseph Wood Krutch, Poe's text is nothing other than an accurate transcription of a severe neurosis, a neurosis whose importance and significance for “healthy” people is admittedly unclear in Krutch's mind. Poe's “position as the first of the great neurotics has never been questioned,” writes Krutch ambiguously. And less ambiguously, in reply to some admiring French definitions of that position: “Poe ‘first inaugurated the poetic conscience’ only if there is no true poetry except the poetry of morbid sensibility.” “He must stand or fall with that whole body of neurotic literature of which his works furnish the earliest complete example.” Since Poe's works, according to Krutch, “bear no conceivable relation … to the life of any people, and it is impossible to account for them on the basis of any social or intellectual tendencies or as the expression of the spirit of any age,” the only possible approach is a biographical one, and “any true understanding” of the work is contingent upon a diagnosis of Poe's nervous malady. Krutch thus diagnoses in Poe a pathological condition of sexual impotence, the result of a “fixation” on his mother, and explains Poe's literary drive as a desire to compensate for, on the one hand, the loss of social position of which his foster father had deprived him, through the acquisition of literary fame, and on the other hand, his incapacity to have normal sexual relations, through the creation of a fictional world of horror and destruction in which he found refuge. Poe's fascination with logic would thus be merely an attempt to prove himself rational when he felt he was going insane; and his critical theory merely an attempt to justify his peculiar artistic practice.

The obvious limitations of such a psychoanalytic approach were very sharply and very accurately pointed out by Edmund Wilson in his essay “Poe at Home and Abroad.” Krutch, argues Wilson, seriously misunderstands and undervalues Poe's writings, in

complacently caricaturing them—as the modern school of social psychological biography, of which Mr. Krutch is a typical representative, seems inevitably to tend to caricature the personalities of its subjects. We are nowadays being edified by the spectacle of some of the principal ornaments of the human race exhibited exclusively in terms of their most ridiculous manias, their most disquieting neurosis, and their most humiliating failures. [italics mine]

It is, in other words, the reductionist, stereotypical simplification under which Krutch subsumes the complexities of Poe's art and life that renders this approach inadequate:

Mr. Krutch quotes with disapproval the statement of President Hadley of Yale, in explaining the refusal of the Hall of Fame to accept Poe among its immortals: “Poe wrote like a drunkard and a man who is not accustomed to pay his debts”; and yet Mr. Krutch himself … is almost as unperceptive when he tells us, in effect, that Poe wrote like a dispossessed Southern gentleman and a man with a fixation on his mother.

Subscribing to Wilson's criticism, I would like to indicate briefly some further limitations in this type of psychoanalytic approach to literature. Krutch himself, in fact, points out some of the limits of his method, in his conclusion:

We have, then, traced Poe's art to an abnormal condition of the nerves and his critical ideas to a rationalized defense of the limitations of his own taste. … The question whether or not the case of Poe represents an exaggerated example of the process by which all creation is performed is at best an open question. The extent to which all imaginative works are the result of the unfulfilled desires which spring from either idiosyncratic or universally human maladjustments to life is only beginning to be investigated, and with it is linked the related question of the extent to which all critical principles are at bottom the systematized and rationalized expression of instinctive tastes which are conditioned by causes often unknown to those whom they affect. The problem of finding an answer to these questions … is the one distinctly new problem which the critic of today is called upon to consider. He must, in a word, endeavor to find the relationship which exists between psychology and aesthetics. [italics mine]

This, indeed, is the real question, the real challenge which Poe as poet (and not as psychotic) presents to the psychoanalytic critic. But this is precisely the very question which is bracketed, never dealt with, in Krutch's study. Krutch discards the question by saying that “the present state of knowledge is not such as to enable” us to give any answers. This remark, however, presupposes—I think mistakenly—that the realm of “aesthetics,” of literature and art, might not itself contain some “knowledge” about, precisely, “the relationship between psychology and aesthetics”; it presupposes knowledge as a given, external to the literary object and imported into it, and not as a result of a reading-process, that is, of the critic's work upon and with the literary text. It presupposes, furthermore, that a critic's task is not to question but to answer, and that a question that cannot be answered, can also therefore not be asked; that to raise a question, to articulate its thinking power, is not itself a fruitful step which takes some work, some doing, into which the critic could perhaps be guided by the text.

Thus, in claiming that he has traced “Poe's art to an abnormal condition of the nerves,” and that Poe's “criticism falls short of psychological truth,” Krutch believes that his own work is opposed to Poe's as health is opposed to sickness, as “normality” is opposed to “abnormality,” as truth is opposed to delusion. But this ideologically determined, clear-cut opposition between health and sickness is precisely one that Freud's discovery fundamentally unsettles, deconstructs. In tracing Poe's “critical ideas to a rationalized defense of the limitations of his own taste,” Krutch is unsuspicious of the fact that his own critical ideas about Poe could equally be traced to “a rationalized defense of the limitations of his own taste”; that his doctrine, were it to be true, could equally apply to his own critical enterprise; that if psychoanalysis indeed puts rationality as such in question, it also by the same token puts itself in question.

Krutch, in other words, reduces not just Poe but analysis itself into an ideologically biased and psychologically opinionated caricature, missing totally (as is most often the case with “Freudian” critics) the radicality of Freud's psychoanalytic insights: their self-critical potential, their power to return upon themselves and to unseat the critic from any condescending, guaranteed, authoritative stance of truth. Krutch's approach does not, then, make sophisticated use of psychoanalytic insights, nor does it address the crucial question of “the relationship between psychology and aesthetics,” nor does it see that the crux of this question is not so much in the interrogation of whether or not all artists are necessarily pathological, but of what it is that makes of art—not of the artist—an object of desire for the public; of what it is that makes for art's effect, for the compelling power of Poe's poetry over its readers. The question of what makes poetry lies, indeed, not so much in what it was that made Poe write, but in what it is that makes us read him and that ceaselessly drives so many people to write about him.


In contrast to Krutch's claim that Poe's works, as a literal transcription of his sickness, are only meaningful as the expression of morbidity, bearing “no conceivable relation … to the life of any people,” Marie Bonaparte, although in turn treating Poe's works as nothing other than the recreations of his neuroses, tries to address the question of Poe's power over his readers through her didactic explanation of the relevancy, on the contrary, of Poe's pathology to “normal” people: the pathological tendencies to which Poe's text gives expression are an exaggerated version of drives and instincts universally human, but which “normal” people have simply repressed more successfully in their childhood. What fascinates readers in Poe's texts is precisely the unthinkable and unacknowledged but strongly felt community of these human—all too human—sexual drives.

If Marie Bonaparte, unlike Krutch, thus treats Poe with human sympathy, suspending the traditional puritan condemnation and refraining, at least explicitly, from passing judgment on his “sickness,” she nonetheless, like Krutch, sets out primarily to diagnose that “sickness” and trace the poetry to it. Like Krutch, she comes up with a clinical “portrait of the artist” which, in claiming to account for the poetry, once again verges on caricature and cannot help but make us smile.

If Poe was fundamentally necrophilist, as we saw, Baudelaire is revealed as a declared sadist; the former preferred dead prey or prey mortally wounded … ; the latter preferred live prey and killing. …

How was it then, that despite these different sex lives, Baudelaire the sadist recognised a brother in the necrophilist Poe? …

This particular problem raises that of the general relation of sadism to necrophilia and cannot be resolved except by an excursus into the theory of instincts.

Can poetry thus be clinically diagnosed? In setting out to expose didactically the methods of psychoanalytic interpretation, Bonaparte's pioneering book at the same time exemplifies the very naïveté of competence, the distinctive professional crudity of what has come to be the classical psychoanalytic treatment of literary texts. Eager to point out the resemblances between psychoanalysis and literature, Bonaparte, like most psychoanalytic critics, is totally unaware of the differences between the two: unaware of the fact that the differences are as important and as significant for understanding the meeting-ground as are the resemblances, and that those differences also have to be accounted for if poetry is to be understood in its own right. Setting out to study literary texts through the application of psychoanalytic methods, Bonaparte, paradoxically enough but in a manner symptomatic of the whole tradition of applied psychoanalysis, thus remains entirely blind to the very specificity of the object of her research.

It is not surprising that this blind nondifferentiation or confusion of the poetic and the psychotic has unsettled sensitive readers, and that various critics have, in various ways, protested against this all too crude equation of poetry with sickness. The protestations, however, most often fall into the same ideological trap as the psychoanalytical studies they oppose: accepting (taking for granted) the polarity of sickness versus health, of normality versus abnormality, they simply trace Poe's art (in opposition, so they think, to the psychoanalytic claim) to normality as opposed to abnormality, to sanity as opposed to insanity, to the history of ideas rather than that of sexual drives, to a conscious project as opposed to an unconscious one. Camille Mauclair insists upon the fact that Poe's texts are “constructed objectively by a will absolutely in control of itself,” and that genius of that kind is “always sane.” For Allen Tate,

The actual emphases Poe gives the perversions are richer in philosophical implication than his psychoanalytic critics have been prepared to see. … Poe's symbols refer to a known tradition of thought, an intelligible order, apart from what he was as a man, and are not merely the index to a compulsive neurosis … the symbols … point towards a larger philosophical dimension.

For Floyd Stovall, the psychoanalytic studies “are not literary critiques at all, but clinical studies of a supposed psychopathic personality”:

I believe the critic should look within the poem or tale for its meaning, and that he should not, in any case, suspect the betrayal of the author's unconscious self until he has understood all that his conscious self has contributed. To affirm that a work of imagination is only a report of the unconscious is to degrade the creative artist to the level of an amanuensis.

I am convinced that all of Poe's poems were composed with conscious art.

[p. 183]

“The Raven,” and with certain necessary individual differences every other poem Poe wrote, was the product of conscious effort by a healthy and alert intelligence.

It is obvious that this conception of the mutual exclusiveness, of the clear-cut opposition between “conscious art” and the unconscious, is itself naïve and oversimplified. Nonetheless, Stovall's critique of applied psychoanalysis is relevant to the extent that the psychoanalytic explanation, in pointing exclusively to the author's unconscious sexual fantasies, indeed does not account for Poe's outstanding “conscious art,” for his unusual poetic mastery and his ingenious technical and structural self-control. As do its opponents, so does applied psychoanalysis itself fail precisely to account for the dynamic interaction between the unconscious and the conscious elements of art.

If the thrust of the discourse of applied psychoanalysis is, indeed, in tracing poetry to a clinical reality, to reduce the poetic to a “cause” outside itself, the crucial limitation of this process of reduction is, however, that the cause, while it may be necessary, is by no means a sufficient one. “Modern psychiatry,” judiciously writes David Galloway, “may greatly aid the critic of literature, but … it cannot thus far explain why other men, suffering from deprivations or fears or obsessions similar to Poe's, failed to demonstrate his particular creative talent. Though no doubt Marie Bonaparte was correct in seeing Poe's own art as a defense against madness, we must be wary of identifying the necessity for this defense, in terms of Poe's own life, with the success of this defense, which can only be measured in his art.”

That the discourse of applied psychoanalysis is limited precisely in that it does not account for Poe's poetic genius is in fact the crucial point made by Freud himself in his prefatory note to Marie Bonaparte's study:


In this book my friend and pupil, Marie Bonaparte, has shown the light of psychoanalysis on the life and work of a great writer with pathologic trends.

Thanks to her interpretative effort, we now realize how many of the characteristics of Poe's works were conditioned by his personality, and can see how that personality derived from intense emotional fixations and painful infantile experiences. Investigations such as this do not claim to explain creative genius, but they do reveal the factors which awake it and the sort of subject matter it is destined to choose. …

Sigm. Freud

No doubt, Freud's remarkable superiority over some (most) of his disciples—including Marie Bonaparte—proceeds from his acute awareness of the very limitations of his method, an awareness that in his followers seems most often not to exist.

I would like here to raise a question which, springing out of this limitation of applied psychoanalysis, has, amazingly enough, never been asked as a serious question: is there a way around Freud's perspicacious reservation, warning us that studies like those of Bonaparte “do not claim to explain creative genius”? Is there, in other words, a way—a different way—in which psychoanalysis can help us to account for poetic genius? Is there any alternative to applied psychoanalysis?—an alternative that would be capable of touching, in a psychoanalytic manner, upon the very specificity of that which constitutes the poetic?

Before endeavoring to articulate the way in which this question might be answered, I would like to examine still another manner in which Poe's text has been psychoanalytically approached. Jacques Lacan's “Seminar” on Poe's short story, “The Purloined Letter.”


“The Purloined Letter,” as is well known, is the story of the double theft of a compromising letter, originally sent to the queen. Surprised by the unexpected entrance of the king, the queen leaves the letter on the table in full view of any visitor, where it is least likely to appear suspicious and therefore to attract the king's attention. Enters the Minister D., who, observing the queen's anxiety, and the play of glances between her and the unsuspicious king, analyzes the situation, figures out, recognizing the addressor's handwriting, what the letter is about, and steals it—by substituting for it another letter which he takes from his pocket—under the very eyes of the challenged queen, who can do nothing to prevent the theft without provoking the king's suspicions, and who is therefore reduced to silence. The queen then asks the prefect of police to search the minister's apartment and person, so as to find the letter and restore it to her. The prefect uses every conceivable secret-police technique to search every conceivable hiding place on the minister's premises, but to no avail: the letter remains undiscovered.

Having exhausted his resources, the prefect consults Auguste Dupin, the famous “analyst,” as Poe calls him (i.e., an amateur detective who excels in solving problems by means of deductive logic), to whom he tells the whole story. (It is, in fact, from this narration of the prefect of police to Dupin and in turn reported by the first-person narrator, Dupin's friend, who is also present, that we, the readers, learn the story.)

On a second encounter between the prefect of police and Dupin, the latter, to the great surprise of the prefect and of the narrator, produces the purloined letter out of his drawer and hands it to the prefect in return for a large amount of money. The prefect leaves, and Dupin explains to the narrator how he came into possession of the letter: he had deduced that the minister, knowing that his premises would be thoroughly combed by the police, had concluded that the best principle of concealment would be to leave the letter in the open, in full view: in that way the police, searching for hidden secret drawers, would be outwitted, and the letter would not be discovered precisely because it would be too self-evident. On this assumption, Dupin called on the minister in his apartment and, glancing around, soon located the letter most carelessly hanging from the mantelpiece in a card-rack. A little later, a disturbance in the street provoked by a man in Dupin's employ drew the minister to the window, at which moment Dupin quickly replaced the letter with a facsimile, having slipped the real one into his pocket.

I will not enter here into the complexity of the psychoanalytic issues involved in Lacan's “The Seminar on The Purloined Letter,” nor will I try to deal exhaustively with the nuanced sophistication of the seminar's rhetoric and theoretical propositions; I will confine myself to a few specific points that bear upon the methodological issue of Lacan's psychoanalytic treatment of the literary material.

What Lacan is concerned with at this point of his research is the psychoanalytic problematics of the “repetition-compulsion,” as elaborated in Freud's speculative text, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The thrust of Lacan's endeavor, with respect to Poe, is thus to point out—so as to elucidate the nature of Freudian repetition—the way in which the story's plot, its sequence of events (as, for Freud, the sequence of events in a life-story), is entirely contingent on, overdetermined by, a principle of repetition that governs it and inadvertently structures its dramatic and ironic impact. “There are two scenes,” remarks Lacan, “the first of which we shall straightway designate the primal scene, … since the second may be considered its repetition in the very sense we are considering today.” The “primal scene” takes place in the queen's boudoir: it is the theft of the letter from the queen by the minister; the second scene—its repetition—is the theft of the letter from the minister by Dupin, in the minister's hotel.

What constitutes repetition for Lacan, however, is not the mere thematic resemblance of the double theft, but the whole structural situation in which the repeated theft takes place: in each case, the theft is the outcome of an intersubjective relationship between three terms; in the first scene, the three participants are the king, the queen, and the minister; in the second, the three participants are the police, the minister, and Dupin. In much the same way as Dupin takes the place of the minister in the first scene (the place of the letter's robber), the minister in the second scene takes the place of the queen in the first (the dispossessed possessor of the letter); whereas the police, for whom the letter remains invisible, take the place formerly occupied by the king. The two scenes thus mirror each other, in that they dramatize the repeated exchange of “three glances, borne by three subjects, incarnated each time by different characters.” What is repeated, in other words, is not a psychological act committed as a function of the individual psychology of a character, but three functional positions in a structure which, determining three different viewpoints, embody three different relations to the act of seeing—of seeing, specifically, the purloined letter.

The first is a glance that sees nothing: the King and the Police.

The second, a glance which sees that the first sees nothing and deludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides: the Queen, then the Minister.

The third sees that the first two glances leave what should be hidden exposed to whomever would seize it: the Minister, and finally Dupin. …

“What interests us today,” insists Lacan,

is the manner in which the subjects relay each other in their displacement during the intersubjective repetition.

We shall see that their displacement is determined by the place which a pure signifier—the purloined letter—comes to occupy in their trio. And that is what will confirm for us its status as repetition automatism.

The purloined letter, in other words, becomes itself—through its insistence in the structure—a symbol or a signifier of the unconscious, to the extent that it “is destined … to signify the annulment of what it signifies”—the necessity of its own repression, of the repression of its message: “It is not only the meaning but the text of the message which it would be dangerous to place in circulation.” But in much the same way as the repressed returns in the symptom, which is its repetitive symbolic substitute, the purloined letter ceaselessly returns in the tale—as a signifier of the repressed—through its repetitive displacements and replacements. “This is indeed what happens in the repetition compulsion,” says Lacan. Unconscious desire, once repressed, survives in displaced symbolic media which govern the subject's life and actions without his ever being aware of their meaning or of the repetitive pattern they structure:

If what Freud discovered and rediscovers with a perpetually increasing sense of shock has a meaning, it is that the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects in their acts, in their destiny, in their refusals, in their blindnesses, in their end and in their fate, their innate gifts and social acquisitions notwithstanding, without regard for character or sex, and that, willingly or not, everything that might be considered the stuff of psychology, kit and caboodle, will follow the path of the signifier.

In what sense, then, does the second scene in Poe's tale, while repeating the first scene, nonetheless differ from it? In the sense, precisely, that the second scene, through the repetition, allows for an understanding, for an analysis of the first. This analysis through repetition is to become, in Lacan's ingenious reading, no less than an allegory of psychoanalysis. The intervention of Dupin, who restores the letter to the queen, is thus compared, in Lacan's interpretation, to the intervention of the analyst, who rids the patient of the symptom. The analyst's effectiveness, however, does not spring from his intellectual strength but—insists Lacan—from his position in the (repetitive) structure. By virtue of his occupying the third position—that is, the locus of the unconscious of the subject as a place of substitution of letter for letter (of signifier for signifier)—the analyst, through transference, allows at once for a repetition of the trauma, and for a symbolic substitution, and thus effects the drama's denouement.

It is instructive to compare Lacan's study of the psychoanalytical repetition compulsion in Poe's text to Marie Bonaparte's study of Poe's repetition compulsion through his text. Although the two analysts study the same author and focus on the same psychoanalytic concept, their approaches are strikingly different. To the extent that Bonaparte's study of Poe has become a classic, a model of applied psychoanalysis which illustrates and embodies the most common understanding of what a psychoanalytic reading of a literary text might be, I would like, in pointing out the differences in Lacan's approach, to suggest the way in which those differences at once put in question the traditional approach and offer an alternative to it.


For Marie Bonaparte, what is compulsively repeated through the variety of Poe's texts is the same unconscious fantasy: Poe's (sadonecrophiliac) desire for his dead mother. For Lacan, what is repeated in the text is not the content of a fantasy but the symbolic displacement of a signifier through the insistence of a signifying chain; repetition is not of sameness but of difference, not of independent terms or of analogous themes but of a structure of differential interrelationships, in which what returns is always other. Thus, the triangular structure repeats itself only through the difference of the characters who successively come to occupy the three positions; its structural significance is perceived only through this difference. Likewise, the significance of the letter is situated in its displacement, that is, in its repetitive movements toward a different place. And the second scene, being, for Lacan, an allegory of analysis, is important not just in that it repeats the first scene, but in the way this repetition (like the transferential repetition of a psychoanalytical experience) makes a difference: brings about a solution to the problem. Thus, whereas Marie Bonaparte analyzes repetition as the insistence of identity, for Lacan, any possible insight into the reality of the unconscious is contingent upon a perception of repetition, not as a confirmation of identity, but as the insistence of the indelibility of a difference.


In the light of Lacan's reading of Poe's tale as itself an allegory of the psychoanalytic reading, it might be illuminating to define the difference in approach between Lacan and Bonaparte in terms of the story. If the purloined letter can be said to be a sign of the unconscious, for Marie Bonaparte the analyst's task is to uncover the letter's content, which she believes—as do the police—to be hidden somewhere in the real, in some secret biographical depth. For Lacan, on the other hand, the analyst's task is not to read the letter's hidden referential content, but to situate the superficial indication of its textual movement, to analyze the paradoxically invisible symbolic evidence of its displacement, its structural insistence, in a signifying chain. “There is such a thing,” writes Poe, “as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the most important knowledge, I do believe she is invariably superficial.” Espousing Poe's insight, Lacan makes the principle of symbolic evidence the guideline for an analysis not of the signified but of the signifier—for an analysis of the unconscious (the repressed) not as hidden but on the contrary as exposed—in language—through a significant (rhetorical) displacement.

This analysis of the signifier, the model of which can be found in Freud's interpretation of dreams, is nonetheless a radical reversal of the traditional expectations and presuppositions involved in the common psychoanalytical approach to literature, and its invariable search for hidden meanings. Indeed, not only is Lacan's reading of “The Purloined Letter” subversive of the traditional model of psychoanalytical reading; it is, in general, a type of reading that is methodologically unprecedented in the whole history of literary criticism. The history of reading has accustomed us to the assumption—usually unquestioned—that reading is finding meaning, that interpretation—of whatever method—can dwell but on the meaningful. Lacan's analysis of the signifier opens up a radically new assumption, an assumption which is nonetheless nothing but an insightful logical and methodological consequence of Freud's discovery: that what can be read (and perhaps what should be read) is not just meaning, but the lack of meaning; that significance lies not just in consciousness, but, specifically, in its disruption; that the signifier can be analyzed in its effects without its signified being known; that the lack of meaning—the discontinuity in conscious understanding—can and should be interpreted as such, without necessarily being transformed into meaning. “Let's take a look,” writes Lacan:

We shall find illumination in what at first seems to obscure matters: the fact that the tale leaves us in virtually total ignorance of the sender, no less than of the contents, of the letter.

The signifier is not functional. … We might even admit that the letter has an entirely different (if no more urgent) meaning for the Queen than the one understood by the Minister. The sequence of events would not be noticeably affected, not even if it were strictly incomprehensible to an uninformed reader.

But that this is the very effect of the unconscious in the precise sense that we teach that the unconscious means that man is inhabited by the signifier.

Thus, for Lacan, what is analytical par excellence is not (as is the case for Bonaparte) the readable, but the unreadable, and the effects of the unreadable. What calls for analysis is the insistence of the unreadable in the text.

Poe, of course, had said it all in his insightful comment, previously quoted, on the nature of what he too—amazingly enough, before the fact—called “the analytical”:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects.

But, oddly enough, what Poe himself had said so strikingly and so explicitly about “the analytical” had itself remained totally unanalyzed, indeed unnoticed, by psychoanalytic scholars before Lacan, perhaps because it, too, according to its own (analytical) logic, had been “a little too self-evident” to be perceived.


The analysis of the signifier implies a theory of textuality for which Poe's biography, or his so-called sickness, or his hypothetical personal psychoanalysis, become irrelevant. The presupposition—governing enterprises like that of Marie Bonaparte—that poetry can be interpreted only as autobiography is obviously limiting and limited. Lacan's textual analysis for the first time offers a psychoanalytical alternative to the previously unquestioned and thus seemingly exclusive biographical approach.


Let us remember how many readers were unsettled by the humiliating and sometimes condescending psychoanalytic emphasis on Poe's “sickness,” as well as by an explanation equating the poetic with the psychotic. There seemed to be no doubt in the minds of psychoanalytic readers that if the reading situation could be assimilated to the psychoanalytic situation, the poet was to be equated with the (sick) patient, with the analysand on the couch. Lacan's analysis, however, radically subverts not just this clinical status of the poet, but along with it the “bedside” security of the interpreter. If Lacan is not concerned with Poe's sickness, he is quite concerned, nonetheless, with the figure of the poet in the tale, and with the hypotheses made about his specific competence and incompetence. Let us not forget that both the minister and Dupin are said to be poets, and that it is their poetic reasoning that the prefect fails to understand and which thus enables both to outsmart the police. “D———, I presume, is not altogether a fool,” comments Dupin early in the story, to which the prefect of police replies:

“Not altogether a fool, … but then he's a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.”

“True,” said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his meerchaum, “although I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself.”

A question Lacan does not address could here be raised by emphasizing still another point that would normally tend to pass unnoticed, since, once again, it is at once so explicit and so ostentatiously insignificant: why does Dupin say that he too is guilty of poetry? In what way does the status of the poet involve guilt? In what sense can we understand the guilt of poetry?

Dupin, then, draws our attention to the fact that both he and the minister are poets, a qualification with respect to which the prefect feels that he can but be condescending. Later, when Dupin explains to the narrator the prefect's defeat as opposed to his own success in finding the letter, he again insists upon the prefect's blindness to a logic or to a “principle of concealment” which has to do with poets and thus (it might be assumed) is specifically poetic:

This functionary [the prefect] has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.

In Baudelaire's translation of Poe's tale into French, the word fool is rendered, in its strong, archaic sense, as: fou, “mad.” Here, then, is Lacan's paraphrase of this passage in the story:

After which, a moment of derision [on Dupin's part] at the Prefect's error in deducing that because the Minister is a poet, he is not far from being mad, an error, it is argued, which would consist, … simply in a false distribution of the middle term, since it is far from following from the fact that all madmen are poets.

Yes indeed. But we ourselves are left in the dark as to the poet's superiority in the art of concealment.

Both this passage in the story and this comment by Lacan seem to be marginal, incidental. Yet the hypothetical relationship between poetry and madness is significantly relevant to the case of Poe and to the other psychoanalytical approaches we have been considering. Could it not be said that the error of Marie Bonaparte (who, like the prefect, engages in a search for hidden meaning) lies precisely in the fact that, like the prefect once again, she simplistically equates the poetic with the psychotic, and so, blinded by what she takes to be the poetic incompetence, fails to see or understand the specificity of poetic competence? Many psychoanalytic investigations diagnosing the poet's sickness and looking for his poetic secret on (or in) his person (as do the prefect's men) are indeed very like police investigations; and like the police in Poe's story, they fail to find the letter, fail to see the textuality of the text.

Lacan, of course, does not say all this—this is not what is at stake in his analysis. All he does is open up still another question where we have believed we have come in possession of some sort of answer:

Yes indeed. But we ourselves are left in the dark as to the poet's superiority in the art of concealment.

This seemingly lateral question, asked in passing and left unanswered, suggests, however, the possibility of a whole different focus or perspective of interpretation in the story. If “The Purloined Letter” is specifically the story of “the poet's superiority in the art of concealment,” then it is not just an allegory of psychoanalysis but also, at the same time, an allegory of poetic writing. And Lacan is himself a poet to the extent that a thought about poetry is what is superiorly concealed in his “Seminar.”

In Lacan's interpretation, however, “the poet's superiority” can only be understood as the structural superiority of the third position with respect to the letter: the minister in the first scene, Dupin in the second, both, indeed, poets. But the third position is also—this is the main point of Lacan's analysis—the position of the analyst. In follows that, in Lacan's approach, the status of the poet is no longer that of the (sick) patient but, if anything, that of the analyst. If the poet is still the object of the accusation of being a “fool,” his folly—if in fact it does exist (which remains an open question)—would at the same time be the folly of the analyst. The clear-cut opposition between madness and health, or between doctor and patient, is unsettled by the odd functioning of the purloined letter of the unconscious, which no one can possess or master. “There is no metalanguage,” says Lacan: there is no language in which interpretation can itself escape the effects of the unconscious; the interpreter is not more immune than the poet to unconscious delusions and errors.


Lacan's approach no longer falls into the category of what has been called “applied psychoanalysis,” since the concept of “application” implies a relation of exteriority between the applied science and the field which it is supposed, unilaterally, to inform. Since, in Lacan's analysis, Poe's text serves to re-interpret Freud just as Freud's text serves to interpret Poe; since psychoanalytic theory and the literary text mutually inform—and displace—each other; since the very position of the interpreter—of the analyst—turns out to be not outside, but inside the text, there is no longer a clear-cut opposition or a well-defined border between literature and psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis could be intraliterary just as much as literature is intrapsychoanalytic. The methodological stake is no longer that of the application of psychoanalysis to literature, but rather, of their interimplication in each other.

If I have dealt at length with Lacan's innovative contribution and with the different methodological example of his approach, it is not so much to set this example up as a new model for imitation, but rather to indicate the way in which it suggestively invites us to go beyond itself (as it takes Freud beyond itself), the way in which it opens up a whole new range of as yet untried possibilities for the enterprise of reading. Lacan's importance in my eyes does not, in other words, lie specifically in the new dogma his “school” proposes, but in his outstanding demonstration that there is more than one way to implicate psychoanalysis in literature; that how to implicate psychoanalysis in literature is itself a question for interpretation, a challenge to the ingenuity and insight of the interpreter, and not a given that can be taken in any way for granted; that what is of analytical relevance in a text is not necessarily and not exclusively “the unconscious of the poet,” let alone his sickness or his problems in life; that to situate in a text the analytical as such—to situate the object of analysis or the textual point of its implication—is not necessarily to recognize a known, to find an answer, but also, and perhaps more challengingly, to locate an unknown, to find a question.


Let us now return to the crucial question we left in suspension earlier, after having raised it by reversing Freud's reservation concerning Marie Bonaparte's type of research: can psychoanalysis give us an insight into the specificity of the poetic? We can now supplement this question with a second one: where can we situate the analytical with respect to Poe's poetry?

The answers to these questions, I would suggest, might be sought in two directions. (1) In a direct reading of a poetic text by Poe, trying to locate in the poem itself a signifier of poeticity and to analyze its functioning and its effects; to analyze—in other words—how poetry as such works through signifiers (to the extent that signifiers, as opposed to meanings, are always signifiers of the unconscious). (2) In an analytically informed reading of literary history itself, inasmuch as its treatment of Poe obviously constitutes a (literary) case history. Such a reading has never, to my knowledge, been undertaken with respect to any writer: never has literary history itself been viewed as an analytical object, as a subject for a psychoanalytic interpretation. And yet it is overwhelmingly obvious, in a case like Poe's, that the discourse of literary history itself points to some unconscious determinations which structure it but of which it is not aware. What is the unconscious of literary history? Can the question of the guilt of poetry be relevant to that unconscious? Could literary history be in any way considered a repetitive unconscious transference of the guilt of poetry?

Literary history, or more precisely, the critical discourse surrounding Poe, is indeed one of the most visible (“self-evident”) effects of Poe's poetic signifier, of his text. Now, how can the question of the peculiar effect of Poe be dealt with analytically? My suggestion is: by locating what seems to be unreadable or incomprehensible in this effect; by situating the most prominent discrepancies or discontinuities in the overall critical discourse concerning Poe, the most puzzling critical contradictions, and by trying to interpret those contradictions as symptomatic of the unsettling specificity of the Poe-etic effect, as well as of the necessary contingence of such an effect on the unconscious.

Before setting out to explore and to illustrate these two directions for research, I would like to recapitulate the primary historical contradictions analyzed at the opening of this study as a first indication of the nature of the poetic. According to its readers' contradictory testimonies, Poe's poetry, let it be recalled, seemed to be at once the most irresistible and the most resisted poetry in literary history. Poe is felt to be at once the most unequaled master of “conscious art” and the most tortuous unconscious case, as such doomed to remain “the perennial victim of the idée fixe, and of amateur psychoanalysis.” Poetry, I would thus argue, is precisely the effect of a deadly struggle between consciousness and the unconscious; it has to do with resistance and with what can neither be resisted nor escaped. Poe is a symptom of poetry to the extent that poetry is both what most resists a psychoanalytical interpretation and what most depends on psychoanalytical effects.

Barton Levi St. Armand (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6627

SOURCE: St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe's Unnecessary Angel: ‘Israfel’ Reconsidered.” In Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, pp. 283-302. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, St. Armand compares Poe's “Israfel” with Ralph Waldo Emerson's “Uriel.”]

Poe's poem “Israfel” has traditionally been seen as an idealized portrait of the artist, as a bold aesthetic manifesto, or as a failed exercise in romantic agony. T. O. Mabbott states that “It has been customary to identify Poe with his angel,”1 Edward Davidson calls “Israfel” “a poem on the theory and practice of poetry,”2 and Hyatt Waggoner, contrasting it with Emerson's vigorous “Merlin,” writes that although both poems point toward the Platonic, “Poe's figure implies self-pity, while Emerson's figure implies only the poet's transcendence of ordinary logic and mundane rationality.”3 “The final effect of ‘Israfel’ is that of pathos,” Waggoner concludes, and he adds insult to injury by remarking parenthetically that “a man is not likely to think of himself as an angel unless he secretly thinks of himself as less than a man.”

The automatic association of Poe and angels is understandable since these supernatural beings figure so prominently in his work, ranging from the ridiculous boor of “The Angel of the Odd” to the sublime seraphim whose footfalls “tinkle” on the tufted floor in “The Raven.” Gustave Doré's famous illustrations and Allen Tate's masterful essay on Poe's “Angelic Imagination” make this connection familiar and convincing. But while Poe's “Israfel” has been read out of his supposed impotence and out of his assumed egomania, no one, to my knowledge, has attempted a close study of the poem in the context of Poe's art and the overall shape of the metaphysic which informs that art. This I now attempt to do, for “Israfel” is such a well-made poem that its deeper meanings are in danger of being explained away, rather than understood in, by, and for Poe's terms. To appropriate Darrel Abel's words about “The Fall of the House of Usher” in his landmark essay on that tale, “Israfel,” considered only as a New Critical artifact, is “too successful: readers take it to be all shell, and, although it irresistibly makes its intended impression, its method is so concealed that the too casual reader may take the impression to be meretricious.”4

One of the few readers who has not done this is David Halliburton, who, in his phenomenological study of Poe, compared the original version of 1831 with the final revision of 1845. Discerning an eight-part structure in the poem—four stanzas of objective narration, three stanzas of objectivity and direct address, and a concluding stanza of first-person expostulation—Halliburton maintains that “the aim of this 4-3-1 pattern … is to hold Israfel before the reader while allowing the speaker gradually to establish his own identity and presence. Little by little we see that the speaker and Israfel have moved toward a kind of subdued confrontation that will allow the former to challenge—or to be more precise, to talk about challenging—the angel's power.”5 What Halliburton establishes, then, is that the poem is not merely didactic but dramatic—a subtle and shifting monologue that anticipates Robert Browning's revelatory confessionals. Indeed, it is odd that critics like Floyd Stovall have insisted on the didactic nature of “Israfel,”6 when we have Poe's explicit warnings against such bald truth-telling in his “The Poetic Principle,” the essay that has been most often cited as an extended explication of the ethereal, ephemeral, and negligible “philosophy” behind the poem.

While happy to see that what he calls “the epic mania” or intolerable prolixity in verse has, “by dint of its own absurdity,” been dying out of late, Poe discovers an even more potent nemesis. “We find it succeeded,” he writes,

by a heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated, but one which, in the brief period it has already endured, may be said to have accomplished more in the corruption of our Poetical Literature than all its other energies combined. I allude to the heresy of The Didactic. It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem it is said, should inculcate a moral and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be judged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true Poetic dignity and force:—but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified—more supremely noble than this very poem—this poem per se—this poem which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake.7

By his mention of Boston, Poe indicates that he is taking particular aim at one of his favorite strawmen, the New England transcendentalists. Poe despises the gnomic, truth-telling, epigrammatic “wisdom poetry” practiced by Emerson and his ilk; in his view, the truth-telling mode and the poetic mode are literally worlds apart. The poetic mode is lyrical and elevating, concerned only with the “Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” and subject only to the dictates of taste; the truth-telling mode is “simple, precise, terse,” and entirely under the dominion of the moral sense. Thus “Israfel,” though it was originally published five years before Emerson's “Nature,” could stand in its final form as a refutation of everything that transcendentalism implied. Because it is a poem that shuns truth-telling and opens itself to a different kind of “knowing” or “seeing,” “Israfel” can be compared with a poem by Emerson that is remarkably similar in general conception though radically different in effect.

This poem is not “Merlin” but “Uriel,” a brief epic, which, as Stephen Whicher notes, is also an “ironic allegory” where the Sage of Concord “made clear his unrepentant delight in the consternation his ‘treason’ had caused,”8 that treason being his notorious “Divinity School Address” of 1838. As the hero of his poem, Emerson chooses an unorthodox but respectable angel, Uriel, who appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch as one of the four messengers of God and who was appropriated by Milton for his Paradise Lost. In this latter work, Uriel is the ruler of the sun, who, in spite of his association with luminosity, is deceived by Satan (disguised as a lesser angel) and cajoled into giving that evil spirit directions which allow him to penetrate the sacred precincts of the Garden of Eden.

Uriel was popular with Emerson's contemporaries (the American painter Washington Allston titled one of his grandiose canvases “Uriel in the Sun”), and with Emerson he seems to take on some of the romantic rebelliousness of his original Miltonic adversary, being of the devil's party and delighting in it. The poem “Uriel” is set in an archaic prehistory, antedating the creation of man, and therefore partakes of the legendary “Once upon a time,” which is actually no time at all:

It fell in the ancient periods
          Which the brooding soul surveys,
Or ever the wild Time coined itself
          Into calendar months and days.

The poem details “the lapse of Uriel,” the fall of an angel, but Emerson's picture of heaven is obviously a celestial version of what was to be the Saturday Club. His paradise is an elysium of thought, an eclectic pantheon that contains “young gods” and minor deities, “stern old war gods,” cherubs, seraphs, and all manner of “celestial kind.” Interestingly enough, it omits mention of a supreme God per se. Emerson's heaven seems to be both evolutionary and Oedipal, more pagan than Christian, where baby gods grow up to take the places of tyrannical parents. Uriel's “lapse” is an outburst of adolescent freethinking, asserting the relativity of all things:

One, with low tones that decide,
And doubt and reverend use defied
With a look that solved the sphere,
And stirred the devils everywhere,
Gave his sentiment divine
Against the being of a line.
“Line in nature is not found;
Unit and universe are round;
In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless, and ice will burn.”

As Whicher writes, “Uriel is the deadly child in the house who does not know better than to speak the truth in company.”9 Less a bloody revenge on the father (like Zeus's castration of Saturn) than a breach of social decorum, Uriel's rebellion causes much tittering and shaking of celestial heads, as the “holy festival” is disrupted and Hades lets loose its horde of mythological ne'er-do-wells. Emerson's revenge-comedy obviously applauds the demise of an original, static perfection, but the price that Uriel pays for his bold truth-telling seems hardly commensurate with the awesome effects it precipitates (“The balance-beam of Fate was bent”). His beauty suffers a sad and “withering” self-knowledge, foreshadowing the conscious shame of Adam and Eve, and like an obstreperous pupil banished to the cloakroom: “In heaven once eminent, the god / Withdrew, that hour, into his cloud.” Uriel's other compeers agree to forget his outburst, as if it never happened, but the natural law the young god has spoken is now an integral part of the universe (there is an interesting correspondence here with the idea behind Poe's 1845 sketch, “The Power of Words”) and so its evidences pop up again, uncomfortably and unexpectedly nibbling away at the status quo upheld by the older, Whiggish gods. Yet the consequences of their cover-up, continually hinted at by Uriel's “voice of cherub scorn,” seem at best no more than the celestial equivalent of aging shock: “And the gods shook, they knew not why.”

I have summarized Emerson's poem in this irreverent manner because I believe that Emerson intended the irony as much as he did the allegory; it is difficult to imagine a heaven where seraphs “frown from their myrtle beds,” unless that heaven is a purely intellectual one, a tongue-in-cheek paradise, constructed of bits and pieces of various pantheons, where the tinsel furnishings are less important than the thought that is being expressed. Again, Emerson's heaven is a cosmic debating society where the main offense is breaking the rules of decorum. As he wrote in his journal on 13 June 1838:

The unbelief of the age is attested by the loud condemnation of trifles. Look at our silly religious papers. Let a minister wear a cane, or a white hat, go to a theatre, or avoid a Sunday School, let a school-book with a Calvinistic sentence or a Sunday School book without one be heard of, and instantly all the old grannies squeak and gibber and do what they call ‘sounding an alarm,’ from Bangor to Mobile. Alike nice and squeamish is its ear. You must on no account say “stink” or “Damn.”10

“Uriel” is as much a poem of social satire as an expression of transcendental freethinking. It is a nineteenth-century Dunciad; hence its troops of heroic couplets, mindful of Pope's example, for Emerson's angels are only those clerical grannies and Scottish Commonsense School fuddy-duddies who banished him from the lecture halls of Harvard for preaching what Andrews Norton called “The Latest Form of Infidelity.” The true spiritual descendants of “Uriel” as an American poem are T. S. Eliot's “Mr. Appollinax,” E. E. Cummings's “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” and Allen Ginsberg's “Howl.” But while “Uriel” may be heretical in its relation to a corpse-cold Unitarianism, it perfectly expresses that poetic intellectualism which Poe had labeled the Heresy of the Didactic.

Uriel may speak with force, but he speaks not from the soul but from the conscience, the intellect, and the moral sense. Emerson's angel consciously puts himself in the romantic posture of Luciferian rebellion by throwing on the mantle of the prophet and talking down to his fellow deities. Yet what he says is a rhymed cosmology rather than a lyrical ballad, a truth-telling closer to Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants than Shelley's visionary Prometheus Unbound. Although nature follows his example, none of his associates do; so in one main respect Uriel is quite literally “all talk.” Uriel might be an angelic doctor but he is really no poet; and Emerson's poem, according to Poe's aesthetics, is not poetical at all, precisely because it remains versified philosophy.

It may seem at this point, as I prepare to make a detailed analysis of “Israfel,” that I have painted myself into a critical corner. That is, how can I presume to discuss the meaning of Poe's poem when the poet seems to indicate that meaning itself is of no essence, merely the production of an elevating effect, the “rhythmical creation of beauty”? This dilemma is easily solved by maintaining that Poe's poetry produces a different kind of meaning through a different kind of irony or paradox. In Emerson's “Uriel,” the irony results from the implication that paradise is just as stuffy and hidebound as earth; the drawing-room manners of the gods lead to Biedermeier thoughts, which are in turn challenged by rash, petulant, egotistical, but ultimately “truth-telling” juvenile delinquents. Such is Emerson's version of the fall of the angels, a social fall, while his “moral” might be parodied as “out of the mouths of babes. …” Emerson's paradise is whimsical, his tone a mixture of romantic hauteur, righteous indignation, and chuckling bemusement.

There are also two worlds in Poe's “Israfel,” a heaven and an earth, but unlike Emerson's amalgam there is no coincidence of spheres, no mingling of elements. Where Emerson speaks through and for “Uriel,” Poe speaks of, back, and up to “Israfel.” Painfully aware of his own mortality, Poe does not so much want to regain the paradise he pictures as to undermine it, displace it, or annihilate it. If Emerson's parodic stance can be related to the waspish satire of Pope, Poe's can be matched by the avenging fury of Swift. While Emerson's philosophy dominates his poetry, Poe so fuses his meaning with his metrics that his philosophy becomes his poetry. Emerson claimed that a meter-making argument creates poetry; Poe's only argument for poetry is the creation of beauty. Since beauty has nothing to do with logical argument or rationality, only with taste, the content of a poem by Poe is in stark contrast to the iron meters and symmetrical form that usually govern its structure. In “Israfel,” that content is deliberately skewed, distended, oxymoronic; the images fall to pieces when we attempt to make logical sense of them, save that apocalyptic sense which is dictated by Poe's hatred for a limited, stratified, hierarchical universe. It is profound despair, not the desire to preach or to teach, which ultimately creates the terrible beauty of “Israfel.”

Whereas Emerson's Uriel is a petulant Byronic rebel, banished from the lecture halls of the gods, Poe's Israfel is the poet-laureate of paradise, predestined to fill that role by the remarkable character of his unique anatomy:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
          “Whose heart-strings are a lute;”
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
          Of his voice, all mute.

Israfel emerges as a nineteenth-century avatar of that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon, the popular crooner or rock star, complete with his groupies. But rather than shatter the peace of heaven or disturb the natural laws of the universe, the effect of Israfel's performance is not frenzy but stasis—a stupid, deadening cessation of activity. Poe makes this stasis deliberately ambiguous by scrambling his adjectives, so that we are unsure whether the stars were “giddy” to begin with or are merely driven to vertigo by Israfel's song, while he makes “mute” seem to modify “voice” as much as it does “stars.”

One might explain this placement by claiming that Poe was trying to climb for his rhyme, but I believe his device introduces a deliberate, uneasy confusion which accelerates as the ballad progresses, since, in the original 1831 draft of his poem, Poe wrote unequivocally “And the giddy stars are mute.” As for the meaning of the kind of silence, stoppage, hypnosis, and bondage created by Israfel's song, it is best defined by David Ketterer:

Fundamental to Poe's philosophical framework is the rationale that man lives in a condition of total deception as a consequence of the imprisoning co-ordinates of time, space and self. … By means of the blurring perspective of the “half-closed eye” (Poe's image initially for the imagination and later for the imagination plus reason, or intuition), he aims, primarily in the poems and arabesque tales, at dissolving the various barriers which constitute the material state—including the line which divides the living from the dead—and revealing fluid arabesque reality.11

Rather than accelerate the vertiginous arabesque music of the spheres, Israfel's song has the effect of palsying and slowing the cosmic dance:

Tottering above
          In her highest noon,
          The enamoured moon
Blushes with love,
          While, to listen, the red levin
          (With the rapid Pleiads, even,
          Which were seven,)
          Pauses in Heaven.

Israfel stops even Jove's lightning in its tracks, while the moon, goddess of love, is captivated and made a faltering, “love-sick” prisoner. Israfel is as much the jailor of heaven as its chief minstrel, while in the next stanza (which Poe begins with the undercutting phrase, “And they say,” deepening the hearsay quality of Israfel's character), his power is equated with “fire” and his coronary lute suddenly becomes a “lyre,” equipped (like a barred window) with “trembling” wires and “unusual” strings. If Israfel is heaven's official poet, we must ask—as with Emerson's “Uriel”—what kind of heaven Poe envisions. A clue is given by his earlier celestial extravaganza “Al Aaraaf” (1829), where spirits must do the bidding of a tyrant-god whose “eternal voice” is announced by “the red winds … withering in the sky.” As in so many of Poe's works, both fiction and poetry, “red” is a danger signal, a sign that the narrator is approaching the threshold of a potentially destructive experience.12 In “Al Aaraaf,” this tyrant-god, like Blake's Urizen, demands absolute obedience to his unyielding laws, while he mocks the earth where

… all my love is folly and the crowd
Still think my terrors but the thunder cloud,
The storm, the earthquake, and the ocean-wrath—

Poe's God is pure will and pure intellect, and what makes Al Aaraaf a paradise for Poe is that it is a wandering star, not one of the fixed crystalline realms of Ptolemaic cosmology. Its fallen angels are blessed beings precisely because they remain half-formed, evolving, ignorant spirits, untouched by a withering knowledge of Platonic truths:

Spirits in wing, and angels to the view,
A thousand seraphs burst th' Empyrean thro',
Young dreams still hovering on their drowsy flight—
Seraphs in all but “Knowledge,” the keen light
That fell, refracted, thro' thy bounds, afar
O Death! from eye of God upon that star:
Sweet was that error—sweeter still that death—
Sweet was that error—ev'n with us the breath
Of Science dims the mirror of our joy—
To them ‘twere the Simoon, and would destroy—
For what (to them) availeth it to know
That Truth is Falsehood—or that Bliss is Woe?

Israfel's “fire,” then, is only a reflection of the burning eye of a supreme God, whose intolerable heaven is ironically described in stanza four of Poe's lyrical ballad:

But the skies that angel trod,
          Where deep thoughts are a duty—
Where Love's a grown-up God—
          Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
          Which we worship in a star.

In contrast to the Wordsworthian vision of childhood, depicted in such poems as “Annabel Lee,” “Romance,” and “Tamerlane,” where love is perfect because it is prepubescent and not grown-up, Cupid here is fully an adult. Eros has become Priapus. As in Emerson's “Uriel,” “deep thoughts are a duty,” for we realize that the angel Israfel is only another avatar of that greater rapist, science, who in “Sonnet—to Science” brutally “dragged Diana from her car” and whose hot breath ever pants for ultimate “knowledge.” Since Israfel has caused the moon to “totter” and her virginally white cheek to “blush,” obviously the song he sings must be one of experience rather than innocence. In this too solid Garden of Delights, the Houris are characteristically whorish and even the Pleiads are “rapid.”13 That “distant fire” which Poe admired in his poem “Evening Star” (1827), because it was so loftily “proud” and full of “glory,” is now uncomfortably close, cloying, and fleshly. “Stay! turn thine eyes afar!” is the injunction Poe inserts in his 1831 version of “Israfel,” a warning which is implicit in his mocking revision. The “Simoon” of knowledge has transformed an arabesque paradise of free sensations into the fixed, promiscuous, seething wasteland of desire.

Israfel is the mouthpiece of this heavenly Hades, the main articulator of its commanding deity's wrathful voice. Poe's “praise” of him is correspondingly equivocal, for Poe's ideal of the poet is not the primitive tribal bard, celebrated by Collins or Gray and epitomized by Emerson's “Merlin,” but a careful, discriminating craftsman who eschews both cold intellectuality and unrestrained emotion. As Poe wrote of Amelia Welby's poetry:

True passion is prosaic—homely. Any strong mental emotion stimulates all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination:—but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs—the grief is subdued—chastened,—is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms.

[Works [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe], XVI, 56]

The fifth stanza of Poe's “Israfel” is thus a direct address to the angel, whose spontaneous outbursts leave no room for recollection in tranquility or careful, dispassionate composition:

Therefore, thou are not wrong,
          Israfeli, who despisest
An unimpassioned song;
To thee the laurels belong,
          Best bard, because the wisest!
Merrily live, and long!

Israfel rules through sheer emotional power, like the blustering God whom he obeys; since he is by nature immortal, Poe's wish for his long life is consciously absurd—more a taunt than a toast. We remember Montresor's means of heightening his revenge on Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado”: “I replied to the yells of him who clamoured,” Poe writes. “I re-echoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still.” Israfel is the duplicitous Fortunato of heaven, who is biologically determined (“fated”) to be the aristocratic poet-hero (“the fortunate one”) of creation. Poe trivializes this privileged angel's accomplishments by reducing them to mindless, hollow merriment and hypocritical academic honors, while he dares to make an audacious equation with the personal voice now speaking in his own poem. T. O. Mabbott notes, for example, that “‘Israfeli’ means grammatically ‘my Israfel,’ but Dr. John L. Mish tells me the usage is almost unknown, and Poe's note, which suggests that he thought Israfeli a variant nominative makes one feel that here Poe builded better than he knew.” But Poe's note, citing the Koran as the source for the name, is also a red herring, which draws the reader's attention from the fact that “Israfeli” is compounded of “Israfel” and “I,” a construction boldly equating the remote imperiousness of the angel with the immediate living presence of Poe himself. It is this latter “I,” like the suppressed side of a schizophrenic personality, who now begins to take over the poem and clamor against its supposed hero, but in ironic tones that maintain a shrewd, surly composure that contrasts markedly with the counterfeit wisdom of “the bard”:

The ecstacies above
          With thy burning measures suit—
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
          With the fervour of thy lute—
          Well may the stars be mute!

It is interesting to see that Israfel is no alabaster figurine but fully capable of grief and hatred, and so he emerges as a fitting rival in this contest of Meistersingers which the poem has now become. Indeed, it would not be extreme to claim that “Israfel” is only “Uriel” in another guise, since, according to Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels, the name Uriel means (literally) “fire of God,” and in the noncanonical literature in which he appears he is a “presider over Tartarus” and the angel who watches over fire and thunder.14 “Israfel,” in turn, is “in Arabic folklore, ‘the burning one,’ the angel of resurrection and song, who will blow the trumpet on Judgment Day.” Significantly, too, Israfel, “is one of the same four angels to be destroyed in the universal conflagration at the end of the world, of which the Koran speaks and which will occur at the sounding of the third and final blast” (p. 152). In a separate article, Davidson argues that Poe could not have derived his knowledge of the Arabic Israfel from the Koran, since this angel is nowhere mentioned by name in that sacred book, and that he probably resorted to a note appended to Thomas Moore's enormously popular poem, Lallah Rookh (1817).15 Mabbott confirms this suspicion in his authoritative text of Poe's poem, but both scholars gloss over the fact that Moore's note would have led directly back to the passage in George Sale's Preliminary Discourse to his 1734 translation of the Koran, where Israfel (Israfil) is mentioned in connection with the Mohammedan idea of paradise:

Lest any of the senses should want their proper delight, we are told the ear will there be entertained, not only with the ravishing songs of the Angel Israfil, who has the most melodious voice of all God's creatures, and of the daughters of Paradise; but even the trees themselves will celebrate the divine praises with a harmony exceeding whatever mortals have heard; to which will be joined the sound of bells hanging on the trees, which will be put in motion by the wind proceeding from the throne of God, so often as the blessed wish for music.16

In the 1845 version the full text of Poe's note to the title (which Mabbott prints as a motto but which Davidson insists should remain a subscript) reads: “And the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God's creatures—Koran.” Variants of this note, as Mabbott points out, name the angel “Israfel” or “Israfeli,” and ascribe the information not simply to the Koran in general but to Sale's Koran in particular. What is important here is the fact that Sale connects the music of the angel with the wind generated by God: obviously, the lyre or lute, which is an adjunct of Poe's description of his angelic anatomy, is thus but another version of the popular romantic motif of the Aeolian harp. All angels are in some sense manifestations of God, but Israfel is especially maddening to Poe because his singing is purely mechanical; Israfel simply “sits and sings” as the celestial winds (the “withering Simoon” of thought and intellect) play over the passive instrument of his talent.

In like manner, when God so wills, Israfel will blow the trumpet of doom and destroy the earth with as much felicity and nonchalance as now he croons the cosmic love songs of heaven. It is this aloof, rational heaven that Poe willingly cedes to the angel:

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
          Is a world of sweets and sours;
          Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
          Is the sunshine of ours.

Israfel is, once again, ideal, perfect, wise, pure, and passionate—but he is also a “born poet,” a native bard, a medium with a message and not a creator of supernal beauty in and of himself. Rather than whine over his own, human condition, Poe uses the contrast of sunshine and shadow to highlight the ironic—and totally unmerited—exaltedness of Israfel's position. Earthly poets are not pale imitations of Israfel, nor should they attempt to be, for this would be to follow the Emersonian ladder of Platonic ascent from discordant multiplicity to an approximation of “the flying perfect.” Poe's way is never onward and upward but always down and out. The only escape is through rebellion, destruction, catastrophe: the startling bouleversement afforded by whirlwind or whirlpool. For Poe there is no theory of correspondences linking earthly flowers with heavenly thoughts; Israfel's heaven is so far from the realities of our existence that its very negatives are our positives. Rather, in this world we dwell in a totally alien state, in the Valley of the Shadow. Natural facts are not signs of spiritual facts; Poe is more a Gnostic or a Manichaean than a neo-Platonist or a Monist, and Hans Jonas's abstract of Gnostic doctrines defines the threatening cosmology which rules the background of “Israfel,” as well as that of “Al Aaraaf” and Eureka:

The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world, and correspondingly of man and world. The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs, and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may be mediately descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule. The genesis of these lower powers, the Archons (rulers), and in general that of all the orders of being outside God, including the world itself, is a main theme of gnostic speculation. … The transcendent God Himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of Him requires supernatural revelation and illumination and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms.17

The angel Israfel is but another one of these ignorant Archons, who are themselves at the complete service of the tyrant-god of a prison-house universe. In traditional Gnostic thought, there are seven Archons, ruling seven separate spheres, which in turn are bars or barriers to a knowledge of the Hidden God, the God of Gnosis—true (intuitive) knowledge as opposed to false (rational) knowledge. As Jonas writes, “The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the Gnostic anti-cosmic spirit” (p. 43). And now we see that Poe's stress in the second stanza of his poem on the contrived rhymes “levin—even—seven—Heaven” makes appropriate metaphysical sense, especially his mention of the enchained Pleiades, those seven stars in the constellation Taurus, a fixed, earth-bound sign which bodies forth the stifling materialism and unendurable fixity of the Gnostic universe. In such a universe, passion (appealing to the heart) and thought (appealing to the intellect) can only get the human poet more deeply entangled in the coils of the Archons. Israfel despises an “unimpassioned song,” but it is just this kind of song that Poe privately equates with the highest kind of poetry, which is a true gnosis, appealing to the soul alone. As Poe wrote in his Drake-Halleck review of 1836:

The Faculty of Ideality … is the sentiment of Poesy. This sentiment is the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical. Thence spring immediately admiration of the fair flowers, the fairer forests, the bright valleys and rivers and mountains of the Earth—and love of the gleaming stars and other burning glories of Heaven—and, mingled up inextricably with this love and this admiration of Heaven and Earth, the unconquerable desire—to know. Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher intellectual Happiness hereafter. Imagination is its soul. With the passions of mankind—although it may modify them greatly—although it may exalt, or inflame, or purify, or control them—it would require little ingenuity to prove that it has no inevitable, and indeed no necessary co-existence.

[Works, VIII, 282-283]

We are now in a position, I believe, to understand the restrained but cataclysmic meanings implicit in the last stanza of Poe's poem:

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
          Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
          A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
          From my lyre within the sky.

What manner of “bolder note” would Poe sing out if he were in Israfel's position? We remember that Israfel is associated with the Mohammedan apocalypse, and is the angel designated to blow the last trumpet on the Day of Judgment. Yet Israfel, too, will eventually be destroyed by the tyrant-god who holds both men and angels in his grip. Against the power of this demiurge and his false wisdom (a wisdom celebrated by Israfel, his Archon, or henchman), there is only the thrust of gnosis, a personal kind of apocalypse which destroys the neat, fixed universe of the Archons and shatters their seven imprisoning spheres. The symbolic language of Gnosticism characterizes this act of gnosis as “the call from without.” As Jonas writes, quoting from various Gnostic texts:

The transmundane penetrates the enclosure of the world and makes itself heard therein as a call. It is the one and identical call of the other-worldly: “One call comes and instructs about all calls”; it is the “call of Life” or “of the great Life,” which is equivalent to the breaking of light into the darkness: “They [the Uthras] shall make heard the call of Life and illumine the mortal house.” It is directed into the world: “I sent a call out into the world”; in its din it is discernible as something “profoundly different”; “He called with heavenly voice into the turmoil of the worlds.”

Finally, the call can also be the apocalyptic call announcing the end of the world:

A call rang out over the whole world, the splendor departed from every city. Manda d'Hayye revealed himself to all the children of men and redeemed them from the darkness into the light.

[pp. 74-75]

Jonas adds in a footnote that “‘Caller of the Call’ is the title of the Manichaean missionary,” and it is just such a redeemer-missionary that Poe dreams of becoming in “Israfel” and does become in Eureka. He, too, would be Uthra, a divine being comparable to the angels but radically different from the mal'ach of the Old Testament, for as Jonas writes of this Semitic word for angel, “where the older term occurs in Mandaean writings it denotes genii of sorcery or evil spirits” (p. 99). Ultimately, Poe's poem is fully consistent with his metaphysic, for it appeals neither to the passions nor to the intellect but as an anti-cosmic criticism reflects his transmundane “Hope of a higher intellectual Happiness hereafter.” Throughout, it damns with faint praise, by the deliberate use of such shallow adjectives as “giddy” and “unusual,” or mocks an unthinking adulation by the use of such empty superlatives as “best” and “wisest.” At the same time, Poe accomplishes a transvaluation of values which goes far beyond the timid philosophizing of Emerson's “Uriel.” Not only does he subvert the message of his unnecessary angel, he calls for a true gnosis, a poetry of power, which would annihilate the alien ramparts of heaven and wreak a revenge on the stifling demiurge who staffed them with the likes of Israfel in the first place.


  1. T. O. Mabbott, Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. I: Poems (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 173. The text of “Israfel” that I utilize is the 1845 version, from the J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven and Other Poems, designated by Mabbott as “G” and printed by him (pp. 175-177).

  2. Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 36.

  3. Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 142.

  4. Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” ed. Thomas Woodson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 55.

  5. David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 84.

  6. See Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969), pp. 211-212.

  7. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902), XIV, 271-272. Hereafter, all references to Poe's critical writings will cite this edition, with volume and page number parenthetically included in the text.

  8. Stephen E. Whicher, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 98. I follow the 1846 text of Emerson's “Uriel,” reprinted by Whicher (pp. 426-428).

  9. Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1961), p. 75.

  10. Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry, ed. Reginald L. Cook (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 535.

  11. David Ketterer, “Devious Voyage: The Singular Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,American Transcendental Quarterly, 37 (Winter 1978), 21-22.

  12. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the spectre confronts Prince Prospero in the black velvet chamber, which is illuminated by blood-red windows; in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the narrator notes “the dusky red appearance of the moon” before the storm, which spirits him to a confrontation with the Flying Dutchman; in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick's “distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all”; in “Metzengerstein,” Baron Frederick meditates over the figure of “a gigantic and fiery-coloured horse” that suddenly becomes frighteningly real; etc. I follow the “K” text of Poe's “Al Aaraaf,” reprinted by Mabbott in Poems (pp. 99-115).

  13. I am grateful to Gregory Small for this insight into the adult nature of Israfel's heaven. Poe mentions the houris, so called for their large black eyes (Hûr al Oyûn: the pure-eyed ones) also in “Ligeia.” In his Preliminary Discourse to the Koran, George Sale, speaking of the Mohammedan paradise, writes: “But all these glories will be eclipsed by [these] resplendent and ravishing girls … the enjoyment of whose company will be a principal felicity of the faithful.” Poe compares Ligeia's eyes to “the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turk,” and says that “they were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribes of the valley of Nourjahad.” As T. O. Mabbott notes, Poe here refers to Mrs. Frances Sheridan's eighteenth-century romance, The History of Nourjahad, but he does not make it clear that the title character stocks his seraglio with the most beautiful female slaves in order to disguise himself as the prophet Mohammed and so create a counterfeit Aidenn with imitation houris. And Ligeia, we remember, was “most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion.” In Poe, the idea of the houri always seems to be linked with an unseemly, earthly, or illusory satisfaction. See T. O. Mabbott, Collected Works, II, 332, notes 8, 9.

  14. Gustav Davidson, A Dictionary of Angels (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 152.

  15. Gustav Davidson, “Poe's ‘Israfel,’” Literary Review, 12 (1968), 86-91.

  16. George Sale, Preliminary Discourse, The Koran (Philadelphia: J. W. Moore, 1853), p. 71.

  17. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 41-43. For other discussions of the relation of Poe's work to Gnostic thought, see my article, “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 1-8, and Richard Wilbur, “Introduction,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Boston: David R. Godine, 1973), pp. vii-xxv. For a detailed analysis of Eureka as “the blueprint of a Gnostic cosmos,” see Joseph M. Auer, “Angels and Beasts: Gnosticism in American Literature” (unpublished dissertation, University of North Carolina [Chapel Hill]), pp. 73-100.

Kent Ljungquist (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Ljungquist, Kent. “From Sublimity to Pictorialism: ‘Tamerlane,’ ‘Al Aaraaf,’ and Some Revisions in the Later Poetry.” In The Grand and the Fair: Poe's Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques, pp. 141-84. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1984.

[In the following essay, Ljungquist explores the aesthetic shift that Poe's poetry undergoes over the course of his writing career.]

In detailing thus far Poe's transition from the sublime to the picturesque mode, our sharp focus on the tales and criticism has scanted attention to the poetry, despite occasional allusions to “Dream Land,” “Fairy-Land,” or “The Coliseum.” The poetry, like the prose, however, presents a similar aesthetic shift. Nowhere in the poetry does the term “picturesque” appear, and Poe uses the term “sublime” just twice. Nevertheless, it would be unlikely that his aesthetic principles would bulk so large in the prose without having a similar impact on the poetry. In fact, the term “pictorial” has often been used to describe many of Poe's poems, such as “The City in the Sea,” without reference to the aesthetic assumptions that support such an assertion. Without acknowledging the vaguely phenomenological tenor of his term, Edward Davidson suggestively finds in Poe's poetry a “picturesque of consciousness,”1 a phrase binding Poe to the pictorial conventions of his time but also indicating an uneasy encounter between persona and place. As in his fictional “landscapes,” Poe's poetry broaches the tensions and hazards for his speakers' connection with “the genius of the place.” His poetic settings are daemonically charged, whether by oracular agents in “Al Aaraaf” or by less benign spirits of the wood in “Ulalume.” Although Poe's aesthetic assumptions remain implicit in the poetry, he turns away from the awesome grandeur of “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf,” consonant with the themes of overweening pride and cosmic power, toward specifically pictorialized treatments in “The Raven” and “Ulalume.” Furthermore, the revisions of “The Valley of Unrest” and “The City in the Sea” follow the general modifications of Poe's aesthetics thus far outlined. Although landscape settings play a significant role even in minor poems like “Stanzas” and “Spirits of the Dead,”2 this chapter will focus on “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” and selected later poems that were revised according to this pattern.


The complicated syntax and the varied texts of “Tamerlane” have invited questions about its meaning. According to David Halliburton, “Tamerlane” is “a narrative poem trying to become a lyric,”3 a monologue delivered by a high spirit who cannot, except equivocally, assert his will. In contrast, Robert D. Jacobs finds a loosely-structured narrative revealing the title character's consciousness via his failure to come to grips with conflicting inclinations.4 Scholars have commented on the density of negative constructions in “Tamerlane,”5 a technique also used in the final stanza of “The Coliseum” to establish Poe's focus by suggesting what it is not. Poe's tortuous syntax reflects the struggle in Tamerlane's mind, the inner conflict represented by his desire to assume a higher order of experience. Approximation of this elevated stature, represented by Tamerlane's pride and vaulting ambition, demands a special syntax, a rhetoric of indirection. According to one of the rhetorical authorities of Poe's time, nothing could be “nobler or more majestic” than

when a description is carried on by continued negation; when a number of great and sublime ideas are collected, which, on comparison with the object, are found infinitely inferior and inadequate. Thus the boundaries are gradually extended on every side, and at length totally removed; the mind is insensibly led towards infinity, and is struck with inexpressible admiration, with a pleasing awe, when it first finds itself expatiating in that experience.6

In addition to using such a profusion of negative constructions, “Tamerlane” follows the pattern established by “A Descent into the Maelström” as well as other sublime works. The main character's faculties and emotions engage in a struggle by which he must become adequate to an unprecedented experience. The attendant response rekindles his imagination so that it can assert its power and thus put into perspective those objects that limit its dominance. Tamerlane's struggle is complicated by his lofty aspirations—pride and ambition—as well as by Poe's injection of themes that may or may not be resolved in the poem. Has Tamerlane, for example, put passion into perspective, or has passion inhibited him from sustaining earthly power? Moreover, what is the role of the natural world in Tamerlane's quest? Has natural grandeur inspired lofty thoughts, or has its unmediated, raw character seduced Tamerlane into wild imaginings? Even if resolution of these themes remains imperfect, the poem introduces a sublime realm described in the conventional aesthetic terminology of the period. Ambition may be “chain'd down” in the human spere, but not in the “world elsewhere” of the poem:

(As in the desert, where the grand,
The wild, the beautiful conspire
With their own breath to fan its fire)

(ll. 253-5)

Poe's appropriation of the grand and the fair in nature follows a familiar pattern of sublime evocation, his injection of terror into the 1827-8 fragmentary version of the poem reflecting perhaps an even more conventional triad of terms:

Not so in deserts where the grand,
The wild, the terrible conspire
With their own breath to fan his fire

(ll. 253-5)

Thus, as Jacobs has noted, the experience of majestic scenery—encompassing the grand and the terrifying—has a significant impact on Tamerlane's development. In the words of the earliest version of the poem, “the deep thunder's echoing roar” (1. 53), the rain, the wind, “the torrent of the chilly air,” the storm of nature startle him from his child-like slumbers. He awakens transformed, a participant in natural processes rather than a passive voyeur:

For I was not as I had been;
The child of nature, without care,
Or thought, save of the passing scene.

This passage, excised in the 1829 version, suggests that Nature may overwhelm the child-like or the faint of heart. For Nature possesses a “fearful beauty”; in terms of the aesthetics of obscurity, experience in nature may appall by challenging the faculties of clear perception and precise recollection. With passion unleashed, clear memory of Ada, with whom Tamerlane roams “the forest and the wild,” is obliterated. In attempting to remember, Tamerlane pursues the inexpressible, his strain articulated by a process of “continuous negation”:

I have no words, alas! to tell
The lovliness of loving well!
Nor would I dare attempt to trace
The breathing beauty of a face,
Which ev'n to my impassion'd mind,
Leaves not its memory behind.

(ll. 88-93)

With memory blurred, vision also becomes obscured, a confusion of the senses and faculties that marks the confrontation of Poe's characters with the sublime in his fiction as well as poetry:

In spring of life have ye ne'er dwelt
Some object of delight upon,
With steadfast eye, till ye have felt
The earth reel—and the vision gone?
And I have held to mem'ry's eye
One object—and but one—until
Its very form hath pass'd me by,
But left its influence with me still.

Poe expresses here a distinction between two forms of memory, the difference articulated perhaps more clearly by Wordsworth. In detailing the impact of retrospection, the British poet distinguishes between the emotional and factual content of memory:

                              The soul
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity.(7)

Unlike Wordsworth or his American counterpart William Cullen Bryant, however, Poe does not endorse a submission to a vast, “great whole.” Distinct from the nature lover in “The Island of the Fay,” Tamerlane does not pine for a unific whole that overpowers and obscures vision and memory. Contact with the “overpow'ring loveliness” of nature induces an over-stimulation, a disorientation that combines bliss and agony, the emotional complex of pleasure and pain:

There is of earth an agony
Which, ideal, still may be
The worst ill of mortality,
'Tis bliss, in its own reality,
Too real, to his breast who lives
Not within himself but gives
A portion of his willing soul
To God, and to the great whole—
To him, whose living spirit will dwell
With Nature, in her wild paths; tell
Of her wond'rous ways, and telling bless
Her overpow'ring loveliness!
A more than agony to him
Whose failing sight will grow dim
With its own living gaze upon
That loveliness around: the sun—
The blue sky—the misty light
Of the pale cloud therein, whose hue
Is grace to heav'nly bed of blue;
Dim! tho' looking on all bright!

(ll. 303-22)

By the 1829 version of the poem, however, Poe did not deem it appropriate to include this description of loveliness too bright to see. The disorientation induced by absorption in utter radiance gives way to a chiaroscuro of effects, a reflection of the disappointment and melancholy of the speaker. In Tamerlane's words, he has “won the earth”; no more physical territories exist to conquer. But human achievement measured in terms of sheer physical magnitude, the mathematical sublime, guarantees disappointment. In the words of “Al Aaraaf,” there will always be a “barrier and a bar” to human aspirations. Tamerlane comments on the feelings of lassitude attending his conquests:

By sunset did its mountains rise
In dusky grandeur to my eyes:
But as I wandered on the way
My heart sunk with the sun's ray
To him who would still gaze upon
The glory of the summer sun,
There comes, when that sun will from him part,
A sullen hopelessnss of heart.
That soul will hate the ev'ning mist
So after lovely, and will list
To the sound of the coming darkness (known
To those whose spirits hark'n) as one
Who in a dream of night would fly
But cannot from danger nigh.

Tamerlane and Ada walk together on a high mountain, their view from an eminence rendering the surrounding scenery paltry and insignificant as they observe “the dwindled hills” (l. 43). But their panoramic view from the heights ultimately depresses, foreshadowing Poe's statement in “The Domain of Arnheim” that magnitude, gauged in terms of sheer extent, fatigues the eye.

When Hope, the eagle that tower'd, could see
No cliff beyond him in the sky,
His pinions were bent droopingly—
And homeward turn'd his soften'd eye.
'Twas sunset: when the sun will part
There comes a sullenness of heart
To him who still would look upon
The glory of the summer sun.
That soul will hate the evening mist
So often lovely, and will list
To the sound of coming darkness (known
To those whose spirits harken) as one
Who, in a dream of night, would fly
But cannot from a danger nigh.

1827-8 / 1845 (ll. 187-200)

Thus, in “Tamerlane” the conventions of the sublime play a significant role: lofty mountains, panoramic prospects, austere deserts, roaring thunder, dark storms, and awesome blasts. Poe draws upon the full range of forms grand and fair in nature. The title character, moreover, experiences a “fearful beauty,” a “beauty of so wild a birth” that recalls familiar aesthetic categories. As early in his career as Poe's revisions were carried out, however, we can see him modifying his portrayal of sublime scenery in evolving texts of the poem. Rather than exploiting the conventional categories of the mathematical and dynamic sublime—the natural world couched in terms of sheer physical extent and raw energy—Poe makes an attempt, albeit imperfect, to make natural vistas reflect his speaker's psychological conflict. Poe's injection of greater psychological interest into a poem that supposedly deals with the main character's conquest of earthly grandeur is evident from his attachment of an early version of “The Lake” to the 1827-31 version:

For in those days it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less,
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake with black rock bound,
And the sultan-like pines that tower'd around!
But when the night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot as upon all,
And the black wind murmur'd by,
In a dirge of melody;
My infant spirit would awake
To the terror of that lone lake.
Yet that terror was not fright—
But a tremulous delight—
A feeling not the jewell'd mine
Could ever bribe me to define,
Nor love, Ada! tho' it were thine.
How could I from that water bring
Solace to my imagining?
My solitary soul—how make
An Eden of that dim lake?

(ll. 79-93)

The sublime aesthetic in this passage, rather than affording a range of typical images reflecting nature's grandeur, allows Poe to evoke the delightful horror that would become a hallmark of his finest prose and poetry. Nor are the images rendered indistinct by the darkening gloom and murmuring wind. Fulfilling Martin Price's claim that the sublime tends to evoke powers rather than pictures,8 Poe's pictorial treatment here does not render a scene in precise detail nor in photographic accuracy. The power awakened here carries a “tremulous delight,” a feeling akin to what Poe would later call perversity, a force that Tamerlane would not trade for earthly reward or even for love. He imagines that this power can transform a dim solitude into a kind of paradise.

With a sublime setting as a backdrop, “Tamerlane” presents the title character's encounter with passionate love. His spirit is moved by ambition but also by tenderness for Ada:

My spirit with the tempest strove,
When on that mountain peak alone,
Ambition lent it a new tone.

(1827 version, ll. 146-148)

A figure of supposed genius ultimately broken by pride and ambition, Tamerlane eventually comes under the assault of “bodiless spirits,” the genii of storms, sunshine, and calm. Faced with forces of terror and beauty, he looks nostalgically to Samarcand, but like other figures who harken to forms of dusky grandeur, he witnesses the sunset and obscuring mist, the sounds of coming darkness, the sense of all things withering at the evening hour. A cottager who has made half the earth his own, he faces the prospect of death “coming from the regions of the blest afar.” Interestingly, these “crowded, confused” inclinations of Tamerlane are described in both angelic and daemonic terms. At one point, he says of his love for Ada: “I lov'd her as an angel might” (l. 54). Just a few lines later, he acknowledges that the firmament is fraught with Ada's “unearthly beauty,” creating a struggle with “some ill demon, / With a power that left me in an evil hour” (ll. 173-4). Behind the “bodied forms / Of varied being” lies an entire array of “bodiless spirits,” both daunting and attractive. As Poe's speaker oscillates between consideration of these benign or malevolent beings, the attraction and terror of these varied forms can perhaps be encompassed in the ancient term “daemon,” a fuller expression of which is found in “Al Aaraaf.”

“Al Aaraaf” falls within the context of what J. B. Beer calls “the daemonic sublime.”9 In ancient Greece and Rome, the word “daemon” did not have the unfortunate connotations that it has subsequently acquired.

The common Christian idea presents a daemon with horns and a pitchfork, a devil, but this is the simplest stereotype, arising from equating daemons with Fallen Angels. This equivalence shows that the daemonic and angelic are closely related and shows that in Hebrew religious myth, as well as Greek myth, the daemons could be either good or evil.10

In ancient times, a daemon could bode ill or well, depending on one's intimacy with supernatural power. The daemonic has associations with force, uncanniness, a paradoxical feeling of awe and fear. Rather than having an exclusively evil coloration, the daemonic can provoke a positive emotional response. An occult source of power, the daemonic suggests emotions consonant with the experience of the sublime. In addition to the categories of dynamic or mathematical greatness, however, the sublime, according to Rudolf Otto, signifies the impress of the numinous.11

An aspect of the impact of the numinous or the sublime, daemonic dread suggests the presence of the uncanny. Like the sublime, the daemonic can instill sensations of mystery, fascination, energy, vehemence; in its ancient context, it was either positive or active, rather than diabolical, in its implications.

An authentic form of the daemonic, in this sense, derives from the Near East, to many nineteenth-century American authors a geographical source of radical, primitive energies. Oriental daemonology surfaced prominently in Zoroastrianism, which attempted to account for the mingled existence of good and evil in the world. The co-existence of benevolent and malevolent principles leads to an experience of fear and awe derived from the impress on the human emotions of warring forces. Zoroastrianism, which partakes of a dualism between good and evil as does Christianity, received cogent expression in America in the characterization of Melville's Fedallah, the Near-Eastern daemon of Moby-Dick.12 The strange deities of Arabia, which evolved as supernatural agents rather than as participants in natural rites, acted as pure products of religious consciousness. With all its Near-Eastern elevation and flavor and its counterpoise between good and evil, “Al Aaraaf” contains just such daemonic agents. Nesace and Ligeia, rarefied agents of God's mystery, become numinous messengers carrying the sublimity of the divine message. Poe's knowledge, use, and exposure to this sense of the daemonic can be clearly substantiated, for he associated daemonic energy, at least implicitly, with the sublime.

Committed to daemonology for other reasons than amateur dabbling in occult lore, the Romantics were fascinated by the concept of genius as a kind of daemonic urge.13 If Socrates, for instance, were guided by a personal daemon, his example showed that a supernatural force held sway over human understanding. From an ancient tradition, the Romantics learned that daemons were intermediary spirits, half-mortal and half-divine. Their responsibility was to “distribute” the destiny of individual men. Even in Christian antiquity, daemons need not have an evil coloring, since they acted as guardians of mankind. Later in works like Shelley's Promethus Unbound with its Aeschylean agent of destiny and Poe's “The Power of Words” with its names of Greek flavor (Oinos and Agathos), daemons possessed oracular charge of divine will. The Greek notion of daemonology became particularly attractive to the Romantics because of its association with skill or knowledge. In the artist-centered world of Romantic poetry, the poet could be literally and metaphorically possessed. Thus, the daemonic impulse suggested inspiration or inward energy without the attendant stricture of Christian orthodoxy. Possession became a morally ambivalent experience, both elevating and terrifying. Sir Walter Scott expressed these notions in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, wherein he commented: “The idea of identifying the pagan deities, especially the most distinguished of them, with the manifestation of demonic power … is not certainly lightly to be rejected.”14

The works of Shelley and Coleridge, two of Poe's literary models, also described extensively the mysterious potentialities of the mind impelled by the daemonic, whether these forces were good, bad, or indifferent. Poe was undoubtedly aware of the daemonic implications of “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel,” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Contrary to the common supposition, the title of Shelley's poem Alastor,15 rather than naming the hero, signifies an evil genius or cacodaemon. The Preface to Shelley's poem, moreover, contains explicitly sublime elements in reference to the protagonist's mental powers.

Conversant with speculations of the sublimest and most perfect natures, the vision in which he embodies his own imagination unites all the wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture.16

In addition, Shelley gives considerable attention in Alastor to daemonic agents, grand landscapes, and the ultimate knowledge associated with the sublime.

Shelley's Queen Mab, in its revised and abridged form, was entitled The Daemon of the World, and according to Daniel Hoffman, served as Poe's prime poetic model in “Al Aaraaf.”17 In spite of the overtly revolutionary themes in Shelley's poem, both Queen Mab and “Al Aaraaf” contain daemonic supernatural agents, imaginary landscapes on a vast scale, and figures named Ianthe. In addition, Queen Mab, a transporter of divine knowledge, prefigures Nesace, the presiding spirit of Al Aaraaf. The diction used by each poet to exemplify his theme presents striking similarities. In Shelley's poem:

I am the Fairy Mab: to me 'tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep:
The secrets of the immeasurable past
In the unfailing consciences of men.

(Shelley, p. 5)

For Nesace:

By winged Fantasy,
My embassy is given
Till secrecy shall knowledge be
In the environs of Heaven.

Both poems also trace the theme of most cosmological poems of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—that of putting passion into perspective. As Angus Fletcher has noted, poems in the sublime mode have as one of their major thrusts the elimination of slavery to pleasure.18 Such large-scale poems serve to arouse readers from dullness, complacency, and habitual pleasure and to lead them to ideal, sublime, “Shelleyan” worlds. Following in this tradition, Poe indicates that carnal love and passion cannot be excused in the realm of Al Aaraaf:

And true love caresses—
O' leave them apart:
They are light on the tresses
But lead on the heart.


Angelo and Ianthe fall, in particular, because they become enslaved in sensuous awareness rather than in the sublime enlargement of mental powers:

But two: they fell: for Heaven no grace imparts
To those who hear not for the beating of their hearts.


This literary continuity from the English Romantics to Poe receives support from his statement that Shelley's poetry is in “the sublime spirit” (H [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe], XI, 255).

Although Poe's general familiarity with the sublime aesthetic has been established, his awareness of the importance of the daemonic merits further scrutiny. One readily recalls that one entire story, “Silence—A Fable,” focuses on a figure referred to only as “the Demon.” In the sublime “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the vast seascape contains “demons of the deep” (M [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Talks and Sketches], II, 144). In a more circumscribed setting, the eyes of Poe's raven “have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,” while the poem “Alone” presents a speaker who faces the horrifying specter of “a demon in my view.” In “Ulalume,” the narrator encounters the grave of his lost loved one and asks, “What demon hath tempted me here?” Most significantly, “Shadow—A Parable” outlines the concept of the daemonic as an inward mental force. In this story, the demon's name is Zoilus: “Dead, and at full length he lay, enshrouded;—the genius and the demon of the scene” (M, II, 190).19 Suffice it to say that Poe's Dark Romanticism partakes generously of a merging of an explosive mental power and the ominous onset of daemonic dread. In summary, Poe's works, like those of Shelley and Coleridge, display the attributes of the daemonic sublime.

The connection between the daemonic and the sublime can be strengthened by reference to Poe's familiarity with the works and assumptions of the Gnostic writers and philosophers. Whether acquiring his knowledge from primary or secondary sources, Poe sprinkled his writings with references to Neo-Platonic philosophers such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, Eusebius, and Porphyry, and such Church Fathers as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, and Epiphanius, who argued against the doctrines of the Gnostics and sometimes quoted extensively from them.20 According to the Gnostics, this world is an enclosed cell, a temporary dwelling place that can be transcended by a burst of sublime knowledge (gnosis) to a world beyond and without limits. This greater world, a power system or daemonic realm charged with compulsive forces,21 encompasses a vast universe which admits of a plurality of smaller units with supernatural agents acting in spatial realms as well as within persons. Such Gnostic assumptions may explain, in part, “the happier star” of “Al Aaraaf,” which is inhabited by daemonic agents whose functions become compartmentalized by an unseen, divine spirit. Nesace and Ligeia live in such a semi-divine realm which inspires feelings of greatness and grandeur. Beyond the response to majesty, however, lies the experience of power.

On Al Aaraaf, God's power lies temporarily at rest, not overtly expressing divine will except in nature's tumultuous demonstrations. As Floyd Stovall first noted, the theme of divine power underscores that of majestic beauty in “Al Aaraaf”: “The poem is thus a representation, mainly pictorial, of the relation of God to the whole universe, but to the inhabitants of Earth and Al Aaraaf in particular, expressed in terms of power and beauty.”22 A misunderstanding develops, however, over the means of communication between God and His mortal creatures. In a passage which evokes the boundlessness of the mathematical sublime and the energy of the dynamic sublime, God speaks:

“What tho' in worlds which sightless run,
Link'd to a little system, and one sun—
Where all my love is folly, and the crowd
Still think my terror but a thunder cloud,
The storm, the earthquake, and the ocean wrath
(Ah! will they cross me in my angrier path).”


God's manipulation of natural forces is an emblem of His power but not its requisite. Man has misinterpreted God's power by seeing His will in the natural sphere alone; the sublime realm of ultimate knowledge, however, points out of space and out of time. Man has, in addition, lived under the misapprehension that the mortal realm represents his exclusive domain, but according to the Gnostic assumptions that Poe apparently appropriated in “Al Aaraaf,” our “one little system and one sun” resides amidst an array of systems, all pulsating with daemonic power. According to the Gnostic “daemonological interpretation of inwardness,”23 man should deprecate his natural, miniscule state, dwarfed by the vast system of the cosmos, and attune his inner life to that wider locus of daemonic activity. One's inner mind can become possessed in the literal daemonological sense, since energetic powers can act either inside or outside the human constitution. In the realm of Al Aaraaf, the cosmic drama becomes externalized as each supernatural agent performs one particular function. As the texture of Poe's later poetry becomes more thoroughly pictorialized and the landscapes more circumscribed, such daemonic activity becomes internalized. According to the Gnostics, man's inner life becomes “an abyss from which the dark powers rise to govern our being,”24 an apt description of human vulnerability to irrational forces and an appropriate gloss on the character of Poe's Gothic fiction.

Jacob Bryant's six-volume A New System of Antient Mythology ([London: J. Walker, hereafter cited as B.] 1807), as we have seen before, provides an even more immediate source for Poe's knowledge of daemonology. Most of the Gnostic and anti-Gnostic writers already mentioned receive ample treatment within the pages of Bryant's work. In addition, he provides considerable information on Near-Eastern and classical daemon worship that may have informed the composition of “Al Aaraaf”:

In short, the whole religion of the antients consisted in the worship of Daemons; and to those persons their theology continually refers. They were like the Manes and Lares of the Romans, supposed to be the souls of men deceased: and their deportment is thus described by Plato, as he is quoted by Plutarch: ‘Plato mentions the Daemons, as a race of Beings, by whom many things are discovered, and many good offices done, to men: and he describes them as an order between men and Gods. They are the persons, who by their meditation carry the vows and prayers of mortals to heaven: and in return bring down the divine behests to earth.’25

Bryant, on several occasions, refers to benign agents or “Daemons, a set of benevolent beings, who resided within the verge of earth, and were the guardians of mankind” (B, III, 110). He labels one of these agents “Agathodaemon” (B, IV, 201-202, 210-211, 464; V, 308), thus nearly conforming to Poe's name Agathos in “The Power of Words.” Poe's reading in Bryant provides a likely source for his knowledge of the daemonic and his awareness of an inward force or power that could work positively or negatively, depending on one's rapport with the supernatural. These agents acted as messengers of God's will, vindicators of divine behests. Nesace and Ligeia, in other words, fall precisely within the daemonic framework outlined by Bryant.

In addition to the context provided by Poe's reading in the Romantic poets, the Gnostic philosophers, and Jacob Bryant, other sublime elements appear in “Al Aaraaf.” The star itself represents a visionary landscape of expansive splendor. In the first score of lines, the reader receives a typically sublime view from an eminence:

Away—away—'mid seas that roll
Empyrean splendor o'er the unchained soul—
The soul that scarce (the billows are so dense)
Can struggle to its destin'd eminence—
To distant spheres.


The God that inhabits such a realm appears both daunting and attractive, encompassing the paradox of fear and reverence that significantly marks the sublime. In his description of the deity, Poe invokes a vision of boundlessness as well as a mixture of terror and beauty, hallmarks of sublimity:

Spirit! that dwellest where,
In the deep sky,
The terrible and fair,
In beauty vie!
Beyond the line of blue—
The boundary of the star
Which turneth at the view
Of thy barrier and thy bar.


As in the sea tales, the sublime enlists man's reflective powers. Great proportion and intense energy suggest the dual attributes of the sublime but not its absolute requisites in “Al Aaraaf.” Poe therein associates Nesace's responsibilities with ultimate knowledge, “the never-to-be-imparted secret” mentioned in “MS. Found in a Bottle.” She will “bear my God's secrets thro' the upper Heaven” (“Al Aaraaf,” I:142), and “divulge the secrets of thy embassy / To the proud orbs that twinkle—and so be / To ev'ry heart a barrier and a ban / Lest the stars totter in the guilt of man” (“Al Aaraaf,” I:147-150). Sublime knowledge humbles; it dims the pride of the most confident, circumscribes and daunts as well as exalts the soul, fulfilling once again the dual attributes in “Tamerlane.”

As Nesace stares into the mysterious expanse of the heavens, she uses diction that is a harbinger of Poe's other major experiment in the sublime, “A Descent into the Maelström.”

She (Nesace) look'd into Infinity—and knelt.
Rich clouds, for canopies, about her curl'd—
Fit emblems of the model of her world
Seen but in beauty—not impeding sight
Of other beauty glittering thro' the light.


This passage does not merely exemplify neo-Platonism, for Poe uses the word “model” in a way that recalls the quotation from Joseph Glanville in “A Descent into the Maelström.” God's grandeur suffers debasement since man has dreamed for God's infinity a model of his own. The “model” here suggests a derived, pallid imitation, a representation in low form of something higher. Man's works, his “models,” pale before God's; they remain incommensurate with the wonder of His divine message.

Tho' the beings whom thy Nesace,
Thy messenger, hath known,
Have dream'd for thy Infinity
A model of their own.


The world of mortal man, not to mention Nesace's semi-divine habitat of clouds, is a realm of secondary creation. An atmosphere of melancholy and lassitude prevails in any region not constituted by God, as reflected in the plight of the seraphs, who are divine in all but sublime knowledge:

Seraphs in all but “Knowledge,” the keen light
That fell refracted, thro' thy bounds, afar
O Death! from eye of God upon that star.


However sad their fate, these seraphs bear no inherent sin or taint as do the “models” created by inferior mortals. A more ignoble accounting awaits Angelo, who must witness God's angry power in a trembling world threatened by the approach of the fiery star, Al Aaraaf. A creature of passion, inhabiting a world of secondary creation incommensurate with the profound inscrutability of God's works, he confronts death, described in terms of the dynamic sublime replete with apocalyptic overtones.

Perhaps my brain grew dizzy—but the world
I left so late was with chaos hurl'd—
Sprang from her station, on the winds apart,
And roll'd, a flame, the fiery Heaven athwart.


Thus ends “Al Aaraaf,” a sometimes confusing poem but an ambitious experiment for a young poet. The portions of the poem which suggest Miltonic imitation reflect the widespread Romantic bardolatry of the author of Paradise Lost26 (See Chapter I). “Al Aaraaf” thus represents an American Romantic manifestation of neo-Miltonic sublimity. What other critics have seen as a poor imitation of Miltonic grandeur is an experiment in the daemonic sublime informed by reading in the Romantic poets and other occult lore. The daemonic, held in kinship with the sublime by its association with energy, serves as a useful tool in “Al Aaraaf” since it allows Poe to bind his mythic universe together through supernatural agents.

If the prevailing impulse of Poe's work tends toward the cosmological, “Al Aaraaf” takes him on an important first step toward Eureka. The semi-divine world of the happier star allows him to describe at once the spiritual and the mortal, showing through pictorial treatment the disparity between the two. If the never-to-be-imparted secret of Nesace's message remains locked in a dream land out of space and time, Poe resigns himself in “Al Aaraaf,” not to divine knowledge, but to daemonic power. This fascination with energy (externalized in “Al Aaraaf”) prefigures his dabbling in the pseudo-sciences that investigated mental powers and faculty psychology, such as animal magnetism, mesmerism, and somnambulism.27 But Poe did not consult daemonic lore merely to find quaint poetic images and items for far-fetched scientific speculation. The daemonic later becomes an important vehicle for studying the abyss of self. The daemonic ambivalence suggested by Fletcher provides a fertile beginning for explorations in terror, since a human being invested with daemonic power could never truly be at home in the fallen world after he had glimpsed and felt the impulse toward the semi-divine. Conversely, given Poe's theory of human perversity, the man who had glimpsed paradise would be impelled inevitably to the brink of the abyss.

Such is the case in “The Coliseum,” an early poem on the subject of ruins. Poe's interest in ruins, evident in his review of J. L. Stephens' Arabia Petraea, “The Coliseum,” and selected tales, connects him to that Romantic tradition described by Thomas McFarland in Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin.28 As McFarland points out, behind the overt Romantic obsession with unity and oneness lay an uneasy sense of incompleteness and fragmentation. In Romantic prose and poetry, physical ruins served a more serious function than generating an atmosphere of melancholy. Rather, ruins were diasparactive forms that could produce subtle psychological or symbolic effects. Among those figures who reflect what McFarland calls “modalities of fragmentation” are Coleridge and Wordsworth; to his list, one might add writers like Emerson and Carlyle who display an even greater kinship with Poe in their adoption of a tone of secular prophecy.29 For Poe in particular, ruins, in their mystery, silence, and desolation, serve a prophetic function, offering premonitions, suggestions, and submerged meanings that resist representation in ordinary language.

Sometimes dismissed as an exercise in mutability rhetoric or as an uncharacteristic venture into blank verse, “The Coliseum” represents Poe's most direct poetic expression on the power of ruins. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, in surveying the sources of “The Coliseum,”30 has suggested that Poe may have sought an answer to Lord Byron, who found the Roman ruins symbolic of imperial declension. In doing so, Mabbott may have unwittingly pointed to a neglected aspect of “The Coliseum.” In providing an “answer,” the majestic structures participate in a dialogue, one of the hallmarks of the literature of ruin.

Byron's impact may have been so pervasive as to provide an immediate source for Poe, but “The Coliseum” derives from a more long-standing poetic tradition that extends well back into the eighteenth century. John Dyer's The Ruins of Rome (1720) is often cited as one of the earliest evocations of Italian ruins, while Thomas Warton's Pleasures of Melancholy (1745) contains almost a full range of conventional properties associated with ruined landscapes: fallen columns, ivy, fungi, adders, lizards, ravens, bats, owls, reeds, and thistles. In such poems, aesthetic gratification derives from the perceived contrast between present desolation and former glory. This contrast could often take the form of a dialogue, sometimes with two discrete speakers, as in the famous A Dialogue on Stowe (1751).31 More commonly, the dialectical interchange reflected two architectural styles, the classical, for example, played off against the Gothic. Sometimes the contrast of silence and sound could induce a complex of mingled feelings in the observer, the melding of awe and melancholy roughly consonant with the experience of sublimity. And Wordsworth's “Salisbury Plain,” rather than presenting two separate corporeal speakers, offers instead a disembodied voice or presiding spirit addressing the observer of ruins as the poet alludes to Dyer's The Ruins of Rome.32

Thus, the dialectic of poetry about ruins provided a conventional framework within which a wide range of tensions and dilemmas could be explored. In “The Coliseum,” the fragmentary nature of the ruined forms mirrors the partial character of expression offered by each speaker in the dialogue. Confirming Schlegel's dictum that “a dialogue is a chain or garland of fragments,”33 the exchange between Poe's speaker and the Echoes does not constitute a simple statement and unequivocal answer but an independent voicing of discrete attitudes. Each side of the argument resorts to rhetorical flourishes that are really just fragments. Poe's speaker lapses into “lofty contemplation” calling forth associations with the heroic past: “Here, where a hero fell, a column falls! / Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold, / A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!” The speaker, nevertheless, discovers that the desolate silence of the ruins still possesses strength. While each grand property of the past finds its visual counterpart in a current, muted remnant of its former glory, an analogous auditory relationship develops in which awesome silence comes to suggest majestic sound. The ruins provoke the exclamations “Vastness! and Age!” and the Echoes that reply to the speaker claim that ruins still have the power to chasten and subdue. Poe's contrast of observed ruin and unseen glory, awesome silence and suggested sound, surface desolation and submerged grandeur—all these pairings reflect his manner of allowing undercurrents of prophetic meaning to emerge from what appears to be dismal waste.

Like Constantin François Volney's The Ruins, numbered among the “valuable books of Eastern travel”34 in Poe's review of Arabia Petraea, “The Coliseum” provides a response to any charge about the ruins' incapacity to provoke sustained inspiration. “The Coliseum” also consists of a dialogue between a speaker and an unseen but palpable presence, much like the Genius of the ruins addressed in Volney's “The Invocation.”35 Poe's pairing of the observed and unseen, the audible and unheard, despite his term “Echoes,” does not reflect a simple antiphonal pattern. The Echoes do not merely answer back and assert a superior role in the argument. They function, after all, not as a collective voice of response or repetition but more as a presence, a presiding spirit similar to the Genius in Volney's work. Their function is, paradoxically, to go unnoticed until they must be heard, to declaim most forcefully when the observed structures, the ruins, appear their weakest.

Through their paradoxical nature, the ruins allow Poe to include a degree of psychological penetration that transcends fragmentary rhetorical flourishes. As Richard Wilbur has pointed out, “The Coliseum” comments on all ruin by acknowledging man's despotic nostalgia for the world's past.36 Poe's speaker recalls the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” that inveterate traveler in ruined cities, who remarks: “I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin” (M, II, 145). The speaker of the poem also drinks within his soul the gloomy grandeur of fallen empires, but Poe includes two puns, the multiple meanings of which cause one to question the health of such a single-minded pursuit. The phrase “At length—at length” implies temporal duration and physical distance, both required to reach the destination of crumbling ruin. A linked phrase from a later line, “I kneel, an altered and humble man,” indicates the physical and psychological toll of the journey, which has left the speaker supine (“at length”) and humbled before the ruins. Moreover, Poe also insinuates that the “altered” speaker is prostrating himself before what has become, for him, an “altar” of crumbled stones.37 If one also entertains Volney's theme—that greater ruin suggests the greater loss of prized civilization and, by implication, an intensification of human decline—“The Coliseum” becomes much more than an updating of Byronic rhetoric. As Monos says in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “But, for myself, the Earth's records had taught me to look for widest ruin as the price of highest civilization” (M, II, 611). Beyond the claim that ruins retain their sublime power, “The Coliseum” comments, much as the prophetic rationalist Volney warned, on the hard exchange exacted for the loss of civilization.

Less schematically than the review of Arabia Petraea, “The Coliseum” shows how fascination with ruin can alter individual psychology. Poe's systematic contrasts, deriving from the discrepancy between past grandeur and present waste, are reinforced by the dialectical quality of the poem. Moreover, these contrasts contribute to the mixed mood of exaltation and lassitude that characterizes his speaker, a melding of emotions similar to that in “Tamerlane.” Because the speaker's pronouncements represent only one side of an exchange, the reader must infer from a complex dialectic what prophetic meaning is suggested by the poem. Or to put the matter in different terms: Poe allows the fragmented remnants, the broken masses of ruin, to suggest significances that belie their pallid, broken appearance. What significance Poe intended is never made completely clear in the poem, but one apparently innocuous allusion provides some clarification. In what appears to be an heretical touch, the speaker suggests that the Roman ruins possess “spells more sure than e'er Judaean king / Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!” Here, another significant contrast is introduced, that between the historical depth of pagan Rome and Christ's teachings. “The Coliseum” is “Type of the antique Rome,” center of spectacular bloodshed; Poe's allusion to Gethsemane thus suggests that the modern world has come under Rome's violent but riveting “spell” rather than following the tender messages of Christ. Consonant with the ominous, prophetic tone of his review of Arabia Petraea, Poe implies that an orthodox source of spiritual wisdom has been slighted or rejected in favor of darker obsessions. His prophetic meaning does emerge in partial, broken form through imagery and allusion. Tracing a course of empire that cuts a broader swath than that associated with one locality, his speaker, prostrate before an altar of crumbling waste, completes his pilgrimage to a decidedly fallen city rather than to the City of God. “The Coliseum” represents yet another example of the difficulties and tensions involved in the attempts of Poe's speakers to connect with the “genius” of a place.

Poe's ability to inject a degree of psychological interest into a poetic landscape, as we have already noted, presents itself in “The Lake,” a poem that supposedly deals with a legend of the Dismal Swamp about two dead lovers who haunt their favorite spot. This story may have inspired Poe to place his speaker in a daemonic locale frequented by uncanny presences, but in this early poem, Poe fuses psyche and setting.38 In other words, Poe uses landscape scenery as a “frame” for the experiences of the speaker. As in the prose pieces dealing with scenic desolation, the speaker projects his feelings of despair and delight into a prospect that once had been a kind of Eden. But in contrast to his “spring of youth,” the speaker apparently can no longer “solace bring / To his lone imagining.” Characteristically, the feelings that Poe evokes resist categorization as simple fear or pleasure. One encounters once again the paradoxical experience of the sublime in which “the terror was not fright / But a tremulous delight.” And this feeling remains undefined, not explained conceptually. Although the subsequent versions of the poem do not change drastically, Poe does emphasize the internal state of the speaker, a more obvious set of references to the “I” of the poem.

In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less—
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.
But when the Night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody—
Then—ah then I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake
Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight—
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define—
Nor Love—although the Love were thine.
Death was in that poisonous wave,
And its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining—
whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.

“The Lake—To—,” although an early poem, points forward to a pattern in the later poetry in its manifestation of psychological tension through scenic detail. Its revisions, however slight, show a more intense focus on interior states of consciousness.


As our discussion of “The Lake—To—” indicates, Poe's poems underwent significant revision throughout his career. Poe's elimination of the narrative elements of the 1831 version of “Fairy-Land,” for example, serves as a case in point. These narrative features, complete with a drowsy fay named Isabel, practically constitute a wholly different poem in the 1831 version, entitled “Fairyland.” In all subsequent texts of the poem, finally called “Fairy-Land,” the treatment becomes thoroughly pictorial without any intrusion of plot or story line in the Aristotelian sense.

In a general discussion of the revisions of Poe's poetry, Killis Campbell remarks, “The manifold changes in phrasing were dictated by a variety of considerations. A good many came in response to an effort to find a more picturesque wording.”39 Campbell's use of the term “picturesque” suggests a matching of visual and verbal vocabularies, although he probably uses it in its most general sense without reference to the picturesque movement of the 1840s and 1850s. In any case, the apparent reason for most of the revisions in poems that treat external landscape derives from an effort to intensify the enclosure of space, to frame or pictorialize a particular prospect.

Poe's revisions of “The Valley of Unrest” constitute the clearest example of this pattern. Poe's changes, as in “Fairy-Land,” remove some of the clearer allusions and all of the story. The early proper name title, “The Valley Nis,” almost an allegorical label representing negation, is dropped in favor of the more universal “The Valley of Unrest.”40 As this title suggests about the final version, with all the narrative elements removed, “the reader may choose to regard the poem as a picture of dreams alone” (M, I, 190). In the earlier text, Poe deals with a purely moralistic myth in which the explanation of guilt is laid to “Satan's dart.”


Far away—far away
Far away—as far at least
Lies that valley as the day
Down within the golden east—
All things lovely—are not they
Far away—far away?
It is called the valley Nis
And a Syriac tale there is
Thereabout which Time hath said
Shall not be interpreted.
Something about Satan's dart—
Something about angel wings—
Much about a broken heart—
All about unhappy things:
But “the valley Nis” at best
Means “the valley of unrest.”
Once it smiled a silent dell
Where people did not dwell,
Having gone unto wars—
And the sly mysterious stars,
With a visage full of meaning,
O'er the unguarded flowers were leaning:
Or the sun ray dripp'd all red
Thro' the tulips overhead,
Then grew paler as it fell
On the quiet Asphodel.
Now, the unhappy shall confess
Nothing there is motionless:
Helen, like the human eye
There th' uneasy violets lie—
There the reedy grass doth wave
Over the old forgotten grave—
One by one from the tree top
There the eternal dews do drop—
There the vague and dreamy trees
Do roll like seas in northern breeze
Around the stormy Hebrides—
There the gorgeous clouds do fly,
Rolling like a waterfall
O'er th' horizon's fiery wall—
There the moon doth shine by night
With a most unsteady light—
There the sun doth reel by day
“Over the hills and far away.”

The fall of the valley into unhappiness becomes, in other words, blamed on external force. However, in the final version, Poe deals with purely psychological symbolism, and the guilt becomes subject to the reader's inference. He, moreover, eliminates directional references so that the valley no longer represents a “silent dell” in the “golden east,” but a place of indeterminate location.


Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visiter shall confess
Nothing there is motionless.
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
Eternal dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

In contrast to “Al Aaraaf,” Poe internalizes daemonic forces in the poem rather than treating them as outside supernatural agents. He maintains the ambiguous, watching stars, no longer referring to their “sly, mysterious” character. Their equivocal role as symbols of trust to the people of the valley becomes intensified by their more neutral, impassive characterization as “mild-eyed.”

The final version also falls within the genre of the contrasted landscape, similar, in this respect, to “The Island of the Fay.” In eliminating any extraneous narrative feature, the completed text posits a direct contrast between the “silent dell” which “once” existed as a sweet retreat from the outside world and the troubled, “restless” valley that “now” exists, in which the visitors are haunted by memories of the prelapsarian world. With reference to Poe's aesthetics more particularly, the 1831 “The Valley of Nis” begins with lines that give the distinct impression of distance:

Far away—far away—
Far away—as far at least
Lies that valley as the day
Down within the golden east
—All things lovely—are not they
Far away—far away?

The spatial expansiveness here recalls that in “Al Aaraaf” (cf.I:20-25). The 1836 version, nearly identical except for the last fifteen lines, makes some interesting diction changes in order to circumscribe the setting and to make the psychological symbolism less overt. Rather than blatantly labelling the present inhabitants of the restless valley as the “unhappy,” the 1836 version lets the reader draw his own conclusions about their plight.


Now the unhappy shall confess
Nothing there is motionless


Now each visiter shall confess
Nothing there is motionless

In addition, while the earlier version ends on an impression of vast expanse, the later text concludes with “Eternal dews” descending “in gems,” symbolic of the relentless cycles of natural existence that continue restlessly without any overt intervention from an outside presence.

The final, shortest (1845) version of the poem follows the process of more intense circumscription to its logical conclusion. In fact, all of the representative sublime elements have been totally eliminated. The trees that “roll like seas / Around the stormy Hebrides” have been removed, though Poe maintains this single vaguely geographical reference to western isles. The “terror-stricken sky, / Rolling like a waterfall / O'er the horizon's fiery wall” does not appear. The energy of the earlier poetic pictures, associated with the dynamic sublime, gives way to a restlessness more effective in its taut suspense because of the elimination of overt dynamism. The expansive lines “O'er the enchanted solitude” and “O'er the valley world” are excised. In the 1845 version, the feeling of unrest presents itself without a powerful wind; the “airs” merely brood. The fallen world pulses daemonically and restlessly, filled with latent inward stress rather than blatant dynamic power. The final poem, built upon a deceptively simple contrast of two imaginary landscapes, becomes all the more elusive and indefinite in its meaning because of the thoroughly pictorialized treatment.

The same shifting aesthetic pattern becomes evident from analysis of the revisions of the companion piece to “The Valley of Unrest,” “The City in the Sea.” The 1831 version of the poem was entitled “The Doomed City.”

Lo! Death hath rear'd himself a throne
In a strange city, all alone,
Far down within the dim west—
And the good, and the bad, and the worst, and the best,
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines, and palaces, and towers
Are—not like any thing of ours—
O! no—O! no—ours never loom
To heaven with that ungodly gloom!
Time-eaten towers that tremble not!
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
A heaven that God doth not contemn
With stars is like a diadem—
We liken our ladies' eyes to them—
But there! that everlasting pall!
It would be mockery to call
Such dreariness a heaven at all.
Yet tho' no holy rays come down
On the long night-time of that town,
Light from the lurid, deep sea
Streams up the turrets silently—
Up thrones—up long forgotten bowers
Of sculptur’d ivy and stone flowers—
Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
Upon a melancholy shrine
Whose entablatures intertwine
The mask—the viol—and the vine.
There open temples—open graves
Are on a level with the waves—
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye,
Not the gaily-jewell'd dead
Tempt the waters from their bed:
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass—
No swellings hint that winds may be
Upon a far-off happier sea;
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from the high towers of the town
Death looks gigantically down.
But lo! a stir is in the air!
The wave! there is a ripple there!
As if the towers had thrown aside
In slightly sinking, the dull tide—
As if the turret-tops had given
A vacuum in the filmy heaven:
The waves have now a redder glow—
The very hours are breathing low—
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell rising from a thousand thrones
Shall do it reverence,
And Death to some more happy clime
Shall give his undivided time.

In 1836 Poe chose the title “The City of Sin.” The final title shows a movement away from an allegorical interpretation and toward psychological symbolism rendered through visual details.


Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently—
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free
Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers—
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye—
Not the gaily-jewelled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along the wilderness of glass—
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-happier sea—
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave—there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside
In slightly sinking, the dull tide—
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow—
The hours are breathing faint and low—
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

Richard Wilbur underscores the indefiniteness of Poe's treatment when he claims that the poem “is so thoroughly pictorial, so lacking in argumentative or narrative structure, that all evidence of Poe's true meaning must be drawn from external sources; largely from prose pieces of later composition.”41 In any case, Poe's removal of some of the more expansive imagery in revisions of the poem conforms to the pattern followed in development of “The Valley of Unrest.” The looming towers of the 1831 version, giving the impression of great height, do not appear in the final version. Poe also eliminates the description of a heaven filled with stars, reminiscent of the vast, daemonized cosmology of “Al Aaraaf.” The emphasis on the depth of the sea in “The Doomed City” disappears from “The City in the Sea.” Poe transforms so-called “entablatures” of stone, inviting sublime recollection of ruin in the 1831 version, into “wreathed friezes,” evoking the patterned strangeness and febrile energies of arabesque or picturesque art. He transmutes “the far-off happier star” of “The Doomed City,” evoking a strong sense of distance, into “seas less hideously serene” in “The City in the Sea.” In general, simple details of expansive geography receive less spatial emphasis and greater psychological implication. The concluding two lines of the earliest version (“And Death to some more happy clime / Shall give his undivided time”) do not appear in the final text of the poem. Once again, Poe aims at a less allegorical and more pictorial presentation of the prospect.

In any case, although “The City in the Sea” has justifiably been called the companion piece to “The Valley of Unrest,” one outstanding difference between the two poems emerges. In the earlier poem, Poe emphasizes movement, restlessness, psychological tension aroused by a landscape filled with repressed activity. The wind may not move the trees, but they palpitate with Hebridean chills. Here in “The City in the Sea,” Poe acknowledges no western energies whatsoever, only a vision of the westering spirit in utter stasis or “eternal rest.” A pictorial symbol of paralysis, the city becomes circumscribed by the sea, giving a sense of enclosure reminiscent of Poe's fictional “landscapes.” In contrast to “The Valley of Unrest,” he includes practically no motion, no activity, none of the energy associated with the sublime. Psychological tension is aroused by an absence of movement. Thus, the poem becomes a representation of a landscape of dreams with no future.42 No one, not even the morally upright, avoids total annihilation since “the good and the bad and the worst and the best” all meet their destiny in “the dim west.” As indicated by the exclusion of the last two lines of “The Doomed City,” even death falls into the all-consuming void, since death cannot reign where nothing exists. In the penultimate image of the poem, Poe evokes a pitiless landscape of eternal silence. In other words, the apocalyptic vision of Eureka and the colloquies receives pictorial treatment in “The City in the Sea.”


In suggesting greater emphasis on circumscription of space as the aesthetics of Poe's poetry develop, I do not mean to imply that the daemonic, so essential to an understanding of the sublimity in “Al Aaraaf,” is subsequently dropped. For Poe's interest in the daemonic continued without an attendant fascination with the sublime in external nature. A case in point is Poe's most famous poem, “The Raven.” In all probability, the background on classical raven lore in Jacob Bryant's Antient Mythology asserted an influence on Poe's poem. Poe develops a complex interplay between the angelic and daemonic, perhaps inspired by an authority on ancient mythology like Bryant. This kind of daemonic ambivalence may explain the inconsistencies with which some critics have charged Poe in “The Raven.” Bryant provided Poe with ample background on daemon worship in ancient Greece and Rome, but one major difference distinguishes his use of the daemonic in “The Raven” from that in “Al Aaraaf.” In the later poem, as “The Philosophy of Compostition” indicates, enclosure rather than expansiveness becomes an aesthetic preference for Poe. The famous passage deserves citation in this context in order to underscore Poe's pictorial emphasis and his tentative entertainment of placing his bereaved lover in an external setting.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

(H, XIV, 204)

Rather than the broad sweeping canvass of “Al Aaraaf,” the raven as a daemonic agent enters an intensely insulated interior, Poe's technique evident in his desire to impose a frame on the picture.

Into this circumscribed interior, Poe introduces a daemonic agent, deriving some of its power from ancient associations. Contrasted with the dove, which was a symbol of hope to the gods, “the raven, which disappointed the hopes reposed in his (the Deity), and which never returned, was held in a different light; and was for the most part esteemed a bird of ill omen” (B, III, 115). The last four words, while not unique, follow Poe's phrasing in “The Philosophy of Composition” (H, XIV, 200). Bryant further mentions that the bird did not immediately become a symbol of unmitigated evil: “The raven, however, did not entirely lose its credit. It was esteemed an augural bird; and is said to have preceded, and directed the colony which Battus led to Cyrene” (B, III, 115). By such a statement, Bryant classifies the raven as a daemon, a supernatural agent which did not acquire evil associations until Christian times. In view of Poe's extensive reliance on the Antient Mythology during the years before the genesis and composition of “The Raven,” such symbolic (daemonic) associations would not be lost on him.

The interplay between the angelic and the daemonic emerges from the very outset of the poem. The gentle tapping at the student's chamber inspires thoughts of “the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” The student temporarily entertains the confused hope that his visitor comes as an angelic messenger, a beneficent spirit-guide from his lost loved one. His initial reaction, by no means instant revulsion to a symbol of total depravity, introduces instead a note of welcoming invocation: “In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.” In addition, the bird has “the mien of lord and lady” and “a grave and stern decorum.” In these early stanzas, the raven, hardly “the thing of evil” that the student later curses, functions as a daemonic agent, morally ambiguous in a pagan context. As has been noted, the raven as a possible symbol of hope becomes perverted by the student “half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture” (H, XIV, 202).43 The student's “phrensied pleasure” (H, XIV, 202) to torment himself reverses the raven's potential value as a positive daemonic symbol. As the poem progresses, the raven becomes more a private symbol, an hallucinatory projection of the narrator's penchant for self-recrimination. The supposedly learned, rational student transforms, through superstition, a bird of possibly neutral associations into a fiendish daemon. This pattern of angelic-daemonic ambivalence develops an added ironic twist when the student entertains the possibility that the raven was sent by the so-called “angels” of God, who will not allow the oblivion of forgetfulness. Poe's prophetic pattern of “thou saying” or invocation, reminiscent of “The Coliseum,” becomes evident in the student's direct address to the bird:

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”

Consonant with Bryant's previously quoted assertion, the raven as a messenger of God never returns to its master and becomes a bird of ill omen.

Poe encountered varied conceptions of the daemonic from his reading. For example, Bryant outlines the Biblical story of Noah and the Deluge:

The history of the raven is well known, which he (Noah) sent out of the ark by way of experiment: but it disappointed him, and never returned. The bird is figured in the sphere: and a tradition is mentioned, that the raven was once sent on a message by Apollo: but deceived him, and did not return, when he was expected.

(B, III, 54)

This Old Testament legend can be supplemented by similar treatments in Hebraic folklore, where the raven, originally white, was turned black in punishment for not returning to the ark after Noah sent it out to survey the flood conditions.

A final instance of classical raven lore outlined in the Antient Mythology may have a significant impact on Poe's poem. Bryant discusses appeasing the “Daemons” at Roman marital rites.

The two birds, which were introduced on these occasions were the Raven and the Dove. The history of the latter is well-known. In respect to the former many have thought it a bird of ill omen; and it is said that the very croaking of the Raven would put a stop to the process of matrimony.

(B, III, 253)

This classical association adds a note of poignancy to Poe's poem since the raven functioned as a symbol of prophecy that could prevent marital union. Bryant, in this regard, details associated hymeneal rites:

And we are told by Aelian … “that at nuptials, after the Hymeneal hymn, they used to invoke the Raven.” The bird was also many times introduced, and fed by the bride; there was a customary song upon the occasion, which began … “Come, young woman, feed the Raven”. … This ceremony was doubtless in consequence of a tradition, that the Raven upon a time was sent by Apollo upon a message; but disappointed him and did not return.

(B, III, 154)

In this ritual, the women did service to a whimsical daemonic agent that could sanction or destroy a marriage. In Poe's poem, the raven's darker prophecy fulfills itself. A Freudian critic would be intrigued by the raven's association with hymeneal rites and the student's self-torture at being denied sexual consummation with Lenore, but such psychoanalytic theorizing, however stimulating, would be reductive in a poem with multiple associations. Suffice it to say that this example of classical raven lore, part of the “suggestiveness” or “undercurrent of meaning” outlined in “The Philosophy of Composition,” provides a context for the raven's prophecy, its daemonic intercession, and the denial of union with Lenore.

As Poe moved from “Al Aaraaf” to “The Raven,” he tended less to compartmentalize the functions of his daemonic agents. The responsibilities of Nesace and Ligeia have clear demarcation; the raven, a more open-ended symbol of daemonic and prophetic intervention, reflects multiple meanings, a range of suggestions and undercurrents. In “The Raven” as opposed to “Al Aaraaf,” moreover, the daemonic agent appears in a tightly closed setting. Poe thus transfers his daemons from a sublime landscape charged with supernatural energy to a single chamber inhabited by a solitary individual. As circumscription of space replaces sublime expanse, the carefully delimited setting allows Poe to focus more subtly on psychological themes.

These psychic daemons play an important role in “Ulalume,” Poe's last prolonged poetic evocation of external landscape. “Ulalume” derives from a long tradition of poems about the evening star, invoked by Poe in his early lyric “Evening Star” (1827). In such pieces, the star acts as a presiding presence or spiritual guide, inviting a lover to his beloved in dangerous darkness.44 What Mabbott refers to as the poem's “steady, quiet, and restless” music, as well as the “crisped and sere” landscape, serve as an enveloping veil that lends a picturesque effect.

As several commentators have observed, the poem records a dramatic debate between the narrator, tempted by the planet Venus-Astarte, and Psyche, who wants to keep alive the memory of the lost Ulalume. The sensuous, emotional self tensely confronts Psyche, the Greek symbol for the soul. In terms of landscape, all images of energy and restlessness express internal, psychological tension. The “alley Titanic, / Of cypress,” “the scoriac rivers that roll,” “the lavas that restlessly roll,” the “sulphurous currents down Yaanek”—all these references, in another context, might possibly reflect sublime energies. But these geographical and scenic features project the seething emotions that rumble beneath the authentic landscape of “Ulalume,” a picturesque landscape where “the leaves are crisped and sere.” The poem's locale, “the misty mid region of Weir,” offers no precise geographical positioning but another version of the enclosed valley of unrest. The reference to Robert Weir,45 the Romantic landscape painter of the Hudson River School and an illustrator of the works of Cooper and Scott, underscores the pictorial quality of the poem. In fact, the reference to “drawing up” the specter of the planet in line 101 may be a punning allusion to the painterly manner in which Astarte's crescent is presented to the speaker.

The narrator feels the attraction to travel to the expansive realm of Astarte's planet, “the path to the skies” reminiscent of the paradise of “Al Aaraaf.” But the path to the sublime realm, out of space and time, becomes literally a dead end. The equivocal nature of the evening star's role as guardian or guide reveals itself, since the “crystalline light” that was to lead them “aright” becomes a “mere spectre.”46 No benign Hesperian light leading the speaker to a safe haven in more cogenial regions, the star proves deceptive and ambiguous. The shock of the protagonist's true location in an enclosed valley of unrest awakens him to reality. He finds himself in a fiendishly depraved valley beside a dark tarn haunted by ghouls. As if acknowledging that his spiritual guide has led him astray, he asks: “Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?” Reflecting the ambiguous nature of the daemonic in Poe, his question provides perspective on his fatuous hopes that sensuous love can replace the ideal love that he felt for Ulalume. The very insulation of the landscape becomes a pictorial representation of the denial of such an other-worldly rationalization. But the daemon also relates thematically to the ghouls that haunt the woodlands. Not the merciful ghouls or benign spirits of the dead, as some critics have speculated, these are the near-Eastern daemons who eat the dead and have the magical power to conjure up the ghost of the planet of the oriental sex goddess Venus-Astarte.47 The ghouls recall the restless sexual impulse that surfaces as a temporary option to recurrent visitation of the dead body of Ulalume. As in “The Coliseum,” the poem enacts an ironic ritual or pilgrimage, since the ghouls, eaters of flesh and associated with the destruction of the body, cause the narrator to fall in love again and to repeat the cycle of passionate love and loss. Thus, the so-called merciful ghouls provide a deceptive temptation in their offer to him to love once again, only to rediscover the pangs of loss.

In the context of Poe's aesthetics, “Ulalume” places the narrator in an external landscape that mirrors his psychological imprisonment. In one sense, the poem transcends a facile identification between man and nature, since the protagonist discovers that the spectre-star does not serve him as a benign guiding light. In another sense, it presents a more radical fusion of man and landscape, since the invocation of ghostly presences prepares a deeper, ceremonial merging of the speaker's spirit and the true memory of Ulalume. The description of the landscape with its “ashen and sober” skies and “withering and sere” trees represents a direct contrast to the imagery of openness and extension in “Al Aaraaf.” Rather than supernatural agents that have external and official functions in “Al Aaraaf,” the daemons in the landscape of “Ulalume” all have a subjective import. Even the eastern and western references in the poem have either psychological or mythic significance, rather than geographical distinction. The woodland suggests a pictorial representation of the buried spirit of the place, the interred memory of the lost Ulalume. The energetic, volcanic currents symbolize the latent, false hopes that sensual passion can replace ideal love. As in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” however, the narrator must reject such energy since the scenery generates psychic depression rather than Burkean sublimity. Astarte's bediamoned crescent serves as an astral symbol of the narrator's futile hopes. Finally as the circular journey reaches its culmination, reminiscent perhaps of the ironic pilgrimage of the speaker in “The Coliseum,” the narrator ends where he began. Perhaps in a Poe-esque “All Hallow's Eve” ritual, he repeats his homage to Ulalume exactly one year after her death. Returning to that terrifying symbol of enclosure and negation—the tomb—he finds a “bar” and a “ban” to his hopes. The end of the “vista” in “Ulalume” provides perhaps the most unsettling prospect for any of Poe's poetic speakers.


In general, the shift from expansive prospects, vast images, and spatial openness to enclosure, circumscription, and pychological limitation occurs in Poe's poetry as well as his prose. Other poems, such as “The Haunted Palace,” “For Annie,” and “The Sleeper,” show a similar pattern of spatial limitation in that external scenery mirrors the psychological barriers of the mortal world. The living world does not allow the opportunity for expansive connection and easy fusion since man inhabits, literally and metaphorically, a valley of unrest. “Al Aaraaf,” similar to later poems such as “The Raven” and “Ulalume” in that Poe's interest in the daemonic emerges, presents vast, cosmic proportions ultimately replaced by the internal, subjective focus of the later poetry. The aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque provide an implicit backdrop for such a shift. Their aesthetic impact can hardly be gainsaid in view of the importance of such terminology in Poe's critical vocabulary.


  1. Edward Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 83. Davidson discusses Poe's pictorialism, pp. 77-78, 84, and 114-115.

  2. See G. R. Thompson, Circumscribed Eden of Dreams: Dream-Vision and Nightmare in Poe's Early Poetry (Baltimore: Baltimore Poe Society, 1984).

  3. Halliburton [, David. Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973).] pp. 50 ff.

  4. Jacobs, “The Self and the World: Poe's Early Poems,” Georgia Review, 31 (1977), 638-68.

  5. Halliburton and Geoffrey Rans, Edgar Allan Poe (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965), p. 47.

  6. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Boston: Joseph Buckingham, 1815), p. 218. Lowth discusses the sublime in Lectures XIV-XVII.

  7. Quoted in Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Modalities of Fragmentation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), p. 10.

  8. Price, “The Sublime Poem: Pictures and Powers,” Yale Review, 58 (1969), 194-213.

  9. See the chapter, entitled “The Daemonic Sublime,” in Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 99-132.

  10. Fletcher [, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of the Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964)] pp. 41-42. See Fletcher's entire chapter, entitled “The Daemonic Agent,” pp. 25-69.

  11. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), pp. 42-43.

  12. Fedallah is a “dive” or evil spirit designating the powers of darkness. “In Islamic imagery the dives were a species of ‘jinn’ or genii, a race of spirits which was supposed to pervade the universe and was an indispensable part of the romantic machinery. Fedallah and his companions easily lend themselves to this interpretation, for Ahab's five dusky phantoms, in the traditional manner of Arabian jinn, ‘seemed fresh formed out of air’”—Dorothee Finkelstein, Melville's Orienda (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 227. See also Muhktar Ali Isani, “Zoroastrianism and the Fire Symbolism of Moby-Dick,American Literature, 44 (1972), 385-397. Emerson's comments on daemons are cutting: “It is a midsummer madness, corrupting all who hold the tenet. The demonologic is only a fine name for egotism, an exaggeration namely of the individual, whom it is Nature's settled purpose to postpone”—Lectures and Biographical Sketches (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 20.

  13. Beer [, J. B. Coleridge the Visionary (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969)], p. 104.

  14. Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (London: Routledge & Sons, 1885), p. 85. For Poe's knowledge of Scott, see [Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Talks and Sketches (Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1978) Hereafter cited as M] II, 375 and M, III, 859.

  15. For Poe's reference to Alastor, see H [Harrison, James A. ed. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, [New York: AMS Press, 1902/1965)], XVI, 149.

  16. Shelley [, Percy Bysshe. Selected Poetry, ed. Neville Rogers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968)], p. 29. For a discussion of Shelley's reliance on this tradition of daemonology, see Neville Rogers, “Daemons and Other ‘Monsters of Thought,’” in Shelley at Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), pp. 64-90.

  17. Hoffman [, Daniel. Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, (New York: Anchor Press, 1973.], p. 38.

  18. Fletcher p. 247.

  19. Poe may have encountered the name Zoilus in Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, revised by Charles Anthon, his consultant on Pym. Zoilus is there characterized as a severe critic of Plato and Isocrates and the “chastiser of Homer.” Zoilus was persecuted and purportedly executed by torture. Anthon adds, “The name of Zoilus was generally applied to austere critics”—J. Lemprière, A Classical Dictionary (New York: Duyckinck, Gilley, Collins, 1825), p. 803. This and other information (the intoxication of the characters in the tale) lead to the speculation that “Shadow—A Parable” is a veiled autobiographical piece on Poe's career as an acerbic critic.

  20. Barton Levi St. Armand, “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 1-8. See also Thomas Vargish, “The Gnostic Mythos in Moby-Dick,PMLA, 81 (1966), 272-277.

  21. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 281-283.

  22. Stovall [, Floyd. Edgar Poe the Poet (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1969).], p. 103.

  23. Jonas, p. 283.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Bryant also devotes considerable attention to Zoroastrianism (I, 388, 397, and IV, 204). Referring to “daemonic ambivalence,” whereby one encounters either good or bad agents, Fletcher uses the terms “agathodaemon” and “cacodaemon.”

  26. Thomas P. Haviland, “How Well Did Poe Know Milton?” PMLA, 69 (1954), 841-860.

  27. See Sidney Lind, “Poe and Mesmerism,” PMLA, 62 (1947), 1077-1094 and Doris Falk, “Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism,” PMLA, 84 (1969), 536-546.

  28. See especially McFarland's “Introduction: Fragmented Modalities and the Criteria of Romanticism,” pp. 3-55. As an encompassing term for Romantic incompleteness, fragmentation, and ruin, McFarland uses the word “diasparaction,” pp. 4 ff. For comments on the sublimity of fragmented forms, see pp. 29-30.

  29. See William Mentzel Forrest, “Poe Among the Prophets,” Univ. of Virginia Alumni Bulletin, 17 (1924), 163-177, 326-335 and Killis Campbell, “Poe's Knowledge of the Bible,” Studies in Philology, 27 (1930), 546-551 for relevant discussions of Biblical prophecy. David Halliburton's brief comment (p. 101) seems more germane to my discussion here: “one might be able to determine not merely Poe's exploitation of sources, but his place in the tradition of secular prophecy that, as Albert LaValley has shown, starts with Blake, and proceeds through a notable line of thinkers including Carlyle, Nietszche, and Marx.” Halliburton alludes to LaValley, Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern.

  30. Mabbott Manfred, III, iv, 10-41 and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, IV, cxlii-cxlv (M, I, 226).

  31. A work mentioned by Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953), pp. 29-31, in her discussion of contrasts and pairings in poems about ruins. See also Macaulay, p. 199.

  32. Laurence Goldstein discusses Wordsworth's poem as a response to Dyer in his suggestive discussion of cultural contradictions and dilemmas in the literature of ruin, Ruins and Empire: The Evolution of a Theme in Augustan and Romantic Literature (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), pp. 130 ff.

  33. Quoted in McFarland, p. 100, from Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel Ausgabe.

  34. Poe (H, X, 2) also quotes Volney in the “Marginalia” for the Democratic Review, 16 (1844), 32. Wilson O. Clough has suggested Volney's Ruins as an influence on “The City in the Sea” in “Poe's City in the Sea Revisited,” in Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, ed. Clarence Gohdes (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 77-90. Volney's Ruins appeared in six editions—four American—before the publication of “The Coliseum.” Although Volney may not be a direct source for Poe's poem, the series of associations with heroic places, the dialectical interchange between the respective speakers and unseen voices, the declamatory and exclamatory qualities of the language, the somewhat heretical touch in Poe's second stanza (reminiscent of the notorious anti-clericalism and anti-religious bias of Volney)—all these elements make The Ruins, at least, an apt prose analogue for Poe's poem.

  35. Volney's highly rhetorical “The Invocation” is quite different in tone from other portions of The Ruins: or A Survey of the Revolution of Empires (Philadelphia: James Lym, 1799). The Genius is addressed in “The Invocation” (pp. iii-xix), and the declamatory dialogue, evoking “sublime meditations,” continues in Chapter III, “The Apparition,” and subsequent chapters, pp. 15-49. Poe would have come across passages from Volney's Ruins in his reading of Rev. Alexander Keith's Evidence of Prophecy (1832) in which Volney's factual reports on ruins seem to fulfill Biblical predictions, Volney grudgingly acknowledged despite his avowed infidelity. Paradoxically, the agnostic Volney's accounts were taken as evidence of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, as noted by an anonymous reviewer, “Keith's Evidence of Christianity,American Monthly Review, 2 (1832), 466-473.

  36. Poe, p. 38.

  37. Poe chose the Coliseum as the setting of Scene XI of Politian in which his protagonist, an “altered” man (M, I, 265), delivers as a soliloquy a slightly revised version of “The Coliseum.” The scene takes place at an altar (M, I, 287). In Scene I of the play, Ugo comments: “Most men are sadly altered when they're drunk / Oh, I am sadly altered when I'm (hiccup) drunk” (M, I, 249).

  38. Eric W. Carlson acknowledges the daemonic implications of the poem in Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1967), pp. 464-465.

  39. Killis Campbell, ed., The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston: The Athenaeum Press, 1917), p. xxxix.

  40. See Thomas Bledsoe, “On Poe's ‘Valley of Unrest,’” Modern Language Notes, 61 (1946), 91-92; Roy Basler, “Poe's ‘The Valley of Unrest,’” Explicator, 5 (1946), 25; and James Kiehl, “The Valley of Unrest: A Major Metaphor in the Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe,” Thoth, 5 (1964), 45-52.

  41. Wilbur [, Richard.] Poe, [(New York: Laurel Poetry Series, 1958], p. 32.

  42. In addition to Clough, see Roy Basler, “Poe's ‘The City in the Sea,’” Explicator, 4 (1946), 30, and Frederick Keefer, “‘The City in the Sea’: A Reexamination,” College English, 25 (1964), 436-439.

  43. John F. Adams, “Classical Raven Lore and Poe's Raven,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 53. A study that treats classical sources is John J. Teunissen and Evelyn J. Hinz, “‘Quaint and Curious’ Backgrounds for Poe's ‘Raven,’” Southern Humanities Review, 7 (1973), 411-419.

  44. For comments on William Collins' role in the tradition, see Hartman, “Romantic Poetry and the Genius Loci,” [in Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958-1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970)], p. 322. For reference to Collins' influence on Poe, see M, I, 410.

  45. Lewis Leary, “Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” Explicator, 6 (1948), 25. See also Eric Carlson, “Symbol and Sense in Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” American Literature, 35 (1963), 22-37; James Miller, “‘Ulalume’ Resurrected,” Philological Quarterly, 34 (1955), 197-215; and Glen Omans, “Poe's ‘Ulalume’: Drama of the Solipsistic Self,” in Papers on Poe, pp. 62-73.

  46. See Lou Ann Kriegisch, “‘Ulalume’—A Platonic Profanation of Beauty and Love,” Poe Studies, 11 (1978), 29-31.

  47. For further comments on irony in the poem, see David Robinson, “‘Ulalume’—The Ghouls and the Critics,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 8-10.

Georges Zayed (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4618

SOURCE: Zayed, Georges. “The Symbolism of the Poems.” In The Genius of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 127-36. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Zayed discusses the pervasive presence of death in Poe's poetry.]

In fact, Poe's poems translate an internal reality, felt by him with intensity and pain, without however becoming confessions. If certain pieces obviously refer to events in his emotional or intellectual life, he does not strike a heroic pose in them, as do the Romantics, nor does he exalt his own ego. On the contrary, he conferred enough universality to his poems so that they find an echo in all hearts. That is also the main quality of French Classicism. Like the short stories, which express the dreads of the human heart, anxiety before life, and anguish before death, the poems are dominated in general by the spectre of death. But in them it appears in a less brutal fashion; it manifests itself especially in the form of memories, regrets, nostalgia, and vague hopes of future happiness. Yet it permeates the poems perhaps even more than the tales for there is nothing grotesque or fantastic about them. Death is present everywhere. Together with love, its corollary in Poe's view, it constitutes the essential, indeed almost the sole, theme of the poems. The only difference is that in the poetry it is less aggressive than in the stories; it does not enter into direct conflict with the heroes; there is no threat, no desperate or tragic struggle. Terror, which is the mechanism of so many of the tales, is replaced by sorrow or anguish. All the poems tell of the mourning of lost loves. Thus in one sense they are more realistic, for they are not imaginary, but have been experienced. Nevertheless, though generated by an agonized reality, they are detached from topicality and contingencies which they transcend in an unearthly state. The night of the tomb is not locked shut, as in the stories, but opens toward a distant light, an Eden of dreams which is the ethereal domain of souls. That is to say that though these poems are rooted in Poe's internal reality, their spiritual or mystical outgrowth is literally lost in the stars.

From the dead past to which they relate, they draw a sweet sadness, a melancholy and tranquil emotion which, without shock, or grand gestures, or violence, grips the soul and wrings the heart to the point of tears. From the impossible dream, they take on their apparent insubstantiality and their nostalgic fluidity. Evocation of the past and escape from reality, which are two fundamental romantic themes, form their very base, and the verse of “Dream Land”: “Out of space—out of time,” could be an epigraph to all Poe's poetic work. The same is true of the second quatrain of “A Dream”:

Ah! what is not a dream by day
          To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
          Turned back upon the past?

(Poems, p. 96)

For Poe's entire life was a quest for love and his work a quest for Beauty—or one can say a quest for love through beauty and for beauty through love. Indeed all his poetry expresses actual loves. The first “To Helen” probably had for its heroine Jane Stith Stanard: in 1848, Poe admitted as much to Mrs. Helen Whitman, to whom he had dedicated the revised version in 1845. According to traditional belief, she also inspired “Tamerlane,” “To—” (I heed not that my early lot …), “Spirits of the Dead,” and others. The second “To Helen” was inspired by Mrs. Nancy Richman, whom he met in July 1848 while lecturing in Lowell, Massachusetts, and whom he always called Annie. His marriage with his cousin Virginia and her death suggested to him, naturally, a certain number of poems including “Eulalie,” “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” “To One in Paradise” … He dedicated an original kind of acrostic in diagonals to Mrs. Frances Sergent Osgood. “The Bells” may have been written at the suggestion of Mary Louise Shew to whom he dedicated “To——” and “To M. L. S.” Sarah Elmira Royster inspired more than one poem where he expressed his disappointment at having been betrayed by the young woman whom he loved, and his resentment smoldered for a long time: “Bridal Ballad,” “Song.” That is to say that the poems, unlike the stories, have their origin in a fact, an event or real emotion related to or experienced by the author.

But they are as infused with symbolism as the tales and this is what confers upon them that mysterious aspect and that air of unreality which are two of their most intriguing qualities and captivating charms. A few examples will suffice to show this tendency, without mentioning the synesthesias which were commonly used in them.

Three poems are affected by the symbolism of the short stories in which they are inserted. The first one, “The Haunted Palace,” in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” has already been analyzed with the story; we will not return to it. …. “The Conqueror Worm,” inserted somewhat awkwardly in “Ligeia,” where it blends poorly with the theme, contains a luminous symbolism that reveals clearly who is the triumphant hero of this puppet-show where the actors are poor human beings, “mimes in the form of God,” and where the protagonist is Death, and the spectators are angels “drowned in tears.”1 The third poem, inserted in the story “The Assignation,” is “To One in Paradise” which has no other symbolism than the analogies between the material and psychological landscapes, especially concerning love: “a green isle in the sea,” “a fountain and a shrine,” “all wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers”; and the bereft widower: “the thunder-blasted tree,” “the stricken eagle.”

Naturally, the symbolism of the poems is not always clear; as in “The Haunted Palace” it is sometimes difficult to decipher. But, in general, it is more accessible than the symbolism of the stories; and poems which are truly hermetic and difficult to understand, are rare. Moreover the commentators have all endeavored to interpret them each in his own manner.

Poe's symbolism appears in different forms: it is aesthetic in “Al Aaraaf,” in “To Science,” “Fairy-Land,” “To Helen,” “Israfel”; it is emotional, and is nearly always lugubrious, in a large group of poems—(this is his specialty, and his chief claim to fame as a poet)—particularly in “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee” …, to which one might add three semi-emotional, semi-philosophical poems: “The Sleeper,” “The City in the Sea,” and “The Valley of Unrest”; finally, his symbolism is philosophical in “Dream-Land,” “For Annie,” “Silence,” “Eldorado,” “The Lake—To—.”

Aesthetic symbolism appears above all in the poems of youth, published in 1827 and 1828, when Poe was tormented by questions of literary theory. “Al Aaraaf” (a star discovered by Tycho Brahe) tells of an ideal world, a world of dreams, attainable by imagination, which is the true home of the poet, where absolute Beauty and perfection can be perceived by us directly and not through the imperfection of our world:

Oh! nothing earthly save the ray
(Thrown back from flowers) of Beauty's eye …
Oh! nothing earthly save the thrill
Of melody in woodland rill …

Of course, this is in conformity with Poe's aesthetics which is based first on his famous postulate that beauty is the sole province of art, second, that poetry raises the soul above reality, and, finally, that to express this unearthly beauty the poet should be free of all terrestrial passion.2

The same symbol is found in “Fairy-Land.” Here the moon, which represents the imaginary universe, multiplies itself indefinitely under the magic wand of art and prevails over the stars, symbols of exact knowledge. The next day, it dissolves in a hail of atoms caught by the “butterflies of earth” who are the poets, those “beggars of azure,” as Mallarmé calls them.

In the sonnet “To Science,” Poe contrasts the charm of dreams and mythology to the dryness of science and industry. Like Time, the latter destroy Beauty and smother the heart of the poet who cannot escape on the wing of imagination toward the distant star where the Naiad, the Elfin and the Hamadryad, expelled by abominable reality, took refuge:

Science …
          Vulture, whose wings are dull realities. …
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
          And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
          Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

In the first “To Helen,” the poet, who has abandoned himself to passion is brought back to the worship of pure Art through feminine beauty; the lamp of agate symbolizes truth sustained by beauty:

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
          Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy naiad airs have brought me home
          To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome. …(3)

Finally, the angel “Israfel,” whose “heart-strings are a lute” and who inhabits the heights of the heavens, is the image of that celestial beauty toward which the poet should be directed through the intermediary of verbal music; in making his way, it will be given to him to perceive truth through beauty, and to know true love, two things which are forbidden to him in our imperfect world:

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
          Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
          A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
          From my lyre within the sky.

Emotional symbolism is found in a greater number of poems. It is nearly always intimately connected with death. In fact, rare are the poems which celebrate joy as do “Eulalie” and “To Helen.” Therefore, the symbols utilized by Poe are all ominous. The overly-celebrated “Raven” is a “bird of ill-omen,” whose croaking signals the imminence of mourning in popular belief. Perched on a statue of Pallas (Greek goddess of wisdom) it symbolyzes the obstinacy of fate aiming to destroy all earthly happiness, in spite of human science and wisdom powerless to drown sorrow and to bring oblivion. But, writes Floyd Stovall, “the tragedy lies deeper than that [a bereaved lover who finds a melancholy satisfaction in torturing his grief-stricken heart with thoughts of his deceased mistress]. Aesthetically it lies in the knowledge of the irrevocable decay of beauty, and philosophically it lies in the growing certainty as the poem progresses that there is no life after death.”4 (That, may be the idea of the Raven, the evil spirit, but not Poe who never doubted the future life). In his famous “Philosophy of Composition” where he made a minute and detailed analysis of this poem and the circumstances which gave birth to it, Poe declares at the end that “The Raven” is “emblematical,” the symbol of “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance” (XIV, 208), which would reduce it to a simple poem of recollection in the romantic manner. But “The Raven” reveals something more profound and more agonizing which constitutes its modernism: the anguish of the poet in the face of possible loss of identity, an unbearable thought against which all of his being rebels:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore”
                                                            Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
                                                            Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
And the Raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door,
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                                                            Shall be lifted—nevermore!(5)

The same idea is found, together with that of inconsolable mourning and obsession with the beyond, in “Ulalume,” one of Poe's most hermetic poems—whose title in all probability comes from the verb “to ululate” = to hoot (Latin: ululare, from the noun: ulula, the owl, a bird of ill-omen like the raven).6 The unhappy lover is in the same situation: having lost his mistress to Death he searches vainly for oblivion; he even experiences the temptation of the flesh, symbolized by Astarte; but his efforts bind him ever closer, through memory, to the one who was his “soul” and his “Psyche.” The “lonesome October” is an allusion to the month when Virginia died; the “misty mid region of Weir”, the “dank tarn of Auber,” the “ghoul-haunted woodland”, the “mount Yaanek” in the regions of the pole, are none other than those mysterious places where the souls of the dead go, and where the poet tries in vain to rejoin in imagination his “Psyche”, or the soul of his beloved, which also is the alter ego of his soul.7

“Annabel Lee” continues the same idea but in a clearer fashion, without abstruse images: the “kingdom by the sea” and the ill-wind which “blew out of a cloud” chilling Annabel Lee, speak for themselves; moreover the poem culminates on a note of overpowering emotion which is neither symbolic, romantic, nor classic, but simply human, profoundly human—a burst of heart-rending sorrow which cannot be contained:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
          Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
          Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
          In the sepulchre there by the sea,
          In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Three poems appearing in the second collection of 1831 and later reworked, namely, “The Sleeper” (originally entitled “Irene”), “The City in the Sea” (first called “The Doomed City”), and “The Valley of Unrest” (original title: “The Valley Nis”),8 have a symbolism very close to the preceding, but expressed through three different images: the dead rest calmly and without cares in their tombs as long as their memory remains among the living—relatives and friends: the sleeper at the bottom of her vault,

Some vault that oft hath flung its black
And winged panels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o'er the crested palls,
Of her grand family funerals … ;

the city which sinks in the sea, in the “melancholy waters,” “along that wilderness of glass,” and the silent valley where anxiety roams, “the sad valley's restlessness,” are the same image of the soul that founders in sad forgetfulness and loses its identity.9

These poems are also related in large part to the third type of symbolism, the philosophical (or metaphysical) symbolism. With “Dream-Land” we encounter again face-to-face one of the great symbols of the stories, that of the unconscious and of day-dream, mixed here with the fearful thought of death and the beyond. This “Eidolon, named night,” which “on a black throne reigns upright,” is imagination left in complete liberty, transporting us, “sublime,” “out of Space—out of Time,” to where “the traveler meets aghast—Sheeted Memories of the Past,”10 and, in the cemetery of his heart, finds forgetfulness of the present and reality:

For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region—
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis—oh, 'tis an Eldorado!

And there are, in “Dream-Land,” the strange and fantastic visions which the awaked dreamer (the poet) brings back from the kingdom of shadows (by imagination) perhaps aided by narcotics:

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the dews that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

With “For Annie,” Poe goes still further than in “Dream-Land.” This is no longer the safe refuge of dream and the unconscious, where dreamer can relive his past. It is that of death, the supreme consolation. All passion is extinguished, and in the merciful calm that he imagines beyond the tomb, “the fever called ‘Living’ is conquered at last.” There are no longer, then, the “roses” and the “myrtles” of life (symbols of joy and merriment), but “violets,” “rosemary” and “rue” (symbols of sorrow and mourning):

My tantalized spirit
          Here blandly reposes,
Forgetting, or never
          Regretting, its roses—
Its old agitations
          Of myrtles and roses:
For now, while so quietly
          Lying, it fancies
A holier odor
          About it, of pansies—
A rosemary odor,
          Commingled with pansies—
With rue and the beautiful
          Puritan pansies.(11)

It is the same theme with different symbols that one finds in “Eldorado,” in “The Lake—To—” and in “Silence.” “Eldorado,” as one might guess, is not in this world; the “gallant knight” in search of it,

… found
          No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado,

and the shadow (of Death) which he encounters along the way gives him information about the route to take:

          “Over the Mountains
          Of the moon
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
          Ride, boldly ride”,
          The shade replied,—
“If you seek for Eldorado!”(12)

In “The Lake—To—” as in “Silence,” Poe induces us to envision death without fear for one finds there these “Memories of the Past” to which “Dream-Land” refers:

… some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name's “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: Dread him not!


Through solitude, and even terror, thanks to glimpses of beauty and to past love, death will be a consolation and “a tremulous delight” for him

Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.

(“The Lake—To—”)

Besides of these poems which constitute the principal part of Poe's poetic work and which we have been able to connect with three kinds of symbolism, there are others which, although very distant at first sight from this genre, are related to it by the use of analogy as a means of expression, for instance “The Bells.” This poem is essentially a musical symphony in four unequal parts, but it alludes simultaneously to four phases of the affective life of man, each stanza longer than the preceding and with a different and more complicated tonality, corresponds to a stage: the clear silver sleighbells, with their joyous tinkling recalling the nativity, allude to childhood; the golden bells, “mellow wedding bells,” with their “molten-golden notes,” to triumphant youth; the brazen bells, the bells of “alarum” or “terror,” to maturity and its problems in coping with life; finally the iron bells, “the tolling bells,” “the melancholy menace of their tone” sound the knell of age and close the cycle of life.14

Therefore symbolism permeates nearly all of Poe's poems (none of them is really exempt), and confers upon them a high spirituality, for the symbol surpasses the exterior aspect of things and transcends them; it reveals their inner significance, and thereby unveils something of the mystery and the meaning of the universe. In this way, one can understand the extraordinary success of Poe's poetry with the French Symbolists whose trends are about identical, and the profound influence which he exercised over them. But it was not only the symbolism of his verse that captivated and inspired them. They were also fascinated by the harmony of his verse, by the tremendous amount of music that songs in his poems. That is what we will consider in the following chapter.


  1. For Floyd Stovall, “the five stanzas of the poem correspond roughly to the five acts of a play. The universe is the theater, the human world the stage, and the celestial worlds the orchestra, which plays the “music of the spheres.” (Edgar Poe the Poet …, p. 219). See also Klaus Lubbers; “Poe's ‘The Conqueror Worm,’ American Literature, XXXIX (Nov. 1968), 375-379; and Donald Swanson, “Poe's ‘The Conqueror Worm’,” The Explicator, XIX, item 52, (Apr. 1961).

  2. William Cairns thinks that “it is the idea of beauty which the Deity dissiminates throughout the universe as his special message, and which is to keep the worlds from tottering in the guilt of man.” (“Some Notes on Poe's ‘Al-Aaraaf,’” Modern Philology, XIII (May 1915), 35-44. But Floyd Stovall believes that the poem dramatizes “God's rule by Power,” rather than his rule by Beauty, and finds three aspects in the poem: a “religious motif concerned with man in his relation to the authority of God”, an “astronomical motif designed to explain prophecy in terms of observed phenomenon”; and an “apocalyptic motif” in which “Al Aaraaf is a material star that becomes the instrument of God in the destruction of the world.” (“An Interpretation of Poe's ‘Al-Aaraaf,’” Univ. of Texas Studies in English, IX (1929), 106-133).

  3. Among the innumerable interpretations of this poem let us only mention three: Alice M. Claudel “Poe as Voyager in ‘To Helen,’” Emerson Soc. Quarterly, LX (Fall 1970), 33-38; (she sees Christian symbols in the statue, the agate lamp and the hyacinth hair (a rebirth symbol), and believes that Poe tried to find supernal beauty in a fusion of Greek-Roman-Christian-Oriental-Byzantine culture); James Gargano, “Poe's ‘To Helen,’” Modern Language Notes, LXXIX (Dec. 1960), 652-653; (he suggests that Helen is “a symbol of salvation”, an “ideal woman” who leads the poet, a “modern Ulyssean wanderer,” to a “spiritual home”); and P. M. Pemberton, “Poe's ‘To Helen’: Functional Wordplay and A Possible Source,” Poe Newsletter, III (June 1970), 6-7 (he finds that the Greek word for “Helen” also means “torch” or “firebrand” and that Poe was playing on this meaning in making Helen “a magnetic personification of ‘inspirational beauty’ in one sense, and, in another … an apostrophized object which the speaker literally sees in a ‘brilliant window-niche’…”).

  4. Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet …, p. 179.

  5. Among all Poe's poems, “The Raven” has inspired the greatest number of commentaries, but most of their authors agree on the symbol of the bird: ill-omen, despair, death, “the Irreparable, the guardian of pitiless memories, whose burden ever recalls the days that are no more”. (Clement King, “Poe's ‘The Raven,’” Mentor, X [Sept 1922], 9). Nevertheless, some critics see in it other images: an allegory of the soul struggling with remorse over lost innocence (Della Courson, “Poe and the Raven,” Education, XX [May 1900], 566-570); the evil and demoniacal science: “When one sells his soul to the Devil, the first manifestation is the loss of one's own shadow, for it has united with all that is the Devil's” (Byrd Howell Granger, “Devil Lore in ‘The Raven,’” Poe Newsletter, V [Dec. 1972], 53-54); the “unwitting desire to return to infancy” in this room, which is “at the same time the retreat from the world of the present, and also the womb and tomb sanctuary, the unknown world of metaphysics whose gates are life and death” (George Green, “The Composition of ‘The Raven,’” Aberystwyth Studies (Wales), XII (1932), 1-20).

  6. We do not think, as Van Doorn suggests, that the title derives from the latin Una and lumen contracted into Ulalume for the requirement of the alliteration and the rhyme. Palmer C. Holt turned to Turkish to explain the title: Ula means “death” and lume, light, whence “light of the dead” or “dead star” … But did Poe know Turkish?! … (Notes on Poe's ‘To Science,’ ‘To Helen,’ and ‘Ulalume,’” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, LXIII [Nov. 1959], 568-570).

  7. For Eric W. Carlson, these places “imply the archetypal image of the dark forest, symbolizing the buried self, where inhibitions, complexes, and rationalizations abound.” (“Symbols and Sense in Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” American Literature, XXXV (March 1963), p. 30. See among the numerous commentaries of ‘Ulalume’: Roy Basler, “Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” The Explicator, II (May 1944), item 49 (“our love can find its perfect answer only in death” because “fulfillment means annihilation”); James Miller Jr., “‘Ulalume’ Resurrected,” Philological Quarterly, XXXIV (Apr. 1955), 197-205 (Ulalume is “death itself, a personification of turbulent sexual impulse combined with its inevitable destruction”); Eric Carlson, “Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” The Explicator, XI (June 1953), item 56 (“Astarte, the illusory promise of a sensual escape from grief-haunted memory, had been a product of [the] own subconscious self-pity” of the narrator); and James E. Mulqueen, “The Meaning of Poe's ‘Ulalume,’” American Transcendental Quarterly, I (I Quarter 1969), 27-30 (Astarte is not used in her traditional sense as the “patroness of sexual activity, fertility, and reproduction”, but as a symbol of a life Principle which has nothing to do with material reality, but which represents rather a concept of divine non-material unity.”).

  8. About this mysterious word, nis, and its spoonerism “sin,” Thomas F. Bledsoe suggests that it is rather a “compound of the Latin “Dis” and “Nihil” which symbolize the underworld, realms of shades and sorrow, and “the nothingness that follows tragic loss.” (“On Poe's ‘Valley of Unrest,’” Modern Language Notes, LXI (Feb. 1946), 91-92). See also Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet …, p. 214, n. 31.

  9. For Richard Wilbur, those poems rather continue the symbolism of the tales, that is the fall of the clear conscience into the sleep and dream. (“Introduction” to Poe—Complete Poems [New York: Dell, 1959]). See for other interpretations of “The City in the Sea”, Roy Basler, “Poe's ‘The City in the Sea,’” The Explicator, IV, item 30 (Feb. 1946); Wilson O. Clough, “Poe's ‘The City in the Sea,’ Revisited,” Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, edited by Clarence Gohdes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967), (the city symbolizes Poe's idea of the void or nothingness which will result when the cosmos returns to unity); Roy Basler, “Poe's ‘The Valley of Unrest,’” The Explicator, V, item 25 [Dec. 1946], 197-201.

  10. There is a clear recollection of these lines in “Recueillement” of Baudelaire:

    Vois se pencher les défuntes années
    Sur les balcons du ciel en robes surannées,
    Surgir des fonds des eaux le Regret souriant …
  11. Lynn Hogue has found a way to interpret this pure and desperate poem in an erotic point of view! … Poe, in his subconscious, experiences an explicit “sexual involvement” with Annie. “In the throes of apparent suicidal impulse and unfulfilled desires”, he turns “to erotic wish fulfillment through poetry.” The consummation of sexual passion is achieved through the “persona” in the poem. (“Eroticism in Poe's ‘For Annie,’” Emerson Society Quarterly, LX [Fall 1970], 85-87).

  12. Eric Carlson believes that the conclusion of this poem is not ironic or pessimistic, but the “expression of Poe's lifelong attachement to an absolute ideal,” a renewed vow. (“Poe's ‘Eldorado’,” Modern Language Notes, LXXVI [March 1961], 232-233). But for O. S Coad, it symbolizes “death”—the real “land of gold” for Poe. (“The Meaning of Poe's ‘Eldorado,’” Modern Language Notes, LIX Jan. 1944, 59-61). Stephen Sanderlin points out the word “shadow” as the “key word” of the poem; it has a different meaning in each stanza. The poem, which shows “constant undertones of sombreness, darkness, and death,” is not optimistic—“a quest of the ideal”—as most critics have believed. The “pilgrim shadow” is actually the Angel of Death. (“Poe's ‘Eldorado’ Again,” Modern Language Notes, LXXI (March 1956), 189-192).

  13. For Roy Basler “Silence”, like “Ligeia”, is a symbolic drama of insanity, “an evocation of the loneliness and desolation of the realm of the unconscious inhabited by a fear-stricken, cynical, world-weary psyche.” (Sex, Symbolism and Psychology in Literature …, pp. 177-182).

  14. Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet … pp. 231-232.

James Lawler (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7544

SOURCE: Lawler, James. “Daemons of the Intellect: The Symbolists and Poe.” Critical Inquiry 14, no. 1 (autumn 1987): 95-110.

[In the following essay, Lawler examines the critical assessment of Poe by the French symbolists Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry.]

For Baudelaire he was “one of the greatest of literary heroes,” for Mallarmé “the spiritual Prince of this age,” for Valéry an “achieved mind”: the Symbolists that stand at the beginning, middle, and end of a lineage were constant in their fidelity to Poe.1 They encountered half-secretly, each in turn, a stranger to the canon and found in him the key to their own works, for he served Baudelaire against Hugo, Mallarmé against Baudelaire, Valéry against Mallarmé. Distinct from the native conventions, he provoked less violence or anxiety than the intimate ferment of self-recognition.

Poe's influence on the Symbolists has been traced on many occasions, though not in detail. The classical study in English is Eliot's “From Poe to Valéry,” a Library of Congress lecture delivered three years after Valéry's death.2 Eliot defines Poe as irresponsible and immature—irresponsible in style, immature in vision. He had, Eliot comments, “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty”; “all of his ideas seem to be entertained rather than believed” (“FPV,” p. 335). How, then, we ask, did he hoax the sophisticated French? Although Eliot raises the issue of their relative ignorance of English, he prudently does not make much of it: after all, we know that Baudelaire spent seventeen years on the tales, Mallarmé still longer on the poems—thirty years for the definitive text; while Valéry, to whom Baudelaire and Mallarmé left little to translate, managed a version of the “Marginalia.” Each might have said, as Mallarmé did in 1885, that he had learned English for one sole reason: “to read Poe better.”3 In the matter of linguistic competence, then, Eliot is content to remark that the French poets “were not disturbed by weaknesses of which we are very much aware” (“FPV,” p. 336). He underlines, however, that Poe showed different facets of himself to each of his readers who adopted him in various ways: Baudelaire focused on the poète maudit, Mallarmé on the prosodist, and Valéry on the theoretician in whom he discovered “a method and an occupation—that of observing himself write” (“FPV,” p. 341). So Poe had a diverse effect, which Eliot accepts more readily in respect of Baudelaire and Mallarmé than he does of Valéry. To explain this last case which intrigues him especially, he introduces a paradox: “with Poe and Valéry, extremes meet,” he writes, “the immature mind playing with ideas because it had not developed to the point of convictions, and the very adult mind playing with ideas because it was too sceptical to hold convictions” (“FPV,” p. 341).

Thus Eliot damns Poe with faint praise. The distance between cause and effect, master and disciples is so vast that it can only be thought the product of monstrous error. And yet “From Poe to Valéry” and the complementary studies in English or French of the past thirty-five years neglect some deeper factors that drew the Symbolists. Misreadings there were no doubt since such are in the nature of things, but these authors were sensitive to currents that others overlooked. They attempted to go to first principles, not only because Poe was “ce poète incomparable, ce philosophe non réfuté” (Baudelaire)4 and, therefore, worthy of scrutiny, but because they held him to be vital to their future thought. In a period of great social and aesthetic change they found a figure of radical independence—classicist, visionary, logician supreme—whom they explained by convergent tropes of daemonic power. In this regard the newly published correspondence of Mallarmé and the massive Valéry notebooks have added to our knowledge. I would like, then, to consider the nature of Poe's action, this submerged dialogue in time and successive rewriting by which—“à l'égal de nos maîtres les plus chers ou vénérés,” as Mallarmé put it5—he entered the mainstream of French poetry.

“Do you know,” Baudelaire wrote, “why I translated Poe so patiently? Because he was like me. The first time I opened one of his books, I saw with terror and delight [avec épouvante et ravissement] not only subjects that I had dreamt of, but sentences that I had written and that he had imitated twenty years before.”6 The unique homage, stated several times, attests to more than influence: where other contemporaries quickened Baudelaire's interest, Poe held and moved him for twenty years. The assimilation took the form of a compelling discovery since the further he read the more he felt—“with terror and delight”—his common sensibility and common pursuit of a new kind of beauty: un genre de beauté nouveau.7 The seminal text for him, as for Mallarmé and Valéry, was “The Philosophy of Composition,” and he took in deadly earnest its recommendations concerning brevity, intensity, technical appropriateness. The Romantics spoke of soul and inspiration, Poe of means and ends: Baudelaire was captivated by a deductive approach that treats writing as an act of the will. Each line, image, and thought must lead to the next, the movement concatenated, the language contained in the kernel of the original idea. “You would say,” Baudelaire observes, “that (Poe) seeks to apply to literature the procedures of philosophy and to philosophy the method of algebra.”8 The reader will not escape once he gives himself over to a method governed by logic, a premeditated plan—this “minute scientific manner of implacable effect” (“VO” [Charles Baudelaire. “Edgar Poe, sa vie et ses oeuvres,” Oeuvres complètes], 2:317). Yet it is not only logic that governs the creative process but the grasp of what Baudelaire calls “beauty's harmonic conditions” (“VO,” 2:316), which involve non-quantitative sound and sense. So Baudelaire sees poetics as a combinatory art that is called forth, guided, and sustained by the intellect. In 1857, the year of Les Fleurs du mal, he sums up Poe's teaching in this way: “Not one single word must appear in the whole composition that is not an intention and does not help, directly or indirectly, to realize the preconceived design.”9

One cannot of course gauge the exact importance of Poe in Baudelaire's artistic growth. Other writers—Théophile Gautier, Joseph de Maistre—pointed him in the same general direction. But Poe, I think, was determinative inasmuch as Baudelaire ascribed primary importance to the need to achieve classical economy and compact structures and to develop the abstract logic of his language. At the same time he planned the sequence of Les Fleurs du mal. As Poe had allowed him to see, it is, intrinsically, a long poem made of a collection of short intense poems, a capacious architecture with beginning, middle, and end and a rigorous argument based (I believe) on a hidden mathematical variation. In all these things Poe opened the path by his regard for strict control. Yet, far from being the limits, these were but the premises of a properly daemonic action. If the method of Poe's writing and the manner of his work were the fruit of analysis, his subject—goal and purpose—was of a kindred nature. The first of Baudelaire's essays speaks of the coherence of Poe's thought, the maturity that Eliot would deny. He writes: “The idea of unity has haunted Edgar Poe, and he has worked at this cherished dream no less than Balzac.”10 He places him with the écrivains curieux—Diderot, Laclos, and Balzac among others—who refine their sensibilities to an abstract scheme, un système unitaire et définitif.11 In Poe there is a meeting of science and meditation, his scientific curiosity being married to philosophical inquiry. Baudelaire brings no further precision, nor was he able to do so in 1848, one year before Poe's death, when he had not yet consulted the files of the Southern Literary Messenger, nor indeed little more than a small portion of the work. But the postulate is made of a unified vision, which founds his later comments.

The essays that follow underline the obsessive nature of Poe's drive toward a central vision (“mais partout, mais sans cesse l'infatigable ardeur vers l'idéal … une entraînante aspiration vers l'unité”) (Charles Baudelaire. “VOG” [“Edgar Allan Poe: sa vie et ses ouvrages,” Oeuvres complètes], 2:283). By 1852 Baudelaire saw Poe's work as a kind of experiment—“as in a laboratory”—of which analysis was the instrument, volition the animating force. “In Poe,” he says, “we contemplate the glorification of the will as applied to induction and analysis” (“VOG,” 2:283). Yet the Poe of the early studies had notably evolved by 1856 and 1857 when Baudelaire published his two most penetrating essays, the emphasis of which was now squarely placed on capitalized Beauty, the pivot of all Poe wrote, his one and only absolute, his “love insatiable,” “the epitome of his titles to the affection and respect of poets” (“VO,” 2:318). Baudelaire has recourse to imagination, a concept surprisingly little developed by the French Romantics—that “quasi-divine faculty,” Baudelaire says of Poe, by which all things are felt to be parts of a single whole, “glimpses … correspondences of heaven” (“NN” [Charles Baudelaire. “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe,” Oeuvres complètes], 2:329, 334). In this way Poe's writings can be read as so many symbols whose object and sum total is Beauty.

Baudelaire can thus make much of the gulf that separates Poe's ideas from those of customary Romantic didacticism. He paraphrases “The Philosophy of Composition”: “Poetry has no goal … other than itself” (“NN,” 2:333). Hugo can be criticized, his power defused, by the singular example of Poe who denounces the moralistic “heresy.” But if Poe devotes himself to a consuming aesthetic ideal, his moral philosophy is nonetheless evident: this genre de beauté nouveau shows the terrors of evil—“all that imaginary substance around the nervous man that leads to his undoing” (qui le conduit à mal)—that is, to his succumbing to the abyss (“VO,” 2:317). “Imperturbably,” Poe sees through illusion by the strength and corrosive passion of his intelligence (“NN,” 2:322). The spirit of contradiction reigns, which is the principle Poe designates by his term the Imp of the Perverse. Baudelaire puts the story of that name at the head of his own version of the Nouvelles Histoires extraordinaires par Edgar Poe but uses a dramatic and altogether graver title in French, “le Démon de la Perversité.” This Daemon, as Baudelaire writes in 1857, of “man's primordial Perversity,” “this native irresistible force,” endlessly makes him “murderer and suicide, assassin and hangman (“NN,” 2:323). To be aware of the Daemon is to shed complacency, to grasp the machinations of original sin. “Car,” Baudelaire observes of Poe, “il ne fut jamais dupe” (“NN,” 2:321). In his tales he portrayed a set of perverse relations: the oneiric and the rational, the terrible and the calm, life and art; in his poems he expressed the poignant beauty of death, “the insomnia of despair” (which is Baudelaire's summary of “The Raven”);12 in Eureka he showed the cosmic variation of expansion and contraction, of “concentrated Self and almost Infinite Self-Diffusion” (Poe), of “vaporization and centralization of the self” (Baudelaire).13 The essence of Poe's genius is a complex moral vision, ironic, unblinking, profound comme le ciel et comme l'enfer—at once and inextricably “as deep as heaven and as hell.”14

So from the beginning Baudelaire paid Poe the tribute of reading him as a complex philosophical writer and not in the way our more modern critics have often chosen, as a morbid, dispersed, uneven, shallow talent. Yet Baudelaire's interpretation did not remain fixed since Poe, écrivain curieux, is the most scrupulous of aesthetes and this aesthete a penetrating moralist. We cannot be surprised that a plurivalent Poe should be echoed in the greater part of Baudelaire's prose and poetry: these writings are contemporaneous with the translations and their prefaces. Formal and verbal borrowings are discoverable in the verse but also in the more directly personal Mon coeur mis à nu; the Poe inspiration is likewise clear in themes such as those of “Le Flambeau vivant,” a denser, metaphysical “To Helen”; of “L'Horloge,” an abstract “The Bells”; and of “Les Sept Vieillards,” a hallucinatory grotesque in which Poe's monstrous Man of the Crowd is the figure of mythical evil. Such calques and transpositions abound; yet an example may remind us of the tough-minded language that is Baudelaire's own, though imbued with his reading of Poe. One of the most lapidary texts of Les Fleurs du mal, “L'Avertisseur,” was published on three separate occasions between 1861 and the time of Baudelaire's death. Like a few other poems he wrote in the same year, it encapsulates his book.

Tout homme digne de ce nom
A dans le coeur un Serpent jaune
Installé comme sur un trône,
Qui, s'il dit: “Je veux!” répond: “Non!”
Plonge tes yeux dans les yeux fixes
Des Satyresses ou des Nixes,
La Dent dit: “Pense à ton devoir.”
Fais des enfants, plante des arbres,
Polis des vers, sculpte des marbres,
La Dent dit: “Vivras-tu ce soir?”
Quoi qu'il ébauche ou qu'il espère,
L'homme ne vit pas un moment
Sans subir l'avertissement
De l'insupportable Vipère.(15)

The Admonisher: Every man worthy of the name has in his heart a yellow Serpent: ensconced as upon a throne, it answers “No!” if the man says: “I wish!” Plunge your eyes into the unmoving eyes of the Satyresses or Nixies: the Tooth says: “Think of your duty!” Make children, plant trees, polish verse, sculpt marble: the Tooth says: “Will you be alive tonight?” Whatever his projects or hopes, man does not live a single moment without experiencing the warning of the unbearable Viper.

The sonnet has been dislocated, refashioned, in order to attain a new formal balance. Baudelaire adjusts the pattern and writes a classical epigram in which tercets play against quatrains, urgency against generality. Here mode and manner weave a plotted intellectual creation, and the theme is of a similar kind: “L'Avertisseur” formulates and reformulates a law, the character of which is subtle. The naysayer rejects will, hope, erotic pleasure, both dedication to family and devotion to art; he sounds a summons to duty and at the same time, “unbearable Viper,” denies the virtue of effort. Not merely is he the Worm, the “Conqueror Worm” of intelligence or conscience or sensibility, for he engraves the syntax and cycle of thought whose every movement is a negation of the point achieved and an endless deferral of resolution. And this too is the structure of Les Fleurs du mal, which is based on the severity of proposition and counterproposition, neither action nor inaction being sufficient unto itself, neither ideal nor spleen, since each polar attitude induces the other. The name one might apply to “L'Avertisseur,” as to the principle inherent in the collection as a whole, is the Imp of the Perverse, or better the Daemon of Perversity—the ironic beauty, beyond the moralism of pre-1850 Hugo, of a fierce moral awareness.

The Poe of Mallarmé is at a far remove. Taking Baudelaire's commentaries as his point of departure, the young Mallarmé saw in Poe his practical and theoretical and philosophical model, the measure of his ambition. As he wrote in 1876 with “L'Après-midi d'un Faune” and “Hérodiade” behind him: “If ever I do anything worth its salt, it will be thanks to him”;16 and eighteen years later, not long before his death, he described Poe as “le cas littéraire absolu,”17 for no one—not Hugo, not Gautier, not Baudelaire—had given himself so completely to literature.

Eliot held Mallarmé's acknowledged debt to Poe to be of an essentially formalist kind, which he summed up in one laconic sentence of his lecture: “The interest is … in the technique of verse” (“FPV,” p. 337). This could not be further from the truth when we think that Poe's action was arguably more extensive—certainly it was no less so—than it had been on Baudelaire. Yet Eliot is right to direct our attention to Poe's individual art of versification which drew Mallarmé from the start. Already in his eighteenth year he was rendering Poe into French and observing in typically Poesque terms: “The literal translation is to the American original no more than a girl's skeleton to the pink and fresh live girl.”18 He continued to work at poems Baudelaire declared untranslatable with a view to publishing a collected volume. In fact, however, the first version came out a decade later and the collection in 1889. He had, he said, aimed to re-create in French the strange and rich harmonies of Poe, and to this end chose indirections over directions. Thus in “The Raven,” “nameless here for evermore” becomes “de nom pour elle ici, non, jamais plus”; while “Ulalume” has the resonance of a charm. This French Poe is as true to the original as the rigorous Poe of Baudelaire's version of the tales: true to Poe and also to Mallarmé himself, or rather the anti-Baudelairean Mallarmé that he became. Baudelaire had spoken of “evocative sorcery” but it was Mallarmé, in his Poe translations and in the writings of his twenty-third year and thereafter, who elaborated the incantatory ideal in a way quite unmatched in French.

Nevertheless Poe's influence went beyond the pursuit of complex auditory values as Mallarmé turned to the theories still more than to the practice. “The Philosophy of Composition” left an indelible mark, which was not that of Baudelaire's analytical, moralist poet but of the promoter of dramatic effects. In 1864, at the age of twenty-two, Mallarmé wrote: “The further I go, the more faithful I shall be to those severe ideas that were bequeathed to me by my great master Edgar Poe”;19 again: “What can be more different from the schoolboy I was, sincere and spontaneous, than the writer [le littérateur] I now am, with my horror of saying anything that is not arranged?” (C [Stéphane Mallarmé. Correspondance, 1862-1871], p. 155). The ideas to which he refers concern the self-conscious artist who wills a result, so that, as Mallarmé says, “the soul of the reader delights in the very same manner that the poet wishes him to delight” (C, p. 104). Mallarmé isolates the desirable effects; he conceives, for instance, and retrospectively comments upon in detail, a poem of aesthetic obsession (“L'Azur”) on the pattern of “The Bells”; he develops in particular a strategy of creative performance. (Poe, he thought, would have been a man of the theater in a more congenial country and age.) He insists: “The effect produced, without a dissonance, without a distracting flourish, however attractive” (C, pp. 103-4).

The year 1864 was thus the time when Poe occupied Mallarmé to such a degree that he quit Baudelaire once and for all. He undertook “Hérodiade” of which he would later say: “I shall at last have done what I dream of doing: to write a poem worthy of Poe which his own countrymen will not surpass” (C, p. 207). At its center is a theatrical notion of beauty that serves as paradigm for his later poems; but its seed is a prose poem begun in 1864 under the title “Le Démon de l'analogie,” a tale of mystery and imagination, a narrative of the grotesque deeply tributary to Poe.20 Analogy, not Perversity, is Mallarmé's theme: a Daemon possesses the intellect, develops an aesthetic idea. All begins with the sensation of a wing touching a musical instrument: the poet as he walks in the street registers an initial image which changes into that of a voice uttering two words with a descending intonation, “La Pénultième,” and, as if for the next line of some unknown poem, “Est morte.” He analyzes the words, finds in the syllable nul—this lexical absence of being—the image of a forgotten instrument that memory would seem to have touched with its wing or a vague palm branch. He believes now that, the word having explained the sensation, both will pass from mind; but the phrase returns with an apparent vitality of its own, suggesting a link with his current philological interests and, again, a local explanation. Once more his anxiety returns together with the obsessive words, which he allows this time to play on his lips in the fashion of a benediction for the dead, when suddenly he seems to recover the very voice, to catch the very intonation that he originally heard. Yet in doing so he sees his hand mirrored in a shop window making the gesture of a caress like a blessing: inexplicably, frighteningly, the inner world of words has been projected into the real. And his terror is all the greater when he finds that the shop is that of a vendor of ancient musical instruments under which lie withered palm branches and the wings of dead birds. He has traversed the thresholds of sensation, feeling, abstraction in a vain attempt to lay each analogy to rest, but time after time he continues until at last the justification and the visible sign are conjured up as it were out of nothing by the containing image of the poetic charm.

Mallarmé's text spells out the implications of his decisive reading of Poe: the portentous language, the anxious mood, the logical manner, the dramatic structure, above all the theme of supernatural evocation which finds its theory in Poe's “Power of Words” and its illustration in “The Raven.” Moreover, the notion of universal analogy is foreshadowed in a general way throughout Poe and, especially, in his Eureka, which interprets analogical deduction—this chain of similarities according to a ratio (analogon)—as a “monomaniac grasping at the infinite.” For Mallarmé this Daemon is sacred horror, its heady sequence binding like Poe's law of consistency by which all things interact. Yet it will lead in 1865 to the “Faune” whose dramatic monologue proceeds by failed arguments, flawed solutions that explain and do not explain and that end with the same empty-handedness on which the poem began; but in so doing the flute and its sonore, vaine et monotone ligne21 will have evoked and, in a sense, captured the nothing that is beauty, the beauty that is nothing. This Daemon will also lead in 1868 to “Igitur” in which the mind's obsession is again expressed, its terror articulated in “the vertiginous and ever-receding spiral,” the “vanishing distinctness,” the “increasing oppression,” the “indefinite flight toward the shadows” that will at last be exorcized by a mirror image parallel to that of “Le Démon de l'analogie.”22 “Once upon a midnight …,” Igitur—the name perhaps answers the Poeian-Archimedean Eureka—discovers nocturnal emptiness and potential plenitude: “J'étais l'heure qui doit me rendre pur” (“I was the hour that must make me pure”).23 The vacant hour, the Victorian interior, the “rustling of each purple curtain” are those of “The Raven,” for Igitur's spiritual drama is kin to the fatal elegy of absence and separation. But in the depths of darkness, at the end of a haunted sequence, he reaches the palace of poetry that is his multitude of images in their simultaneous affirmation and negation. Self-consciousness, or rather the self-conscious poem, arrests the movement, constitutes the specular system of question and answer, logic and imagination, chance and necessity: just as “le hasard” is endlessly mirrored in Igitur's “château de la pureté,” so the Faun's empty music, despite a realized absence, holds the suspended image of his irrecoverable nymphs, so the stars are contained in Un Coup de dés, the tortured swan in the phantomlike idea of the Swan, sunset in a head of hair.

“Victorieusement fui …” can serve to represent the perceived affinities with Poe; yet the mode is not pastiche as in “L'Azur,” nor symbolic development as in “Le Démon,” the “Faune,” and “Igitur,” but bare verbal play without Gothic paraphernalia. Mallarmé's poem is magic sound, conscious art, inner drama; above all, it is a group of analogies harmonically proposed that constitutes the notion of beauty:

Victorieusement fui le suicide beau
Tison de gloire, sang par écume, or, tempête!
O rire si là-bas une pourpre s'apprête
A ne tendre royal que mon absent tombeau.
Quoi! de tout cet éclat pas même le lambeau
S'attarde, il est minuit, à l'ombre qui nous fête
Excepté qu'un trésor présomptueux de tête
Verse son caressé nonchaloir sans flambeau,
La tienne si toujours le délice! la tienne
Oui seule qui du ciel évanoui retienne
Un peu de puéril triomphe en t'en coiffant
Avec clarté quand sur les coussins tu la poses
Comme un casque guerrier d'impératrice enfant
Dont pour te figurer il tomberait des roses.(24)

Victoriously having fled from beautiful suicide, glory's ember, blood in foam, gold, tempest! O laugh if yonder a purple raiment makes ready to drape regally nought but my absent tomb. What! from all that brilliance not even a shred tarries, it is midnight, in our festive darkness, but for the presumptuous treasure of a head that sheds its caressed coolness without a torch. Your head—so much, and ever so, the delight! yours that from the vanished sky, alone retains a small childlike triumph by your headdress, when you rest it radiantly on your cushions—like some martial helmet of a child empress from which, in your image, roses were to be strewn.

The sonnet creates a centrale pureté in which the intimate answers the grandiose. The sunset is a suicide, a last ember of fame, a frothing line of blood, an image of gold, a tempest, the royal purple of a tomb; yet, having been obliterated in a midnight of the mind, it analogically returns by way of the beloved woman's head of hair that pours forth cool brilliance, wins an innocent triumph, becomes a soldier's helmet for a child empress, a shower of roses. … The text is this glissando of tropes, this serpentine writhing, these throes of the golden monster affirming, negating, qualifying its every image, juxtaposing mortal flight and familiar presence, creating a kind of intrinsic necessity from its brilliant but fleeting suite of figures. Baudelaire interpreted Poe's “Raven” as the insomnia of despair, but Mallarmé saw it, in the way one can read “Victorieusement fui …” and the other great poems of his maturity, as beauty achieved and consummated, so to speak, by means of the vertigo of an ever-future death. “If,” he writes, “one wishes to draw from the poem a significant image, ‘The Raven,’ this somber vagabond of haggard nights, abjures shadowy wandering and finally attains a chamber of beauty, sumptuously and judiciously ordered, where it settles forever.”25 Thus, the monotonously proclaimed Nevermore leads to the realization of emptiness as the very condition—form and emblem of Mallarmé's art—for the symmetrical emergence of the idea.

Yet if Baudelaire's Poe is above all the poet moralist and Mallarmé's the poet aesthetician, Valéry's Poe is different again. Although drawn to Mallarmé in warm, even filial terms (“I adored that extraordinary man …”),26 Valéry felt that he himself had neither the talent nor the trained eye for the analogical procedures of Mallarmé. Shortly after his friend's brutal death in 1898, he made a note that trails off into silence: “Since Socrates died, I no longer know who I am. … That intelligence has disappeared which was vaster than my own, which saw many more things in the same thing.”27 The language of Valéry's poetry, the delicacy of its forms, and his acoustic sensuousness are tributary to a work that he studied, he said, “as a musician studies the master of the fugue”;28 but just as Mallarmé used Poe to break with Baudelaire, so Valéry used Poe to deliver himself from the seductions of Mallarméan art. He found in Poe “the act of an intelligence, and of a will to intelligence, not observable to such a degree in any other literary career,” “the only writer,” he told André Gide, “without any sin.”29

Valéry left little by way of translations, but there exists a homage implicit in his writings of 1889, when the initial encounter took place, to those of his last years—one thinks of the course he gave on Poe at the Collège de France in 1939 and the final lecture in 1945, just before his death. Poe's collected verse never left his desk, but the magical origin, rather than in the poetry, lay in “two or three ideas of the utmost importance,”30 “three or four sentences” that gave him what he called “the capital sensation that stirred the being of desire, the daemon that possessed me.”31 Poe was, then, the prime and essential influence, never to be renounced: “More than any writer, Poe made me feel his power.”32

The impact and power are already felt in a brief essay of Valéry's nineteenth year, “Sur la technique littéraire.”33 He advances a conception of poetry in the wake of “The Philosophy of Composition,” yet it is not moral nor aesthetic but ludic: “Literature,” he begins, “is the art of playing with the souls of others”; and Poe's creative method “is based on the knowledge of the diverse notes to be played in another soul.” Accent and pace recall the excitement previously felt by both Baudelaire and Mallarmé, but Valéry's tone is already distinguished by a characteristic astringency. He became aware of Poe's simplifications: “The Raven,” he later confessed, was not greatly to his liking, while the narrative of its genesis was unworthy of Poe.34 Yet it was not enough to leave the matter there, for Poe, in writing his no doubt counterfeit pages, had put his finger on something as patent as the purloined letter, yet none before had seen it. He reduced literature to its most direct expression as a problem of applied psychology, which in turn shed light on the conditions of the work of art. The idols of emotion, morality, truth could be shattered so as to reveal the one real prize at stake—the reader's pleasure, his fête de l'intellect, his ravissement sans référence, in which the writer's life and opinion have no part. Thus Valéry's notion of pure poetry, as he developed it from his adolescent writing of 1889, is not concerned with the expression of personal states but, on the contrary, with laws of the mind—symmetry, contrast, complementarity—that can define a cycle of being on the model of, for example, the sexual act, in which image, feeling, and idea combine to realize a fullness of the intellectual sensibility. According to Valéry, all this was foreseen by Poe, who isolated art as rhetorical tool and ploy in the hands of the master artist.

“The Philosophy of Composition” was, then, a major influence—“the very lightning flash in the poetic confusion and storm.”35 But Valéry was concerned not only to affect the putative reader but also to extend and sustain the poet's intellectual competence. He read a phrase in Baudelaire's introduction to Poe—ce merveilleux cerveau toujours en éveil—an innocent-enough formula that yet signified for him Poe's call to consuming vigilance (Ca [Paul Vaéry, Cahiers, 29 vols.], 22:489).36 Another sentence, this time in “The Domain of Arnheim,” offered the spur of an infinite perfectibility. Poe had written: “I believe that the world has never seen—and that, unless through some series of accidents goading the noblest order of mind into distasteful exertion, the world will never see—that full extent of triumphant execution, in the richer domains of art, of which the human nature is absolutely capable.”37 In this light, theory must constantly prove itself in the area of practice, the reversible in the irreversible; at the same time, Poe's statement meant to Valéry that a poem can never be finished once and for all—only abandoned—since desire, being commensurate with the creative mind, can never be carried to its utmost limit, the theorist's “goal.” These readings prepared Valéry to approach Eureka, which was critical in his growth. Poe's cosmogony became an event that divided Valéry's life into a before and an after. He discovered an attitude, not restricted to literary composition, that lent itself to all mental operations. Poe's scientific metaphors, his analytical method, the poem of the universe that he artistically composed—for he knew that such reflections are necessarily mythical—touched Valéry in the deepest of ways. He found the Daemon that became his own: not Perversity, not Analogy, but Lucidity which was born of Poe's consciousness: thought separate from any single immediate involvement, a viewpoint more general than any particular thought or feeling, a refus indéfini d'être quoi que ce soit.38 “One would say,” Valéry observed in an unpublished essay, “that Poe, who so frequently was taxed with drunkenness, never made sacrifices to any but the goddess of lucidity”; again: “For Poe, the awareness of mental operations was not only the simple fact of realizing the way he thought; it was for him a means of analysis and, subsequently, of invention”; again, in a gloss on the term: “Lucidity accompanies the distinction of consciousness from the being that thinks and that provides a manner of reference to the workings of the mind.”39

The young Valéry came to live by this Daemon. He saw Poe in terms that imply a criticism of Mallarmé, that reject poetry as an end in favor of the ultimate prize of lucidity. His critical moment of October 1892 brought forth, as he tells us, “by unbearable irritation … a second self … like an over-centrifuged millstone or the rotation of a nebulous mass” (Ca, 16:45). In metaphors that echo Eureka, he places himself in the line of Poe while distancing Mallarmé's work because, as he told Gide, “Mallarmé accomplished in detail what Poe accomplished in principle.”40 Valéry's period of so-called silence had begun, and Leonardo and Teste are his Poesque heroes who know themselves as they might make or unmake an object.41 Teste's original name was Auguste Dupin in homage to “The Purloined Letter”; and Valéry praised Poe alongside Leonardo as the master of the intellect. A few years later, and for some time following 1898, Valéry worked at his Agathe, a long prose poem on the theme of the sleeping sensibility, which first bore the Poe title “Manuscrit trouvé dans une cervelle” and which the drafts show to have been modeled on the stylistic chiaroscuro of Poe. Instances of this sort are too many to enumerate: Poe's work served Valéry in various ways that the 1922 essay “Au sujet d'Eurêka” elliptically suggests. Yet one may look at a poem of his poetic maturity, “Ebauche d'un serpent,” in which no obvious parallels occur but which, in a sense, is his versified Eureka at whose heart stands the Daemon of Lucidity. The poem constitutes the legend of creation as imagined by the Luciferian Serpent, who, though he finesses and flaunts his artistry, though he inflates and deflates his words of seduction, retains his control as supreme engineer. Thus we read in the coda of the three-hundred-line monologue:

Beau Serpent, bercé dans le bleu,
Je siffle, avec délicatesse,
Offrant à la gloire de Dieu
Le triomphe de ma tristesse …
Il me suffit que dans les airs,
L'immense espoir de fruits amers
Affole les fils de la fange …
—Cette soif qui te fit géant
Jusqu'à l'Etre exalte l'étrange
Toute-Puissance du Néant!(42)

Fair Serpent, lulled in the blue, I hiss with delicacy, offering to God's glory the triumph of my sadness. … It is enough for me if, in the air, the huge hope of bitter fruit maddens the sons of clay. … The same thirst that made you great raises to the power of Being the strange Omnipotence of Nothingness!

The serpent of this universe is committed to triumph. He instills in his audience an appetite and a thirst which, by virtue of the work of art, forever feed on themselves. To accomplish his goal he is acute, scrupulous in the image of the conscious artist. But he handles his biblical frame with furious parody: verbal action can be only an epistemological joke. Playing with words, overalliterating, overrhyming, he “whistles with delicacy”—buffoonish, subversive, self-consuming like the ouroboros of lucidity. Rhetoric is no more than a complex self-qualifying exercise since the intellect will not be identified with a personal thought or with any isolated moment of the self: the moral sensibility is absent, the aesthetic imagination as well, in favor of the voice that disenchantedly construes its fable of the mind.

In his discussion of the French followers of Poe, Eliot said that the tradition contains “the most original development of the aesthetic of verse in that period as a whole” (“FPV,” p. 329). If it is still usual for these poets to be studied without detailed reference to Poe, it is Poe who became their genuine catalyst by way of a work that in their eyes turned away from Romanticism; that merged and united poet, critic, theoretician; that was self-reflexive, analogical, abstract; that was a deluge of speculation. And the more they read Poe, the more they saw that his writings had been wrenched from a solitude that they readily likened to their own. In an age when the conventions of subject and form had palled; when society was cultivating the bourgeois values; when authors and painters viewed the modern city as their spiritual wilderness—nothing was more exemplary, nor more fraternal, than this hyperbolic cult of rigor.

The intertextuality we discover in the Symbolists is the sign of their common origin; at the same time it reveals the irreducible cast of their idioms. Valéry depends on Mallarmé, who depends on Baudelaire, without whose offices Poe could never have been the influence that he was; but each writer, having been enticed as it were to analysis, absorbed Poe “with terror and delight,” as Baudelaire put it; or Mallarmé: like a “deadly spring water” (C, 3:260); or Valéry: like a “vertiginous, quasi-mathematical opium.”43

Doubtless the Daemons of the intellect are not strictly truer to Poe than other Daemons that have had their day. We cannot, however, neglect the hero, spiritual Prince and achieved mind of this myth of conscious creation that has been one of the strongest in modern French poetics. For how are we to separate a work such as Poe's from its most energetic readers? “A work of art,” Valéry tells us, “lasts so long as it can appear quite different from the one its author made.”44


  1. Charles Baudelaire, “Edgar Poe, sa vie et ses oeuvres,” Oeuvres complètes, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris, 1975-76), 2:305; all further references to this work, abbreviated “VO,” will be included in the text; Stéphane Mallarmé, “Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe,” Oeuvres complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris, 1945), p. 225; Paul Valéry, unpublished notes (1922). Valéry calls Poe “cet esprit—complet”; and he continues:

    il avait toutes ses parties
                        sa logique
                        sa cosmogonie                    théodicée
                        sa psychologie
    Tout ceci refait sur terre vierge
    it possessed all its parts
                        its logic
                        its cosmogony                    theodicy
                        its psychology
    All of this remade in a virgin land.

    All translations are my own.

  2. The lecture was later published in Hudson Review 2 (Autumn 1949): 335; all further references to this work, abbreviated “FPV,” will be included in the text.

  3. Mallarmé, “Autobiographie,” Oeuvres complètes, p. 662.

  4. Baudelaire, “Le Poème du hachisch,” Oeuvres complètes, 1:427.

  5. Mallarmé, “Scolies,” Oeuvres complètes, p. 223.

  6. Baudelaire to Théophile Thoré, Correspondance générale, ed. Jacques Crépet, 6 vols. (Paris, 1947-53), 4:277.

  7. Baudelaire, “Avis du traducteur,” Oeuvres complètes, 1:348.

  8. Baudelaire, “Edgar Allan Poe: sa vie et ses ouvrages,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:283; all further references to this work, abbreviated “VOG,” will be included in the text.

  9. Baudelaire, “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:329; all further references to this work, abbreviated “NN,” will be included in the text.

  10. Baudelaire, “Présentation de Révélation magnétique,Oeuvres complètes, 2:248.

  11. Ibid., 2:248.

  12. Baudelaire, “La Genèse d'un poème,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:344.

  13. Baudelaire, “Mon coeur mis à nu,” Oeuvres complètes, 1:676.

  14. Baudelaire, “Hégésippe Moreau,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:156.

  15. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, Oeuvres complètes, 1:140.

  16. Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1871-1885, ed. Mondor and Lloyd James Austin (Paris, 1965), p. 136.

  17. Mallarmé, “Quelques médaillons et portraits en pied,” Oeuvres complètes, p. 531.

  18. Mallarmé, “Trois Cahiers de poésie,” quoted in Mondor, Mallarmé Lycéen (Paris, 1954), p. 324.

  19. Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1862-1871, ed. Mondor (Paris, 1959), p. 104; all further references to this work, abbreviated C, will be included in the text.

  20. Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, pp. 272-73.

  21. Mallarmé, “Une sonore, vaine et monotone ligne” (“L'Après-midi d'un faune”), Oeuvres complètes, p. 51.

  22. Mallarmé, “Igitur,” Oeuvres complètes, p. 437.

  23. Ibid., p. 435.

  24. Mallarmé, “Victorieusement fui …” Oeuvres complètes, p. 68.

  25. Mallarmé, “Le Corbeau,” Oeuvres complètes, p. 230.

  26. Valéry to Albert Thibaudet, undated [1912], in Valéry, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jean Hytier, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957-60), 1:1729.

  27. Valéry, “Depuis que Socrate est mort, je ne sais plus qui je suis ô—. Cette intelligence disparue qui était plus vaste que la mienne, qui voyait bien plus de choses dans la même chose …” (unpublished note).

  28. Valéry, quoted in Mondor, Précocité de Valéry (Paris, 1957), p. 437.

  29. Valéry, “Situation de Baudelaire,” Oeuvres complètes, 1:606; André Gide and Valéry, Correspondance 1890-1942, ed. Robert Mallet (Paris, 1955), p. 163.

  30. Valéry, Cahiers, 29 vols. (Paris, 1957-62), 22:842; further references to this work, abbreviated Ca, will be included in the text.

  31. Valéry, “Propos me concernant,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:1531.

  32. Valéry to Thibaudet, undated [1912], in Valéry, Oeuvres complètes, 1:1731.

  33. Valéry, Oeuvres complètes, 1:1786-88.

  34. In an unpublished lecture of 1922 Valéry writes: “Je n'aime pas le Corbeau; ce n'est pas son meilleur poème: c'est un poème réclame, fait pour le public assez grossier en matière de poésie et avec des effets assez factices qui portent nécessairement quand on veut qu'ils portent” (“I do not like ‘The Raven’; it is an advertisement poem, written for a public unsophisticated in matters of poetry, with rather contrived effects that necessarily hit the mark when one allows them to do so”). Again, speaking of Poe's commentary on “The Raven”: “la description qu'il nous donne de la façon dont ce poème a été composé est à mon avis indigne de ses facultés. … C'est là un faux. Poe n'a pas fait cela; il l'a composé tout autrement” (“the description he gives us of the way that poem was composed is in my opinion unworthy of his abilities. … It is a forgery. That is not what Poe did; he composed the poem in quite a different manner”).

  35. Valéry, “Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci,” Oeuvres complètes, 1:1197.

  36. See Valéry's very next sentence: “Ceci agit comme un appel de cor—un signal qui excitait tout mon intellect” (“This worked like the call of a hunting horn—a signal that galvanized my whole intellect”) (Ca, 22:489).

  37. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Domain of Arnheim,” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Tales and Sketches 1843-1849, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbot, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 3:1271.

  38. See also Valéry's letter to Père Rideau in which he says: “Je ne me suis jamais référé qu'à mon MOI PUR, par quoi j'entends l'absolu de la conscience, qui est l'opération unique et uniforme de se dégager automatiquement de tout” (“I have never taken anything other than my PURE SELF as reference, by which I mean an absolute awareness, the single and uniform operation of automatically disengaging oneself from everything”) (Lettres à quelques-uns [Paris, 1952], p. 245).

  39. Unpublished notes for a 1922 lecture on Poe: “On dirait que cet homme, qui a été si fréquemment accusé d'alcoolisme, n'a jamais sacrifié qu'à la déesse de la lucidité”; “Chez Poe, la conscience des opérations de l'esprit n'était pas seulement le simple fait de se rendre compte de la façon dont il pensait; elle était chez lui un moyen d'analyse et d'invention ensuite”; “La lucidité accompagne cette distinction de la conscience de l'être même qui pense et donne ensuite une sorte de référence aux opérations de cet esprit qui pense.” I have examined, thanks to the kindness of Monsieur Claude Valéry, the 1887 Calmann-Levy edition of Eureka in Baudelaire's translation, which was an item in Valéry's personal library. Underlined in red, black, and blue, it shows evidence of much rereading. The marginal notes are of particular interest, such as Valéry's final summary: “Création de l'homme” (p. 249) designating Poe's theory as myth in which mind and universe are symmetrical; or this remark on Poe's mode of argument: “Quel exemple d'analogie ceci. Il transpose une exacte et commode notion mathématique dans son langage” (“What an example of analogy. He transposes an exact and useful mathematical notion into his own language”); again, likening Poe's meditation on God to a dream: “rever = s'épandre un sur tout, tout sur un” (“to dream = to expand oneself as one over everything, as everything over one”).

  40. Valéry to Gide, 1901, Oeuvres complètes, 1:1757.

  41. See “La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:17: “Je rature le vif. … Je retiens ce que je veux” (“I erase the quick. … I keep what I want”).

  42. Valéry, Oeuvres complètes, 1:146.

  43. Valéry to Gide, 16 May 1891, Correspondance 1890-1942, p. 86.

  44. Valéry, “Littérature,” Oeuvres complètes, 2:561-62.

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11045

SOURCE: Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Horrors of Translation: The Death of a Beautiful Woman.” In Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing, pp. 60-88. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Kennedy explores Poe's poetry involving the death of beautiful women, suggesting that death involves a translation of the woman as object of desire into an object of horror.]

Poe's 1842 tale “The Oval Portrait” tells of a “desperately wounded” traveler who chances to pass a night in a Gothic chateau. Suffering from “incipient delirium,” the narrator decides to peruse a volume of art criticism found lying on his pillow; he gives himself over to the book “devoutly” until the approach of “deep midnight,” when he adjusts the candelabrum at his bedside and perceives in a dark niche the hitherto unnoticed portrait of a beautiful young woman. The picture possesses an “absolute lifelikeliness of expression” that startles the narrator, rivets his gaze for half an hour, and then leads him back to the book (which happens to describe the paintings in the bedroom). The volume provides a brief account—reminiscent of Hawthorne's “The Birthmark”—of a “wild and moody” painter who worked so obsessively to idealize his young bride through portraiture that he did not notice her failing health and so completed his masterpiece only to discover that he had killed the beloved subject.

The tale is exemplary in several respects and provides a condensed allegory of death, life, and art which implies an antagonism between living beauty and its artistic representation. In this sense the story is not so different in implication from Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which opposes human warmth to the “cold pastoral” of the urn. But the interest of “The Oval Portrait” does not lie in its metaphorizing of aesthetic theory; rather, it resides in the tortured relationships limned by the tale: between the painter and his young bride, between the woman and her painted likeness, between the haunting portrait and the wounded narrator, and between the “quaint” anecdote in the art book and the narrator's truncated story. Each pairing figures an opposition between life and art, between one who gazes and one who is gazed at; more revealingly, each implies a relationship between translator and text or between text and translation. The painter translates his wife in a double sense—into a visual icon and into a lifeless model. Like all translation, this process entails duplication and effacement, a retracing which both mirrors the original and abolishes it in the sense that every translation sacrifices the letter of the original text to reconstitute its spirit in another language.1 The young bride and the portrait manifest the fatality of translation, inasmuch as the picture lives by virtue of the wife's death; yet the wife paradoxically “lives on” in the painting and her essence in effect sustains the life of the translation.

The narrator, for his part, translates the painting into writing, into a text which is twice removed from the original:

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom and even the ends of the radiant hair, melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filagreed in Moresque.

[CW [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe], 2:664]

This rendering of the portrait again involves the slippage of translation; the narrator can tell us about “the true secret” of the painting's effect, its astonishing “lifelikeliness,” but the verbal account does not leave us “confounded, subdued, and appalled” as it does the narrator. What has been lost is precisely the life of the twice-translated text; what has been gained is access to the idea of the painting. Yet as if to compensate for the loss incurred by his own translation, the narrator provides yet another version, a historical gloss, culled from the volume of art criticism. This passage explains the initial translation (from bride to portrait) and mediates a recovery of the original subject:

She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee: all light and smiles, and frolicksome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.


But of course this version of the young bride is itself the translation of an irrecoverable text.

The economy of translation always entails gain and loss, but in the final sentence of “The Oval Portrait,” Poe's metaphor carries us to the brink of metaphysics and compels us to reflect upon the sense in which the human subject is invariably a text marked for translation. “‘She was dead!’” the volume reports, in a phrase which simultaneously closes the woman's life, the critical note, and the narrative itself. Although Poe makes no further mention of his narrator's grievous wound, the catafalquelike bed, “enveloped” by “fringed curtains of black velvet,” may indeed be the implied site of his own mortal translation, a supposition given force by the abrupt termination of his story. If we imagine the narrator to be upon his deathbed, his adoration of “the immortal beauty of the countenance” becomes intelligible as a manifestation of his own desire for immortality. Significantly, in the brief account of his gazing at the picture, we see him first startled, then agitated, then subdued, and finally “appalled”—the last term obliquely suggesting the onset of horror and death (“pall”). In the story of the artist and his young bride, he discovers a mirroring of his own decline before the beauty of the portrait.

Like the painter, he produces a translation without realizing its personal cost; the narrator's “gaze” at the appalling image reenacts the artist's final horror: “For one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast” (665-66, my emphasis). What causes the painter to grow “very pallid” (and what later casts a pall over the narrator) is not the discovery that the bride is dead but the more unexpected realization that the portrait possesses a “life itself,” a hideous autonomy of being. Here the painter confronts (as will the narrator after him) the scandal of translation, the awareness that his text has taken on an independent life more real to him than that of its original; indeed, the metaphrase has parasitically drained the original of its vitality. In its preternatural vividness, the portrait has become a frightening double of the young bride. Its “lifelikeliness” simultaneously signifies an immortality and a fatality: while the beauty of the portrait will endure, its living counterpart will not; the woman will resemble the sign of herself less and less until she is at last translated into a corpse. In this sense the portrait conveys the same inevitable message of time and mortality which (as Roland Barthes has remarked) every photograph of a human subject bears.2 This is the shocking truth which appalls the painter and the narrator; this is the discovery which the final sentence of “The Oval Portrait” serves to confirm.

Poe's implication that the fate of the narrator is somehow linked to that of a beautiful young woman places this tale among an important group of “portraits”—writings about doomed beauty and untimely translation. In an early, quasi-autobiographical poem Poe wrote, “I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty's breath” (CW, 1:157). In one sense this declaration expresses an entirely conventional Romantic attitude; Mario Praz notes: “To such an extent were Beauty and Death looked upon as sisters by the Romantics that they became fused into a sort of two-faced herm, filled with corruption and melancholy and fatal in its beauty—a beauty of which the more bitter the taste, the more abundant the enjoyment.”3 But as with premature burial, Poe's insistent figuring of the death of beauty—and the beauty of death—obliges us to look more closely at implicit metaphorical attributes. The poet endeavored in “The Philosophy of Composition” to rationalize his obsession with dying young women, calling the theme “the most poetical topic in the world,” as if that assertion explained the brooding evocation of the “lost Lenore” and all of the other doomed ladies in his writing. Poe's biography yields plentiful sources for his preoccupation with cadaverous women and mournful men, and in chapter 4 I discuss the pattern of loss which informs his correspondence. Here I want to situate the death-of-a-beautiful-woman motif in relation to conventions of popular literature and to the anthropology of death in the nineteenth century. As noted earlier, Ariès typifies Poe's epoch as “the Age of the Beautiful Death,” a period in which dying became a fetishized spectacle, an elaborately prepared departure; in which the deathbed became a site of beatific intimacy; and in which the corpse became an object of idolatry and commemoration. Barton Levi St. Armand comments on the extensions of this practice: “The loved dead themselves became keepsakes, as advances in embalming and the invention of waterproof tombs and airtight burial cases actually allowed sentimentalists to treat the corpse as a metaphorical gem, treasure, or idol it so often is in the lofty lamentations of mortuary verse.”4 As the dead body became an icon, the proliferation of mourning art in nineteenth-century America—with its iconography of urns, plinths, mourners, and weeping willows—helped to feed a melancholy preoccupation with death. This impulse found its consummation in the death of young women, especially unmarried women, whose departures from this life seemed to epitomize the beauty of innocent faith.

In the marketplace of popular literature, death and mourning generated an impressive variety of sentimentalized writing. Washington Irving's lugubrious “biography” of Margaret Miller Davidson typifies the sort of work which sponsored the concept of the Beautiful Death. Irving had first met Miss Davidson in 1833 (before her consumption had been diagnosed), and when he saw her again in 1836, two years before the girl's death, he noted that she seemed—pathetically—more beautiful in her diseased condition:

The interval that had elapsed had rapidly developed the powers of her mind, and heightened the loveliness of her person, but my apprehensions had been verified. The soul was wearing out the body. Preparations were making to take her on a tour for her health, and her mother appeared to flatter herself that it might prove efficacious; but when I noticed the fragile delicacy of her form, the hectic bloom of her cheek, and the almost unearthly lustre of her eye, I felt convinced that she was not long for this world; in truth, she already appeared more spiritual than mortal.5

Preceded in death by her sister (also a poetess of sorts), Miss Davidson passed away in 1838 at the age of fifteen, attended in her final hour by her mother, who reported in a letter: “She gave me one more look, two or three short fluttering breaths, and all was over—her spirit was with its God—not a struggle or groan preceded her departure.”6 Margaret Davidson's parting was exemplary of a kind of death that seemed devoid of pain, deformity, filth, or horror.

Another work in this genre, Rev. Moses Waddel's Memoirs of Miss Caroline E. Smelt devotes fully half of its one hundred fifty pages to the “last sickness and death” of its subject, a girl from Augusta, Georgia, who succumbed at the age of seventeen. During a visit to the bedside of a dying orphan, the girl witnesses for the first time the awful transformation: “I never had such feelings in all my life—I viewed with horror the change in her countenance—I saw her struggles—the sight was more than I could bear.” A few days later, Miss Smelt contracts a fever and takes to her own bed, where for more than three weeks she hovers between life and death, dispensing admonitions, blessings, and pious utterances to sundry visitors. But her own transformation is kept tactfully out of sight. Waddel's narrative (based on information supplied by her family) gives a day-by-day account of the girl's rallies and relapses that emphasizes her virtuous suffering, but about her physical symptoms, the account notes only the progress of the fever and the application of “blisters” (poultices). Throughout the ordeal, Miss Smelt is said to have exhibited a countenance of “heavenly serenity” and “celestial beauty,” though Waddel does permit himself to reveal that “the necessity of blistering her head” required the removal of her hair. Apposite to such representations, St. Armand observes that the “doctrine of justification by death and suffering allows us to understand the great paradox of the popular gospel of consolation: the mingled emphasis on both the corporeal and the marmoreal—the fascination with a clinical report of excruciating pain and an equal obsession with the calm, marble-like features of the corpse itself, petrified by rigor mortis.”7 Consistent with this pattern, Miss Smelt's parents contemplate her remains a few moments after her decrease, and her father declares: “She is gone.—It is death! but oh! I never saw it in so heavenly a form before. It is death! but he has made no ravages upon that face. She is changed a little; but more beautiful than ever. What serene majesty of countenance! and what heavenly calmness! her sufferings are over.”8 The insistence upon the beauty of the dead seems a mandatory reflex of belief, for the perceived loveliness of the girl's corpse operates as a sign of redemption. The father allows that Miss Smelt is “changed a little,” but this alteration is an apotheosis of the flesh, a confirmation of her supposed victory over death.

Contemporary gift books and guides to mourning and consolation invariably emphasized the beauty of the last hour and the spiritual uses of grief while ignoring the physiology of dissolution. The Mourner's Gift (1837), edited by Mrs. M. A. Patrick, offered a gilt-edged anthology of funereal verses by such purveyors of sentiment as Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Felicia Hemans, and Mrs. H. F. Gould. In 1844, Rev. Rufus W. Griswold (later to blacken Poe's reputation) brought forth a gilt-edged collection entitled The Cypress Wreath, with a preface announcing its purpose:

Our literature embraces many admirable discourses and “poesies with a spiritual harmony,” addressed to the heartbroken and desponding, who linger among the tombs. This little volume, the fruit of the editor's desultory reading while he was himself a mourner, it is hoped will leave upon the minds of others in like circumstances, some portion of that happy influence which its preparation had upon his own; leading them to view the FATHER'S dispensations with resignation, and to look more and more to the future life as the scene and source of blessedness.9

The emphasis of this “little volume” on a heavenly reunion in “the future life” was calculated to assuage grief and render “the FATHER'S dispensations” palatable if not comprehensible. Griswold's belief in the “happy influence” of such verses as “The Hour of Death,” “On the Death of a Young Girl,” and “The Slumber of Death” suggests the importance of mourning as a spiritual exercise. As Karen Halttunen demonstrates, mourning in nineteenth-century America was in fact a complicated performance, both a private, meditative act and a public display of class status; as the etiquette of grief defined itself, mourning became increasingly dissociated from the actualities of death, evolving into a hypocritical system of conventions and proprieties.10

Poe's response to the cult of mourning and the Beautiful Death defies easy summary. His poetic treatment of dying women indicates that, to a certain extent, he shared the pervasive sentimental view that death intensified female beauty and even brought about a purification of loveliness. Thus for example in “Lenore” he idealized the departed one:

The sweet Lenore hath gone before, with Hope that flew beside,
Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride—
For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair, but not within her eyes—
The life still there upon her hair, the death upon her eyes.

[CW, 1:337]

This lyric captures the subtle eroticism of a beauty heightened by the implication that Lenore takes to the grave the charms which she had not yet yielded to her “wild” lover, Guy de Vere. But Poe's emphasis (in l. 12) on the death of “innocence” is also consistent with gift-book evocations of the saintly departure. More frequently in his verses, the beauty of the beloved is an obsessive memory; his speakers recall “the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore” (in “The Raven”) or “the bright eyes / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.” Poe could argue (in “The Philosophy of Composition”) that the death of a beautiful woman offered the most poetical subject imaginable because that motif conjoined the essential elements of desire: irresistible loveliness and the impossibility of its preservation or recovery. The ephemerality of such beauty accounted for its force: unlike the timeless beauty of the work of art (the oval portrait), the loveliness of Poe's women is doubly evanescent, being both an aspect of youth (which is lost daily) and a symptom of illness (which must end in death). This aesthetic no doubt developed in part from the much-noted irony that consumption—the all-too-common destroyer in the nineteenth century—actually did enhance physical beauty at an intermediate stage by inducing a feverish glow. In Poe's tales, which deal more directly with the process of dying, fated women seem invariably to grow more beautiful as they approach their last hour. Poe implies that through this insidious transformation, temporal loveliness approaches the perfection of eternal beauty, and theoretically at least the corpse of the dead woman briefly incarnates an ideality. But because death also entails physiological decay, the beauty of the just-departed contains an element of terror, since the passage of time implies a subsequent and inevitable mutation to loathsomeness. Death discloses its cruel paradoxicality, being both the source of ideal beauty and its destroyer. Poe could accept the perverse fact that death intensified beauty—he had seen it often enough—but he also saw through the illusion fostered by sentimentalism.

If Poe persistently wrote poems about dead young women, he dwelt less upon the physical attributes of the Other than upon the condition of desolation which her death brought about for his persona. In “The Raven,” for instance, the setting mirrors the melancholy speaker's own despair and emptiness: the “midnight dreary,” the “bleak December,” and the “dying ember” all reflect his sorrowful exhaustion. The outer world seems, on the one hand, a simple projection of his inward condition; yet the poem also enacts the struggle to escape solipsism through a recovered connection with the Other. The contradiction of mourning is that the narrator wishes both to forget and to remember: he has been pondering a “volume of forgotten lore” (repressed material) in order to find “surcease of sorrow” (to deny or repress grief). Paradoxically, he seeks forgetfulness through an act of remembrance, the recovery of lore which has been “forgotten.” This conflict between memory and its denial underlies the narrator's response to the raven. While he vows in the second stanza that Lenore will remain “nameless here forevermore,” he cannot resist naming her: “Lenore” signifies the absence which afflicts him. Thus in stanza five, he opens the door to “darkness,” “silence,” and “stillness”—images of death's fixity—and perversely whispers the name which he had hoped to repress. A similar ambivalence lodges itself in the famous refrain “Nevermore,” which seems on the one hand to manifest the desire to forget (the narrator will nevermore brood upon the lost Lenore) and on the other to serve (as it does for the speaker) as a nagging reminder of the irrevocability of death. Many readers have noted that the mourner poses just those questions to the bird for which the answer “nevermore” seems to portend endless grief, the absence of heavenly redemption (no “balm in Gilead”) and the impossibility of spiritual reunion with Lenore.

What seems particularly curious about “The Raven”—in view of the nineteenth-century model of death sketched by Ariès—is the narrator's unconscious and apparently compulsive need to disconfirm the key ideas associated with the Beautiful Death. To read the poem as a self-contained lyric of bereavement is to overlook the historical and cultural dilemma inscribed in the speaker's anxiety. The problem of a spiritual afterlife had become a matter of public dispute, and we see this uncertainty about a heavenly rendezvous creep into stanza sixteen of “The Raven” when the narrator demands: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore” (CW, 1:368). This fantasy of reunion is the only bearable conception of future existence; it alone holds out the hope that the myth of the Beautiful Death is not as empty as the dark world beyond the chamber door. But the narrator poses the question in a way that must elicit a denial from the raven. Already the bird's presence has become the sign of an irrevocable absence; it embodies the idea of despair, and its perching on the bust of Pallas transparently allegorizes the obsessive nature of dejection, in which loss itself becomes a fetish.

Not all of Poe's poems about dying women evoke quite so bleak an imagined future. The possibility of a meeting in paradise seems the implied hope of “Lenore.” Here, despite the belief that the “saintly soul” of the woman has “flown forever,” and though she seems “doubly dead in that she died so young,” Lenore is said to have “gone before” her betrothed, Guy de Vere, to “a high estate within the utmost Heaven … to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven” (CW, 1:336-37). This more sanguine and conventional vision of futurity allows the speaker to replace the dirge with “a Paean of old days,” a celebration of the soul floating up to friends above, thus fulfilling the expectation—nurtured by consolation literature—of a “re-creation in heaven of the friendships of earth and communication with spirits.”11 Lenore has gone ahead of Guy de Vere to discover the social opportunities of paradise.

At first glance, physical separation also seems bearable in “Annabel Lee,” because the speaker claims an indissoluble spiritual bond:

And neither the angels in Heaven above,
          Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
          Of the beautiful Annabel Lee …

Unlike the desolate atmosphere of “The Raven,” even the forms of nature seem in “Annabel Lee” to be endowed with the spirit of the dead woman:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
          Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
          Of the beautiful Annabel Lee …

However, the poem also briefly acknowledges the estrangement imposed by the tomb. The speaker's beloved has been carried off and sealed away:

                    … her high-born kinsmen came
          And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre,
          In this kingdom by the sea.

[CW, 1:478]

In the final lines, the mourner speaks of lying down beside his “bride” through “all the night-tide”; that she happens to be “in her sepulchre there by the sea— / In her tomb by the sounding sea” seems a minor inconvenience, perhaps no obstacle at all to the sort of love Poe has in mind, and the poem thus superficially conforms to the idea of a love that finds its romantic completion in death. Indeed, Poe's lyric calls to mind the case, reported by Ariès, of Alexandrine de la Ferronays, who in 1836 climbed down into the open grave of her husband “so that she could touch and kiss, one last time, the coffin that contains everything she has ever loved.” The tomb, Ariès reports, became “the object of a daily pilgrimage” for the widow.12 Poe's poem evokes a similar kind of sentimental devotion, but there is an underlying implication of despair: the speaker accepts the fact of death in referring to “the wind [that] came out of the cloud by night, / Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” And the “sounding sea” of the final line contrasts ominously with the silence of the sepulchre. The narrator's compulsive return to the tomb thus raises a curious question: why does he try to achieve physical proximity to the corpse if his love is indeed spiritual and lasting? His action seems an unconscious betrayal of anxiety, a reflexive acknowledgment of the very separation which the poem itself seeks to deny.

This pattern becomes more intelligible when we consider “Annabel Lee” in relation to the tomb imagery of “Ulalume.” This much-abused poem dramatizes a dialogue between the speaker and his soul, Psyche, which unfolds in the course of a nocturnal encounter in “the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.” A fatalism compels the excursion, for the speaker has chosen, all unaware, to retrace the way to the burial site of Ulalume on the anniversary of her entombment. Astrological details help to explicate the inner debate: the narrator finds himself attracted to “Astarte's bediamonded crescent” and the physical love she patently represents, being “warmer than Dian,” the goddess of chastity. But her allure is deceptive; whereas the speaker imagines that Astarte (the body or flesh) leads toward forgetfulness, the “Lethean peace of the skies,” Psyche (the mind) mistrusts Astarte and tries to warn the speaker of danger. Convinced that the star's light “cannot but guide [them] aright,” he follows the glow to the end of a vista closed off by the tomb of Ulalume. The sight of the burial vault reveals to the narrator his own perverse obedience to a repetition mechanism:

And I cried—“It was surely October,
On this very night of last year,
That I journeyed—I journeyed down here!—
That I brought a dread burden down here—
On this night, of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?”

[CW, 1:418]

The temptress is Astarte, whose association with fleshly charms now reveals the delusion of immortality inspired by female beauty; for the loveliness of Ulalume has not insured the eternality of her soul, much less the incorruptibility of her body. She is the lost Ulalume, recollected by the speaker only as a dread burden, a source of fear and loathing. Now on this night of nights, her tomb has become a cursed site that marks the end of hope and beauty, the withering of human desire: “Then my heart it grew ashen and sober / As the leaves that were crispéd and sere.”

Poe's representation of the tomb as an object of both repression and fixation curiously anticipates the theory of “cryptonymy” elaborated by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok in their much-discussed study of Freud's Wolf Man.13 This account merits attention here because it opens up the metaphoricity of the burial vault in Poe as a figuring of the contradictions of bereavement. Abraham and Torok perceived in the case of the Wolf Man evidence of an “artificial unconscious,” a forgotten niche in which the subject had deposited the contents of an early traumatic loss. They located this sealed-off space of psychic incorporation, or “crypt,” between the “dynamic unconscious” and the “self of introjection”; yet the crypt remained inaccessible to conscious remembrance and unrecognizable in dreams and fantasies. Only through a painstaking decoding or cryptanalysis of the fragmented symbols by which the unnamable had disguised its presence were Abraham and Torok able to postulate the existence of the crypt and identify its contents: the repressed traces of a primal scene of incest involving Wolf Man's father and sister. As Derrida explains in his commentary “Fors,” the “seductress sister” was thereafter symbolically buried or cryptically incorporated:

Sealing the loss of the object, but also marking the refusal to mourn, such a manoeuvre … is a kind of theft to reappropriate the pleasure-object. But that reappropriation is simultaneously rejected: which leads to the paradox of a foreign body preserved as foreign but by the same token excluded from a self which thenceforth deals not with the other, but only with itself. The more the self keeps the foreign element as a foreigner inside itself, the more it excludes it.14

Wolf Man's desire for the sister, together with his horror at her violation, compels the encrypting which is always “an effect of impossible or refused mourning.” Thus she remains preserved yet forgotten in this interior which is always “partitioned off from the interior.”

Derrida's remark that “the crypt is the vault of desire” provides a gloss not only on Wolf Man's predicament but also on Poe's poetic enactments of loss. For as we see in “Ulalume,” the tomb is hidden in a place which the narrator cannot avoid, for the crypt designates a site that is always already within. Ulalume has been incorporated within the narrator's “artificial unconscious” through an act of repression, a refusal to mourn, here indicated (in his ramble with Psyche) by a series of denials: “We noted not the dim lake of Auber, / (Though once we had journeyed down here) / We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber, / Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” (416). As in “The Raven,” this suppression of memory in “Ulalume” is symptomatic of the encryptment of the beloved, who remains nevertheless undead: “The inhabitant of a crypt is always a living-dead, a dead entity we are perfectly willing to keep alive, but as dead, one we are willing to keep, as long as we keep it, within us, intact in any way save as living.” Paradoxically, the erection of a tomb in Poe marks a refusal to let go of the beloved, a refusal signified by acts of revisitation; yet the tomb also constitutes an impossible barrier, an effacement of the Other. An irresistible site that cannot be entered; a beloved that cannot be brought to life or allowed to die: such is the dilemma of the subject who constructs a crypt—as Derrida says of the Wolf Man—“to save the living death he has walled up inside him.”15

That which the tomb encloses is always “a foreign body,” a thing that cannot be named. Death produces its own cryptonomy or secret language, which cannot be deciphered or translated. At “the door of a legended tomb,” the speaker in “Ulalume” confronts the horrors of translation; death has converted the object of desire into a foreign, unspeakable “thing that lies hidden in these wolds.” The etymology of translate, meaning to carry or bear across, lends itself readily to the idea of burial; that which is carried or borne across the pale is encrypted into a language which is always unknown.

The element of defamiliarization, the strangeness of this mortal translation, is elsewhere suggested in Poe's “The Sleeper.” Here the conventional poetic notion of death as a sleep (used, for example, in Donne's “Death Be Not Proud”) is horribly subverted: rather than providing its traditional comfort—that death, like sleep, is peaceful and refreshing—Poe's lyric evokes the illusion of a sleeping woman in order to induce, through a succession of incongruous details, the gradual perception of her death and the recognition of a hideous difference. The poem opens with a speaker standing “at midnight, in the month of June” beneath the window of his beloved: “All Beauty sleeps!—and lo! where lies / Irene, with her destinies.” Though there are hints in the first seventeen lines of the grim actuality (“The rosemary nods upon the grave”), Poe otherwise creates the innocent impression of a romantic vigil near his darling. In the second section, however, the suggestion of natural sleep is eroded by questions and allusions. The speaker asks, “Oh, lady bright! can it be right— This window open to the night?” His query, apparently addressed to the sleeper, offers no direct evidence of her death, but the open window becomes the first sign of the anomalous. Through the casement, the speaker then imagines the “wanton airs” (night breezes) invading the sleeper's room:

The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,
Flit through thy chamber in and out,
And wave the curtain canopy
So fitfully—so fearfully—
Above the closed and fringéd lid
'Neath which thy slumb'ring soul lies hid.

[CW, 1:187]

By this point, the secret is out. The “closed and fringéd” lid of the coffin tells us all we need to know about the sleeper's condition and about the metaphor of the title; but the speaker continues to play (now perversely) with the notion that his love is only asleep. He asks rhetorically, “Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear? / Why and what art thou dreaming here?” These are not true interrogatives—for the sleeper cannot answer—but rather components of a fiction he tries to sustain. The illusion of natural sleep collapses, however, before the disconcerting otherness of death:

Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!
Strange, above all, thy length of tress,
And all this solemn silentness!

Her “sleep” is a cheat, a deception; the metaphor of slumber gives no solace to the speaker, who observes on the one hand that her rest is lurid, unnatural, and who fears on the other that it will be all too much like ordinary sleep and that his beloved may awaken (from a cataleptic state?) in the tomb: “I pray to God that she may lie / Forever with unopened eye, / While the dim sheeted ghosts go by.” In what is very nearly the worst line in Poe's poetry, the speaker then implores, “Soft may the worms about her creep!” Here the poet looks ahead to the last, ghastly fate of the beautiful woman: definitive translation by the Conqueror Worm.

In calling poetry the “rhythmical creation of beauty,” and then designating the death of a beautiful woman as the most poetical of topics, Poe established an implicit metaphorical relationship between the death of beauty and poetic texts. The poems discussed above may be understood as figurations of the problem of beauty, its earthly fate, and its translation through death—first into an ideal form and then into an object of disgust. As such, these poems appear to allegorize for Poe the fate of poetry: the poetic text stands over and against mundane reality and subjects itself to the “death” of publication (separation) and public judgment (corruption). The recurrent tension between heaven and hell and the occasional suggestion that the woman has been destroyed by calumny (as in “Lenore”) or victimized by jealous rivals (implied in the final version of “To One in Paradise” and in “Annabel Lee”) strengthen one's sense of a relationship between the poem itself and the fated woman who is its subject. Seemingly cursed by her beauty, the dying woman is typically too fine or pure for earthly survival, too ethereal to be appreciated by vulgar contemporaries. The crucial relationship exists between the woman and the speaker—between the work and its author. Poe seems in this way to dramatize the writer's problematic relationship to his own texts. An unwritten poem exists only as a phantasm of the poet's imagination, but once reified as verse, once translated into the language of the tribe, the writing assumes a life of its own, conditioned by the vagaries of reception. For the poet, the essential beauty of the original idea always remains in some sense untranslatable; yet its “body” (which becomes part of the larger corpus) suffers the indignities of scorn, neglect, envy, misunderstanding, and misquotation.

To place Poe's preoccupation with the death of a beautiful woman in a somewhat broader perspective, we must note its figural relation to the dilemma of all inscription. Insofar as Poe associates the woman with beauty and the poetic sentiment in general, she may be said to incarnate the desire of writing. In an important sense, her power over the writer lies in her otherness or her remoteness; that is, her personal beauty, characterized as a “strangeness,” is the physical sign of a difference which is irreducible and inexplicable. Poe says of the poetic sentiment that it is “the desire of the moth for the star,” the insatiable longing for the unreachable; likewise the beautiful woman embodies that which compels the writer yet remains unattainable. Writing is a form of nympholepsy.

In the tales and poems about dying women, Poe places this nympholeptic project in the context of a sickening transformation. While the metaphoricity of “translation” refers on one level to the action of death, on another it describes a revolting change in the desire of writing, a reversal of one's relationship to inscription. The vision of beauty, strangeness, and indefiniteness which once impelled composition becomes either lost (no longer present to the writer) or else disgusting and all too present. Caught between these alternative versions of defeat, both consequences of the catastrophe of death, the writer indites his narrative as a therapeutic activity, an exorcising of grief. But writing always proves inadequate to the demands placed upon it by the experience of loss, for the attempt to resurrect the beloved by an act of inscription invariably ends by revealing the impotence of language. That ethereal presence which has been lost or transformed can never be textually recovered, for writing as a play of signs merely substitutes one absence for another. Unlike the reassuring verses promulgated as consolation literature, Poe's variations upon the death-of-a-beautiful-woman paradigm enact the failure of language and the inconsolability of the writer. Indeed, as the desire of inscription becomes sealed off or corrupted, he seems to stage in the dead woman's translation the impossibility of writing.

In their attention to the predicament of the mourner, the writing persona who must contend with the absence of the beloved, Poe's texts reflect a tendency in popular culture itself. Michael Davitt Bell speaks of the “climate of uncertain spiritualism” which helped to produce “the curious combination of spirituality and ghoulishness” in Poe's writing: “Spirituality may have arisen, in its various forms, as a protest against the soul's annihilation in death. Yet, lacking a sense of what ‘spirit’ was, Poe and his contemporaries could find it, finally, only in this annihilation—in its ultimate ‘effect.’” Illuminating the dilemma of Poe's spirituality, Bell observes that

his pursuit of the “celestial soul” led back, again and again, to the “earthly corpse.” Once he had accepted the terms of the spiritualist debate … he was trapped, whichever side he chose to take: if spiritual belief led only to the “truly spiritual affection” of the tomb, materialist skepticism hardly offered better. The physical detritus of the soul's triumphant departure was hardly, in a phenomenal sense, to be distinguished from the physical evidence of its absence. If the mind of man could imagine nothing that had not “really”—i.e., materially—existed, then the body was all one could know. Dead flesh was dead flesh.16

In his poetry, Poe generally sustained the notion that the dying woman incarnated a “supernal Loveliness”; his grieving narrators long for the lost beloved and seek either proximity to her corpse or communion with her soul, plagued by the uncertainty of spiritual survival. The text seems a last, ambiguous effort to sustain belief in the recoverability of the woman as the “soul” of poetry, if not as a spiritual presence.

Quite a different relationship to the beautiful woman, however, informs the sequence of works including “Berenice,” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In these stories, the woman's death excites horror, even perverse impatience in the narrator, whose fixation upon disgusting physical changes drives him beyond the brink of madness. In place of the beatific reunion of spirits imagined in consolation literature, Poe's fiction dramatizes an implicit antagonism, culminating in a frenzied, sometimes violent encounter with the buried woman. These narratives portray death not as annihilation or separation but as an ambiguous, temporary parting. In a revolting parody of the death of the Other, Poe depicts the return of the beloved not in spiritual terms but as a ghastly reanimation tinged with vampirism. In these tales, the spirit of the beautiful woman does not go floating up to heaven; rather, it remains bound to the undead corpse, condemned to a fitful existence in which the revenant acts out the desires and hostilities of an earlier life. Only in the later, uncharacteristic tale “Eleonora” did Poe permit himself to represent a death with a reassuring, sentimental outcome.

“Berenice” offers a particularly suggestive enactment of the relationship between attraction and repulsion, dread and longing. The narrator, Egaeus, characterizes himself as a visionary: realities have become illusions and “the wild ideas of the land of dreams” constitute the stuff of daily life. This principle of “inversion” (Poe's term) accounts for his tendency to regard physical realities as abstractions and ideas as things having a material substance. Thus it happens that when his cousin Berenice falls ill (“a fatal disease fell like the simoon upon her frame”), he takes an acute interest in her decline, not as a physiological process but as a theoretical instance of mortality. He treats Berenice “not as a being of the earth, earthy, but as the abstraction of such a being; not as a thing to admire, but to analyze; not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation” (CW, 2:214). Yet although he regards his response to Berenice as wholly conceptual, he admits that he “shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach.” Her “desolate condition” afflicts him with both terror and fascination: “an icy chill ran through my frame; a sense of insufferable anxiety oppressed me; a consuming curiosity pervaded my soul” (214). Gradually, the woman's disease transforms her into a living cadaver; she becomes the personification of dissolution, the signs of her illness creating an “appalling distortion of her personal identity.” That is, contagion discloses the absolute otherness of death:

The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once jetty hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with innumerable ringlets, now of a vivid yellow, and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips.


Here there is little beauty in dying; once a brunette, now a blonde, Berenice has become a grotesque version of herself.

The crux of the passage, however, is a subsequent reference to the woman's teeth, which Egaeus somehow associates with ideas. “Tous ses dents étaient des idées,” he repeats wildly, as if the insight holds esoteric significance. Recurrently in Poe teeth signify mortality: in “Metzengerstein” the demon horse is said to reveal his “sepulchral and disgusting teeth”; in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” the narrator reports that the dying man's “upper lip … writhed itself away from the teeth”; in “Hop-Frog” the “dead silence” before the murder of the king and his counselors is broken by the “low, harsh, grating sound” produced by “the fang-like teeth of the dwarf.” Egaeus sees the teeth of Berenice as “long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them”; they are both “ghastly” and “irresistible,” becoming the paradoxical sign of her disintegration. Because the narrator regards the material world as pure abstraction, he falls prey to the delusion that his peace of mind depends upon physical possession of the teeth. “For these I longed with a frenzied desire,” he confesses, preparing us for the final, shocking revelation that he has unconsciously violated the tomb of Berenice and ravaged her “still palpitating” body to extract the “ideas” that were her teeth. What does this bizarre act signify? For Egaeus, the death of the beautiful woman cannot be understood or psychically absorbed; it can only be repressed, translated into a theoretical instance of itself. Yet his unconscious incites an act of aggression against the teeth, the displaced focus of his anxiety. Becker speaks of the transference object, which for the child (as for the childlike Egaeus) represents all that is frightening and uncontrollable in the world:

The transference object always looms larger than life size because it represents all of life and hence all of one's fate. The transference object becomes the focus of the problem of one's freedom because one is compulsively dependent on it; it sums up all other natural dependencies and emotions. This quality is true of either positive or negative transference objects. In the negative transference, the object becomes the focalization of terror, but now experienced as evil and constraint.17

Becker concisely remarks: “This is how we can understand the essence of transference: as a taming of terror.” Egaeus can do nothing about the disease of Berenice, and her hideous transformation confronts him with a reminder of his own impotence and vulnerability. In particular the woman's teeth signify the problem of death; the narrator wants to possess them to control the reality which they represent.

The problem of identity, which arises in “Berenice” as a function of physiological change, also emerges in “Morella,” where Poe's narrator ponders the fate of individual essence—the “principium individuationis, the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost forever” (CW, 2:231). The tale seems to demonstrate the survival of personal entity when the dying wife ostensibly returns in the form of the daughter whom she has delivered upon her deathbed; the empty tomb, discovered at the story's end, appears to signal the transmigration of the mother's soul. But the matter remains ambiguous, for the death of the second Morella evidently brings to a close the cycle of death and reincarnation. More clearly the story dramatizes Poe's characteristic attraction-repulsion pattern: the narrator's “singular affection” for Morella and the abandon with which he enters into a mystical novitiate give way at length to “horror” and “alienation.” As in “Berenice,” the signs of the woman's disease obsess the narrator: “In time, the crimson spot settled steadily upon the cheek, and the blue veins upon the pale forehead became prominent; and, one instant, my nature melted into pity, but, in the next, I met the glance of her meaning eyes, and then my soul sickened and became giddy with the giddiness of one who gazes downward into some dreary and unfathomable abyss” (231-32). The “abyss” metaphor is revealing: the narrator observes indications of his wife's impending death and feels himself pulled helplessly toward self-destruction, as if her extinction somehow entailed his own.

Here Poe touches again upon the mechanism we now know as transference. As a maternal, protective figure, Morella stands between the narrator and all that threatens him in the external world; the symptoms of her mortality bring home the fact of his own jeopardy. Becker notes that the idealizing of the Other often occurs in marriage, where the wife (for example) is expected to assure the happiness of the husband and by maintaining her own youthfulness and vitality to affirm his youth—that is, to save him from aging and death. The discovery of her vulnerability seems to deprive him of the illusion of his own immortality: “If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn't have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did … then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it—death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. ‘She lessens’ = ‘I die.’”18 The revulsion of Poe's narrator is not a response to Morella herself but to her mortality; we can trace his disgust back to her “cold hand,” to the voice whose melody is “tainted with terror,” to her “melancholy eyes”—all signs of the fate which she anticipates and symbolizes. His abhorrence of the process of dissolution and his eagerness for the moment of release (through her death) foreshadow the twentieth-century concept of unmentionable, invisible death—the concealed obscenity about which Geoffrey Gorer has written.19

In effect, “Morella” presents a grotesque inversion of the sweet parting idealized as the Beautiful Death. Rather than a celestial reunion, Morella speaks on her deathbed of avenging the narrator's loathing: “Thy days shall be days of sorrow … the hours of thy happiness are over … thou shalt bear about with thee thy shroud on earth” (233). The instrument of his anguish will be the second Morella, whose similarity to the mother becomes “more hideously terrible” with each passing day. The daughter is such a perfect translation of the mother that the narrator, in “an unnerved and agitated condition,” gives her the same name—and thus induces her instantaneous death. Underlying the occult action is a recognizable psychological pattern: repression and the subsequent eruption of unconscious material. The narrator's “consuming desire” for Morella's death and his impatience at her slow decline are symptomatic of his “alienation”—his aversion to her touch, her voice, and her eyes, all of which bespeak her fate. By avoiding Morella, the narrator endeavors to protect himself from the contagion of dying. But he cannot escape “the hemlock and the cypress”: the child whom he imagined to embody the principle of life and the proof of his own immortality becomes herself the emblem of inescapable death.

Fear and loathing enter the scheme of “Ligeia” in a somewhat different way. Ligeia personifies for the narrator a will to live and a loveliness which verges on the “supernal Beauty” of poetry itself. Poe has evoked the woman from his own poetic text, the youthful “Al Aaraaf”:

Ligeia! Ligeia!
          My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
          Will to melody run …

[CW, 1:109]

The fictional text delineates her exquisite strangeness: a “lofty and pale” forehead, skin of “purest ivory,” “raven-black hair,” teeth of “a brilliancy almost startling,” and eyes of “the most brilliant of black.” Like Berenice and Morella, Ligeia grows ill and takes on the characteristics of mortal decline: “The wild eyes blazed with a too—too glorious effulgence; the pale fingers became of the transparent waxen hue of the grave, and the blue veins upon the lofty forehead swelled and sank impetuously with the tides of the most gentle emotion. I saw that she must die” (CW, 2:316). Before she dies, however, Ligeia delivers herself of a poem, “The Conqueror Worm,” which (as noted in chapter 1) comprises a radical response to consolation literature, positing a grim, naturalistic image of “human gore.” Unlike Margaret Davidson, who is said to have died without a struggle or groan, Ligeia listens to the recitation of her poem and then shrieks: “O God! O Divine Father!—shall these things be undeviatingly so?—shall this conqueror be not once conquered?” What Ligeia expresses at this moment is Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling,” the characteristic dilemma of the modern age. At the core of this uncertainty is the awareness that despite increasing information and knowledge, the denizen of a secular, technological culture can never entirely surmount what Becker calls the “horror of his own basic animal condition.”20

Poe's narrator tells us that he is “crushed into the very dust with sorrow” by Ligeia's death. He voices no expectation of heavenly reunion, but he seizes upon the suggestion of his dying wife that she will return to him through force of will. On the surface, he seems to have participated in her dying moments as the narrator of “Morella” was unable to do, but the second half of the story hints that he too has, in some way, avoided the dying woman, repressed the terror of the transformation, and doomed himself to an inevitable reenactment. In the months after Ligeia's death, he gives himself up to “aimless wandering” and then begins to refurbish an abbey “with a faint hope of alleviating [his] sorrows.” But his selection of funereal artifacts (such as the “gigantic sarcophagus of black granite”) reveals that, as with the speaker in “The Raven,” his effort to forget conceals a stronger urge to remember, to resurrect the departed. He tells us that “in a moment of mental alienation” he has married Rowena, the Anglo-Saxon antithesis of Ligeia, upon whom he projects an irrational hatred rooted presumably in guilt over remarriage (a theme in “Eleonora” as well). As Roy Basler pointed out, the narrator thus cunningly engineers the collapse of Rowena, and the image of his second wife's “pallid and rigid figure upon the bed” brings to mind Ligeia's demise and “the whole of that unutterable wo with which [he] had regarded her thus enshrouded” (326).21 A deep psychic necessity impels him to reconstruct in this way the final agonies of Ligeia, perhaps as a symptomatic expression of survivor guilt. During this night of the living dead, Rowena's morbid relapses cause two associated effects: the narrator's shudder of horror at “the ghastly expression of death” and his “waking visions of Ligeia.” The mingling of past and present pushes him toward the edge of madness; the woman before him is both living and dead, Lady Rowena and Ligeia, an impossible image of desire and loathing.

While the narrator's treatment of Rowena may be explained as a symptom of his guilt at taking a second wife, a more disturbing possibility surfaces in his fascination with the woman's “corpse.” In this preoccupation he reveals himself to be a connoisseur of decay, attentive to the signs of death, the awful work of translation. The narrator's own questioning of the act of inscription illuminates his compulsion:

But why shall I minutely detail the unspeakable horrors of that night? Why shall I pause to relate how, time after time, until near the period of the gray dawn, this hideous drama of revivification was repeated; how each terrific relapse was only into a sterner and apparently more irredeemable death; how each agony wore the aspect of a struggle with some invisible foe; and how each struggle was succeeded by I know not what wild change in the personal appearance of the corpse?


Why indeed does he devote such close attention to the physical condition of Rowena? Such detail of course prepares the reader for the final scene in which the two women merge. But the narrator's scrutiny of the “hideous drama of revivification” reveals a peculiar interest in physiological change, here encountered as the dreamlike repetition of a surreal back-and-forth movement between health and corruption. The narrator experiences a compressed version of all of the declines witnessed by his counterparts in other tales. He describes himself (on the night of his vigil) as paralyzed by “unutterable horror and awe, for which the language of mortality has no sufficiently energetic expression” (327), and yet the text itself betrays an obstinate curiosity about the object of this “horror and awe” and a determination to represent its nature through a system of signs already declared to be inadequate.

What impels him to write is the tacit sense that Rowena's ambiguous condition, her wavering between resurrection and decomposition, expresses both the paradoxical mockery of death and the uncertainty of his own response to its transformation. Though he acknowledges a disgust for his “fair-haired and blue-eyed” second wife, arranges the “bridal chamber” to exacerbate the “nervous irritation of her temperament,” and expresses no grief at her apparent demise, he twice makes an unlikely effort to revive her. In the first instance he speaks of his “endeavors to call back the spirit still hovering” (327) and at her second recovery he affirms: “The lady lived; and with redoubled ardor I betook myself to the task of restoration. I chafed and bathed the temples and the hands, and used every exertion which experience, and no little medical reading, could suggest” (328). We should probably attribute these efforts not to solicitude but to voyeuristic interest in the cycle of corruption. Each time the woman stirs, she relapses into a more frightful condition; after a first flush of life, “the color disappeared from both eyelid and cheek, leaving a wanness even more than that of marble; the lips became doubly shrivelled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death; a repulsive clamminess and coldness overspread rapidly the surface of the body; and all the usual rigorous stiffness immediately supervened” (327). At her second relapse, “the color fled, the pulsation ceased, the lips resumed the expression of the dead, and, in an instant afterward, the whole body took upon itself the icy chilliness, the livid hue, the intense rigidity, the sunken outline, and all the loathsome peculiarities of that which has been, for many days, a tenant of the tomb” (328). “Time after time” the same experience repeats itself, as the spellbound narrator finds himself the “helpless prey to a whirl of violent emotions.”

The meaning of the scene is complex, for on one level it exposes a cultural and historical anxiety: divested of sentimental illusion, the dead body has become a potentially revolting sight. Yet the memory of a beautiful woman's death superimposes itself upon the narrator's perception of the body's metamorphosis. The “drama of revivification” is “hideous” yet utterly absorbing; and its interest seems to lie in its radical indeterminacy. Rowena is neither living nor dead; she incarnates the indefinable, the anomalous. The seeming reversibility of her condition enables the narrator to contemplate that which can ordinarily be glimpsed only as a transitional moment, as a liminal state—the marginality upon which Poe bases the poetics of translation. If the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world,” its aesthetic value derives neither from female beauty as such nor from death as an ontological event, but from the unstable relation between the two, from the shifting intermediacy of a phenomenon which has no proper place or form or intelligibility. The narrator has witnessed this process before, when its unfolding deprived him of Ligeia; now he examines the back-and-forth movement intently, for in his own contradictory response of horror and fascination he confronts the dilemma of translation. The “language of mortality” has no equivalent word for a transformation of this kind, no means of articulating the in-between nature of dying.

The return of the primordial repressed—that which the apparition of Ligeia represents—seems also to be the (re)animating principle of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Without much difficulty we see Madeline's resemblance to Usher as the locus of his own terror: she mirrors his fate and provides an image of his own eventual disintegration. Like Madeline, Usher is already marked for death by a “cadaverousness of complexion … [a] ghastly pallor of the skin.” Like Berenice and Rowena, his sister suffers from a “cataleptical” disorder (which conveniently leaves open the possibility that these women only seem to die). Madeline's disease has led to “a gradual wasting away of the person,” transforming her into a ghostlike presence; even the commonsensical narrator admits that he “regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread.” Ultimately the illness transforms Madeline into that “grim phantasm, Fear,” with which Usher knows that he must one day struggle. Her apparent death creates a dilemma: Usher cannot believe that she is wholly dead and so refuses to have her interred in the remote family burial ground; yet he cannot persuade himself that she still lives and so has her “encoffined” and entombed in an underground vault. The indefinability of her condition is epitomized by her ambiguous appearance in the coffin: the disease has left “the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death” (CW, 2:410). Usher's decision to place the body in an underground vault provides an obvious trope of repression which is congruent with the house/head metaphor elaborated in the embedded poem “The Haunted Palace” and throughout the story. When Madeline bursts through the door to claim her brother, we witness the figurative eruption of repressed death anxiety into conscious experience, the apparition of that phantasm which will indeed deprive Usher of “life and reason together.”

Like the awful return of Ligeia, the appearance of Madeline resembles, in its odd imagery, the surreal quality of a nightmare:

There did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.


The reference to “now final death-agonies” virtually collapses the supernaturalistic reading of “Usher” and confirms that Madeline has been a victim of premature burial. She stands briefly upon the threshold of consciousness before falling “inwardly,” touching the psychic depths of her brother's being. Like Berenice, Morella, and even Ligeia, she has been transformed by disease into a personification of death; Usher's own morbid fear of death has caused him to bury her too hastily, for her illness is the contagion of mortality.

Madeline's resurrection seems, in fact, to partake of revenge; after a “bitter struggle” to escape the burial vault, she seizes her brother as if to repay him for the horrors which she has suffered. This action parallels the reincarnation-as-curse which informs “Morella,” and it resembles as well the ambiguous return of Ligeia. Although the latter event seems to victimize Rowena rather than the narrator, we must remember that (unlike Eleonora) Ligeia never sanctions or encourages her husband's remarriage. She signals her reappearance, in fact, with a gesture of aversion; the narrator writes: “Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head the ghastly cerements which had confined it” (CW, 2:330, my emphasis). It is as if the reanimated woman returns the avoidance she felt in dying. The point is subtle but important, for we see that in the tales of doomed women, the parting marks an irreversible alienation to which the horrific reunion bears witness. In this version of the return as revenge, the ultimate implication of the translation metaphor becomes clear: death makes us utter strangers to those who survive us.

For Poe, the death of a beautiful woman posed in absolute terms the paradox of our creaturely condition. The beauty of woman seemed a sign of the eternal, an apparent proof of paradise and immortality. Yet disease transformed beauty into a ghastly parody of itself, turning desire to loathing and love to disgust. The dying woman became a sign of her own fate, and her dissolution presented a spectacle at once irresistible and unbearable. In the relation of the narrator to the beloved, Poe staged the inevitable conflict between mind and flesh, between the longing for “Supernal Beauty” and the threat of cessation. Female loveliness manifested for Poe the essence of poetry:

He feels it in the beauty of woman—in the grace of her step—in the lustre of her eye—in the melody of her voice—in her soft laughter—in her sigh—in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments—in her burning enthusiasms—in her gentle charities—in her meek and devotional endurances—but above all—ah, far above all—he kneels to it—he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty—of her love.22

Yet the eternality of female beauty could not withstand contamination by reality. Only in poetry, in a work of art—an oval portrait, perhaps—could loveliness escape the “vermin fangs” of the Conqueror Worm. For the beautiful woman was (like Ulalume) destined to become a “dread burden”; she was (like Lenore) always “doubly dead” in that her death marked the end of a particular life and the collapse of that myth of immortality which her beauty seemed to guarantee. Her apparent return from the grave in “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “Usher” dramatizes the contradictory desires of memory and forgetfulness experienced by the narrator of “The Raven”: the beautiful woman cannot be buried, for the monstrous irony which she incarnates cannot be assimilated by the human psyche. For Poe, her story could never be written; it could only be rewritten, over and over, obsessively, like the repetition of some hideous drama of revivification.


  1. Mary Ann Caws also discusses translation in “The Oval Portrait” in “Insertion in an Oval Frame: Poe Circumscribed by Baudelaire (Part I),” French Review 56 (April 1983): 679, 682.

  2. Roland Barthes, La chambre claire: Note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard Seuil, 1980), 131; J. Gerald Kennedy, “Roland Barthes, Autobiography, and the End of Writing,” Georgia Review 35 (Summer 1981): 381-98.

  3. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson (1933; reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 31.

  4. Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 63.

  5. Washington Irving, Biography and Poetical Remains of the late Margaret Miller Davidson (1841; reprint, Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845), 18.

  6. Ibid., 112.

  7. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, 57.

  8. Moses Waddel, Memoirs of Miss Caroline E. Smelt (Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1836), 124.

  9. Rufus W. Griswold, The Cypress Wreath: A Book of Consolation for Those who Mourn (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1844), iv.

  10. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 148-49.

  11. The Hour of Our Death, 453.

  12. Ibid., 422.

  13. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Cryptonomie: Le verbier de l'Homme aux loups (Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1976).

  14. Jacques Derrida, “Fors,” trans. Barbara Johnson, Georgia Review 31 (Spring 1977): 71-72.

  15. Ibid., 78, 80.

  16. Michael Davitt Bell, The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 92, 99, 100.

  17. The Denial of Death, 146.

  18. Ibid., 167.

  19. Geoffrey Gorer, Death, Grief, and Mourning (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 192-99.

  20. The Denial of Death, 35.

  21. Roy P. Basler, “The Interpretation of ‘Ligeia,’” in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 58.

  22. “The Poetic Principle,” in Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Robert L. Hough (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 56.

Joan Dayan (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Dayan, Joan. “From Romance to Modernity: Poe and the Work of Poetry.” Studies in Romanticism 29, no. 3 (fall 1990): 413-37.

[In the following essay, Dayan situates Poe's poetry at the crossroads between Romanticism and Modernity. The critic then suggests that Poe's own sense of failure as a writer of valuable poetry stems from the difficulties associated with negotiating that stylistic transition.]

What is Poetry?—Poetry! that Proteus-like idea,
with as many appellations as the nine-titled

—Poe, “Letter to B——”

Poe began his writing career as a poet, and throughout his life he questioned the idea of poetry, worried about defining it, and by his own admission, failed to write poems “of much value to the public, or very creditable to myself.”1 And yet, what Poe and his subsequent critics recognize as failure demands further consideration. The problem of Poe's poetry is nothing less than a demonstration of what happens when the lyric of feeling confronts the demands of a form more public and less pure than that celebrated in “The Poetic Principle.” The effect of Poe's poetry, whether he willed it or no, is to adulterate “that Beauty,” which he claimed as “the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem” (H [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe] 14: 276).2 Poe's alternating longing for and discomfort with the language of romance, and his final attempt to confound his earlier theoretical categories (Truth, Romance, and Poetry) in his scientific, cosmological long poem Eureka makes plain the difficult passage from nineteenth-century English poetry to a uniquely modernist poetic.

Eureka, Poe's “Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe,” is his discourse on method and interrogation of poetry. In a letter to George W. Eveleth following his New York lecture “The Universe” in 1848, published a year later as Eureka: A Prose Poem, Poe asserts:

Everything has gone as I wished it, and my final success is certain, or I abandon all claim to the title of Vates. As to the lecture, I am very quiet about it—but, if you have ever dealt with such topics, you will recognize the novelty and moment of my view. What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly—but I say it.

(O [The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe] 2: 362)

As anomalous precursor of “the modern epic,” Eureka will transform the world of Poetical Science, giving Whitman the right both to declare “there is no more need of romances” (Preface, 1855 Leaves of Grass) and to make his coarse, broad composite in honor of “the entire revolution made by science in the poetic method” (Preface, “As A Strong Bird on Pinions Free”).


The perceptible universe of Eureka depends upon the force of the particular, for it is Poe's sometimes overbearing attempt to physicalize what he calls “abstract” or “generalizing” philosophy. Through a language alternately condensed and digressive, he simulated the cosmic consolidation and fragmentation, the “attraction and repulsion” that remain (for Poe as for Newton) “the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe” (H 16: 213-14).

It could be argued that Poe began by writing a poetry that would finally demand his cosmology. Certainly, his theoretical writings remind us that Poe often seeks to present verbal processes in terms of a material world of particles that rush together and pull apart, before the apocalyptic return to what Poe calls the “Original Unity.” In that supreme moment of cosmic collapse, matter will be “matter no more.” But Eureka is not about that unknowable end so much as it is about a phenomenal world of conflicting tensions, conversions, and combinations.

When Poe debunks the idea of original genius, replacing “novel conceptions” with “unusual combinations” (H 10: 62), he speaks as one of a long line of poet-chemists. His emphasis on “the most combinable things hitherto uncombined,” on “the combinations of very simple natural objects,” on the surprising glories that can result from the “chemistry of the intellect” (H 15: 38-39) resonates in the voices of later atomists of form—Whitman, Mallarmé, Valéry, Eliot and Williams. For Poe, however, straddling the great divide of indefinite fantasy and exact science, the claims of matter wreaked havoc on the products of his conception. In 1855 Whitman would find it easier to be confident about the equation between the perfect poem and exact science. Indeed, his later Democratic Vistas would announce: “America demands a poetry that is bold, modern, all-surrounding, and Kosmical. … It must in no respect ignore science or the modern.”3 Whitman made his poems out of materials and found there abundant recompense. But for Poe in the 1830s the givens of romance exacted strange atonement for his being too cold an atomist of language, too cunning an analyst of poetic making.

The early Poe is uneasy with the language of romance, yet aware that “all is re-soluble into the old” (H 15: 13). So, he turns upon his predecessors, particularly those he recognizes as bearers of “purest ideality.” It might initially seem that Poe's pursuit of an inimitable Eldorado is staged in his poetry. Yet just as the call for a “Naiad voice” attuning the reader to soul-exalting echoes, is often mutilated in the course of Poe's prose composition, his poems also demand our divorcing what Poe says from what he does.4 When Poe the constructor turns to his muse, he celebrates the fragment not the whole, the labor of process more than the final effect.

In his “Preface” poem to Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems of 1829, Poe skews what begins as a passionate dedication of self to the soul of romance. Instead of answering Byron's choice in “To Romance” of truth over the “Parent of golden dreams,” this poem already reveals the bizarre permutations in Poe's lyric which increasingly come to dominate his poems of the 1830s. Successful resolution of the poem depends upon Poe's sustained rendering of the key figure Romance. Yet as the first stanza proceeds that figure breaks down:

Romance, who loves to nod and sing
With drowsy head and folded wing,
Among the green leaves as they shake
Far down within some shadowy lake,
To me a painted paroquet
Hath been—a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild wood I did lie,
A child—with a most knowing eye.

(M [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe] 1: 128)

Successor to Shelley's “blithe spirit,” Romance is a bird, nestled in a properly reflected nature and imaged in its shadowy waters. But Poe turns away from what might have been sublime to the ordinary. The “most familiar bird” denies the indeterminacy of Shelley's “Sprite or Bird” or Poe's Raven, the later “bird or fiend.” No more than a “painted paroquet,” it teaches the child to say his alphabet and to “lisp” his primitive word.

If we look at Poe's source in Byron's own farewell to the “motley court” of Romance, this lisp, more than simply alluding to a childlike way of speaking, alerts us to a novel reenactment of the peculiarities of Byron's court, “Where Affectation holds her seat, / And sickly Sensibility” (“To Romance”). To be a child “—with a most knowing eye” is odd, if we follow the Keatsian or Coleridgean combat between gray-haired knowing and innocent romance. This knowing eye forces our jump from childhood to age as it echoes the ancient mariner's “glittering eye” and introduces us to the curiously failed second stanza. In the move from a painted parakeet to “eternal Condor years” with the child/man stilled, “gazing on the unquiet sky,” the poet vulgarizes Romance, and turns our anticipation of beauty into a recognition of the ungainly. Poe faces the proverbial sin in his song, and hopes to fend off “forbidden things” or fancied crime with a heart that yet “trembled with the strings.” The drowsy songster of the first stanza too quickly becomes winged and flings “its down” upon the bard's “spirit.” Could Yeats, who once lamented a world weaned from dreaming (“Grey Truth is now her painted toy” in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”) be revising Poe's failed vision when he composed “Sailing to Byzantium”? The dull figure of Romance that “loves to nod and sing / With drowsy head” becomes a “drowsy Emperor,” kept awake by a golden bird “set upon a golden bough to sing / … / Of what is past, or passing or to come.”

The striking revision of “Fairyland” (1829) into “Fairy Land” (1831) demonstrates how Poe turns lyric fantasy into a blunt desublimation of desire. Here, the projection of an idealized woman fragments and dislocates a previous song. Whereas the first effort sounds like a breathless evocation of fairies in their tents of moonglow, the second with lines rearranged and forty new lines introduced at the beginning, centers on a dialogue between a speaker and his lady. Vulgar innuendo infiltrates romantic colloquy; and the reuse of lines from the earlier song reveals the Poe “cleavage,” the parodic undoing of sentiment (“cliché of the soul”) that William Carlos Williams would deem a new beginning for American poetry: Poe's “concern, the apex of his immaculate attack, was to detach a ‘method’ from the smear of common usage.”5 In Kora in Hell Williams presents “Imagination” as this power to “detach,” to “separate,” to “break,” and thus to discover “in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things.”6 Like the Williams of Spring and All, Poe contends “with the sky through layers of demoded words and shapes.” A “man of great separation,” Poe is “the first American poet.” “Fairy Land” shows us how Poe dismantles, destroys and erects his words on the ruins of “the beautiful illusion.”7

The new lines of the first two stanzas of “Fairy Land” in their violence of address sound much like a Browning dramatic monologue. With the invitation, “Sit beside me, Isabel / Here, dearest, where the moon beam fell / Just now so fairy-like and well,” the speaker places his lady in his imaginary scene. When we read the fourth line, “Now thou art dress'd for paradise!” we cannot be sure whether Isabel is living or dead. As the lover rings changes on his lady, she becomes a part of all he sees, his only landscape.

I am star-stricken with thine eyes!
My soul is lolling on thy sighs!
Thy hair is lifted by the moon
Like flowers by the low breath of June!
Sit down, sit down—how came we here?
Or is it all but a dream, my dear?

In this fantasy, held by the gaze of a merciless beauty, his soul lolls and her hair wafts like flowers. When he again invites the lady to sit down, she disappears as a possible presence. A demon lover tells a tale that reminds us of those Poe narrators who wonder at the moment of brute mutilation or horror, “Or is it all but a dream …”? What follows is a move from an overworked, affective nature to an aggressive locus of desire, marked by a chatty meditation on a rose that will be torn asunder.

You know that most enormous flower—
That rose—that what d'ye call it—that hung
Up like a dog-star in this bower—
To-day (the wind blew, and) it swung
So impudently in my face,
So like a thing alive you know,
I tore it from its pride of place
And shook it into pieces—so
Be all ingratitude requited.
The winds ran off with it delighted,
And, thro' the opening left, as soon
As she threw off her cloak, yon moon
Has sent a ray down with a tune.

Any possible rite of amor de lonh (the lady of romance must remain unattainable to be nobly loved) is rewritten by the poet as wild violator of the beautiful.

Picture this surreal rose, which is not exactly a rose but an unmentionable, “that what d'ye call it.” Once it hung unthreatening like a far-away star, but a “dog-star” that gives off a maddening heat; and then it swings, “like a thing alive,” in the face of the male admirer. In Byron's “To Romance,” the turn from dreams to truth (“But leave at once thy realms of air / To mingling bands of fairy elves”) causes the speaker to conclude that “woman's false as fair.” In Poe's burlesque of forbidden passion, the speaker retaliates for “ingratitude” (either the ideal lady's unfaithfulness or her brazen refusal to remain on her pedestal). Her sex, torn out from “its pride of place,” is dismembered. A wind blows, delighting in the remnants it steals away and leaving a gaping hollow, “the opening left,” through which yet another figure for woman denuded—the moon uncloaked—sends “a ray down with a tune.” At this point, the poem falls apart, as its own earlier idealization is dashed before the upsurge of the carnal. We see a lover alone with his crime, desperately asking, “O, when will come the morrow?” He vainly addresses his muse, the open wound, silenced forever: “Isabel! do you not fear / the night and the wonders here?”

As in other early Poe poems, “Fairy Land” suggests that there is something in the idea of romance that drives the poet in Poe mad. Those poems which seem to be most likely vessels for his “breath of faery” turn into junctures of combination. We witness a combinatorial push gone wild, a desire for unity forced back upon a recognition of odds and ends. “The Valley Nis” (1831), ur-text for “The Valley of Unrest” (1845) clarifies the uneasy alliance between the poet's attempt to write of “supernal” loveliness and the critical awareness that must defeat such visionary expectations. Both these poems will be surpassed by the rigorous “The City in the Sea” (1845), recognized by Yvor Winters as “Poe's best performance.”8 All three poems absorb, translate, and compress the contents of Byron's 1806 poem “Darkness.”

Poe's persistent concern with how his poems will finally appear, evidenced by his many revisions, suggests his problems with closure. His acutely heightened sense of form subjects his claims for completeness, or “unity of effect” to the fact of emendation. And “The Valley Nis” turns shrilly on its own inadequacies.

Far away—far away—
Far away—as far at least
Lies that valley as the day
Down within the golden east—
All things lovely—are not they
Far away—far away?
It is called the Valley Nis.
And a Syriac tale there is
Thereabout which Time hath said
Shall not be interpreted.
Something about Satan's dart—
Something about angel wings—
Much about a broken heart—
All about unhappy things:
But “the valley Nis” at best
Means “the valley of unrest.”

(M 1: 191-92)

Playing on the archaic nis (is not), Poe shows how he can reduce words into nothing, while playing upon the rhymed concord of “Nis” and “is,” anticipating his claim in Eureka: “something can be where it is not.” No matter how circumscribed, “Syriac tale” or no, this valley remains unlocalized (as indeterminate as the tale itself, which is “Thereabout”). And the “tale,” we are warned, “shall not be interpreted.” These stanzas show how not to say, while the weighty nis demonstrates how an apparently insignificant (and not to be interpreted) poem can mean. In Latin nis, the contraction for nisi, means “unless,” compounding in one word the double diminution that contains Poe's favorite signs of reduction, un- and -less. Aware of Poe's theological and cryptological bent, we note that Nis spells Sin backwards. And knowing how long Poe meditated on Milton, we could seek a source for this not-valley in Milton's couple, Sin and Death, where shape and substance both are subsumed in shadow and seeming. Indeed, Poe's valley Nis, once subjected to this trial of definition, means, he says, “the valley of unrest,” recalling Milton's Paradise Lost, his “Region dolorous” where a damned throng “found / No rest.”9

Poe's imaginary landscape proves to be more than an allegory of the life-as-dream motif critics often endorse. Though Shelley's “The Sensitive Plant” and Adonais offer a possible approach to the theme of Poe's dreamland, these poems are only part of a larger effort to sever and join various dictions and poetic voices.10 In “The Valley Nis,” Milton's lost Eden, his “Universe of death,” appears under cover of nineteenth-century romance. It is to this palimpsestic effect (the dark echoes rumbling under the glass of ideality) which I now turn. Besides borrowing and mixing two very distinct kinds of poetic discourse (what is for Poe a deep attachment to Milton veiled by a superficial toying with Shelley, Coleridge, and Tennyson), Poe overlays his landscape with a third ghostly ancestry—the eighteenth-century downturn into bathos, the posture adopted by Byron in writing his Don Juan: “Hail Muse! et cetera.” The devilish layering of voices makes our reading of Poe's early poems an unsettling experience. We might see Poe as a writer so terribly haunted by the force of Milton that he first had to stage his own agon: he had to play the role of a Don Juan cursed to wander in Shelley's ethereal cliffs of Caucasus as punishment for failing to be Milton.

The fragmented picture of a Hell once so well described that it now can only be hinted at (“Something about Satan's dart— / Something about angel wings—”) must begin as romance, with the fairy call to that place anywhere out of the world, “Far away—far away.” A truer visionary Yeats will take up the call through Niamh, his “dreadful solitary fairy,” who summons both poet and reader to pursuit of the absolute: “Away, come away: / Empty your heart of its mortal dream” (“The Hosting of the Sidhe”). Poe remains an uneasy romantic. No sooner does he sound the obvious cliché, than he undercuts it in the next line's qualification, “Far away—as far at least.”11 And the first stanza is summed up in a flat question: “all things lovely—are not they / Far away—far away?” He sounds the supernal call only half-heartedly to query it.

The next stanza tells a broken tale, progressing through graduated imprecisions that confute Satan's dart, angel's wings and a broken heart (the yoking of Satan and Cupid marks the collision of Miltonic sublime with sentimental romance), and finally ends with a half-way shot at definition. Note the way the end-of-line dash (taken up and ironized so splendidly by Emily Dickinson) steps up intensity but leads nowhere: “Something about … —Something about … — / Much about … —,” falling into the “All,” deprived through these modifications of its potential sublimity.12 After these approximations, we know that the definition is no definition at all, but at best a synonymic equivalence: “But the ‘valley Nis’ at best / Means ‘the valley of unrest.’”

The final two stanzas delineate Poe's familiar blurring of what should be two distinct time periods, “Once” and “Now.” The first scene is a “silent dell / where the people did not dwell.” The inhabitants have “all gone unto the wars,” leaving one of those unnatural “natural” landscapes so common in Poe's tales. Gesturing in the direction of a romantic antecedent (perhaps the sentient thing-ness of Bryant's “Thanatopsis”), the poet performs his curious rhapsody: portentous star-faces lean over vulnerable flowers; a blood-ray drips from the sun, then circulates through the tulips sprouting overhead. The sun falls, pallid from loss of blood on the silent flower of death.

And the sly mysterious stars,
With a visage full of meaning,
O'er the unguarded flowers were leaning:
Or the sun ray dripp'd all red
Thro' the tulips overhead,
Then grew paler as it fell
On the quiet Asphodel.

(M 1: 192)

These lines remind us that Poe's early artistry began as a compounding of unexpected elements. Although the scene seems to partake of a Shelleyan landscape (for example, in “The Spirit of Solitude,” “yellow flowers” “gaze in their own drooping eyes,” and “the ash and acacia floating hang / Tremulous and pale”), Poe's world is both more biblical and more sinister. His intensifications of a soulful nature suggest apocalypse, and we have only to read the second and final stanza to see what happens once all things are dead and gone. “Now the unhappy shall confess / Nothing there is motionless.” In this world of infernal and cataclysmic rustlings, a space is reserved for the unregenerate, forced like “Helen” with a “human eye” to lie as do “th'uneasy violets.” All matter is condemned to the unending oscillation endemic to man's present, fallen state: “the reedy grass doth wave”; “the eternal dews do drop”; the “vague and dreamy trees / Do roll.” Then, in anticipation of that day when heaven and earth will roll up in universal consternation (predicting Eureka's final “ingathering”), the clouds will fly, “rustling everlastingly, / Through the terror-stricken sky, / Rolling like a waterfall / O'er th'horizon's fiery wall—.”

Poe's revision of “The Valley Nis,” “The Valley of Unrest,” deletes the bathetic opening with the nis/is play and removes many of the landscape oddities, including supine Helen. Most of the superfluous and precious adjectives are eliminated. The “sly” stars become “mild-eyed,” and they watch over flowers, while a “red sun-light lazily lay” over the valley. With the cutting away of excess verbiage and such unhappy concatenations of sounds as “dews do drop,” Poe has suppressed the ambiguously sexual implications. As we move from what is now one sharply delimited time to the next (“Once” to “Now”), we move from a relatively insipid scene to a land of death, unalleviated by any comic effects or incongruities. In this more direct, plain style, which accentuates symmetrical repetitions, Poe foreshadows the linguistic synonymy and attenuation of his later poems. Building on the equivalences between negative terms, he now uses only those adjectives that further neutralize the elements of his poem. A strategy of simplification is under way. Since the once-upon-a-time stanza has become unobtrusive, our attention is drawn to the “Now,” with its graduated diminutions, where words reduce but do not ridicule. Note how Poe proceeds through degrees of attenuation: “silent dell” / “people did not dwell” / “mild-eyed stars” / “sun-light lazily lay” / “sad valley's restlessness” / “Nothing there is motionless” / “Nothing save the airs” / “by no wind” / “by no wind” / “unquiet Heaven” / “Uneasily” / “weep above a nameless grave” / “Eternal dews come down” / “They weep:—from off their delicate stems” / “Perennial tears descend in gems.” Byron's “Darkness” could well be the ground for Poe's rendering of dissolution. But whereas in Byron's poem, “nothing stirred within their [the rivers, lakes, and ocean] depths,” in Poe's there remains an unidentified, agitated pulsing. As in “Silence—A Fable,” his nothing exudes plenitude. This drawn-out defeat reveals the power of languishing things, a phantom evocation that Mallarmé carries to an extreme in his “Ouverture ancienne d'Hérodiade.”13

Significantly, much of Poe's early poetry dramatizes the cosmic convertibility observed throughout Eureka, making the words themselves reenact the Divine “hold” on matter as it alternately concenters and irradiates its forces. We should note two basic strategies in these poems:

1) A cloying, fitful space exaggerates the “fluctuating principle” that marks the present human condition on earth. Through repeated words and phrases Poe signals this agitated and restless realm: dews drip, lilies loll, moons wax and wane, things reel, and roll, as varied manifestations of the “conqueror worm” and his “wizard rout” flit in and out.

2) A still point heralds the inevitable relapse into unity, the “ingathering” when God will be all in all. Operating against, or in tension with a more sinister scansion, this tendency prepares us for the motive for mereness in Eureka (and in Poe's later lyrics). Poe wills attenuation through different forms of negation, using such prefixes as un-, in-, and dis-, the suffix -less, and such sublime markers as only, merely, all, without.

These poems thus set the stage for Poe's later, cosmic drama of utterance, and he wants us to attend to the linguistic nature of his struggle. Like the Byron of Childe Harold iv, Poe writes “To One in Paradise” (1833) as a lament, which once sounded will turn loss into language. To cite Byron's challenge: “Reaping the whirlwind from the oft-sown winds: / The stubborn heart, its alchemy begun, / Seems ever near the prize,—wealthiest when most undone.” Besides its close replication of the turn from florid love to bitter cure, from hope to dust, Poe's poem recasts both natural elements and those of feeling into punctuation, with a rare bow to the power of words. Using the Byronic dash and exclamation (along with other condensations of image-clusters in Childe Harold iv), Poe adds his own mark to another's vocalization—the parenthesis:

For, alas! alas! with me
                    The light of Life is o'er!
No more—no more—no more—
(Such language holds the solemn sea
                    To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
                    Or the stricken eagle soar!

(M 1: 214-15)

The parenthesis, a figure for enclosure, contains Poe's amplification, and his added comment is significant, for he refers to the force of repetition, either his own or Byron's (or Shelley's whose “Lament” refrains, “No more—Oh, never more!”). But the parenthesis also signals a specific relation between words and things (an analogy between natural and verbal processes), figuring in conjunction with the dash the competition between compression and extension so much a part of Eureka's cosmology. Whereas the dash marks the space between and delimits the steps towards vision, the parenthesis embeds, compounds, and obstructs.14 Above all, in this poem Poe recognizes that a way of speaking can work changes, can realize things. In “To Zante” (1837) the mere repetition of “No more!” (italicized, as if Poe knew its power as cliché) gives the words reused the god-like, transformative power to seize, suspend and convert:

No more! alas, that magical sad sound
          Transforming all! thy charms shall please no more—
Thy memory no more! Accursed ground
          Henceforth I hold, thy flower-enamelled shore
O hyacinthine isle!

(M 1: 311)

It is no wonder that the most precise of memorialists is also Poe's consummate poet: the mourner of “The Raven” will confess “I stood repeating,” as the bird repeats “Nevermore,” and we know that the bird listening and solitary listener are one. Whitman's “outsetting bard” in “Out of the Cradle” first gains a voice by translating his reminiscence of the song of the “Demon or bird!” and of the sea's fluent “Death, death, death, death” in a way that recalls Poe's doubling of hearer and heard, bent in mutual absorption:

                              … the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in
          sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whispered me.


At the end of Eureka Poe asks his reader to accept the “merely spiritual shadows,” a realm where no objects intervene: “The phaenomena on which our conclusions must at this point depend, are merely spiritual shadows, but not the less thoroughly substantial” (H 16: 311). What is the nature of Poe's spirituality, or to speak more precisely, his non-materiality? Nowhere in Eureka does Poe resort to impressionism, to vagueness, for his cosmology combats what he sees as “obscurity” practiced by the “mystics for mysticism's sake.” Instead, Poe attaches himself to the very objects he claims to annihilate. The non-materiality of Poe, like that of Mallarmé, and later Whitman, succeeds through an excessive attention to things, to the corporeality of words. The longing to kill the object “by allusive words, never direct” demands an attention to the sensible world, and by extension, an exaggerated attachment to form and structure.15

Before considering Eureka's incentive to a new American poetry, especially the experimental long poem, I now turn to Poe's later poems (1847 to his death in 1849). These poems, as well as Eureka, had a tremendous effect on Mallarmé and Valéry's ideal of pure poetry, a labored elimination of the burden of meaning. As Valéry put it: “Ainsi analyse des conditions de la volupté poétique, définition par exhaustion de la poésie absolue,—Poe montrait une voie, il enseignait une doctrine très séduisante et très rigoureuse, dans laquelle une sorte de mathématique et une sort de mystique s'unissaient” [Thus, analysis of the conditions of poetic pleasure, definition of absolute poetry by elimination—Poe was disclosing a way, teaching a very strict and alluring doctrine in which a kind of mathematics and a kind of mysticism became one].16

Freed from the irregularities and excesses of his earlier counterfeit dreamlands, Poe's later poems show how Eureka's procedures were to a large extent determined by the change in his poetic practice. Eureka plays upon the conversion of the manifold into one, a point that is not reached but elaborately defined:

With a perfectly legitimate reciprocity, we are permitted to look at Matter, as created solely for the sake of this influence—solely to serve the objects of this spiritual Ether. Through the aid—by the means—through the agency of Matter, and by dint of its heterogeneity—is this Ether manifested—is Spirit individualized.

(H 16: 309)

This anticipation of final unity is itself a discourse on method, using the dash to show the gradual (and material) elimination of content. Poe's cosmology, in its demonstration of a turn toward (but not a collapse into) oneness would be a guide to Mallarmé who longed to turn “brut” into “essential” language.17

In paring down his poetry to essentials, Poe leaves us with something as precisely delimited as a Mallarmé sonnet. It is no wonder that Mallarmé, during that sterile winter of 1866 as he struggled to write “L'Ouverture ancienne d'Hérodiade,” saw Poe as his “grand maître,” the ideal against which he would measure his perfected dream of beauty: “Il me faudra trois ou quatre hivers encore, pour achever cette oeuvre, mais j'aurai enfin fait ce que je reˆve, écrire un Poème digne de Poe …” [It will still take me three or four winters to complete this work, but finally, I will have accomplished what I dream: to write a Poem worthy of Poe].18

“Ulalume,” “The Bells,” “To Helen,” “For Annie,” and “Annabel Lee” were written at the time Poe composed “The Universe” and Eureka. Their hard-won destruction of verbiage return us to the query that begins Eureka. “What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in their sublimity—sufficiently sublime in their simplicity—for the mere enunciation of my theme?” (H 16: 185). If words are mere, if they fail to define, Poe endorses inanity not by mockery but by promoting the plight of the reuseable: the repetition that undoes the power of the word. For Mallarmé as for Poe every time a word is spoken, it tends toward no-thing: “Je profère la parole pour la replonger dans l'inanité” [I utter the word in order to replunge it into the void].19 In “Ulalume” which Mallarmé claimed as his favorite, Poe dramatizes the temptation to fall into wordlessness. Nowhere else does his redundancy sustain itself with such rigor, and we begin to understand the terrible force of his graduated correction of the world of flesh and blood.

The tautologies of “Ulalume” keep language pending. The repetitions have a formal more than semantic significance, and through an alternating reduction and amplification of words as formulae, Poe recomposes his landscape of absence. The first stanza sets the scene that the rest of the poem will take up and vary.

The skies they were ashen and sober;
          The leaves they were crisped and sere—
          The leaves they were withering and sere:
It was night, in the lonesome October
          Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
          In the misty mid region of Weir:—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber
          In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

(M 1: 415-16)

Poe sustains the cumulative qualifications: leaves change from “crisped and sere-” to “withering and sere,” and we are told it “was night, in the lonesome October”; the locale is “by the dim lake of Auber” or “by the dank tarn of Auber” or “In the misty mid region of Weir” or “In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

Poe's emendations do not qualify, but compound sameness, and the enumerated details fail to specify. This dialogue with the indeterminate recalls Poe's life-long struggle with “that class of terms to which ‘Infinity’ belongs—the class representing thoughts of thought” (H 16: 203). Although the words first seem the remnants of romance, they matter less than the relations they form. It matters little that the speaker walks with his “soul” on days when, as he confesses, “my heart was volcanic,” but when the “skies” that “were ashen and sober” are equated with “talk” that “had been serious and sober,” Poe forges a reciprocity between his landscape and his language. He then returns to “leaves … crisped and sere— / … withering and sere,” but with a difference. Once the sky is equated with talk, abstract ideas turn into concrete things: “but our thoughts they were palsied and sere— / Our memories were treacherous and sere.” Substituting “palsied” for “crisped” and “treacherous” for “withering,” Poe prepares for a journey into mind: “the thought of nature” so pronounced in his “Power of Words” and his landscape sketches, “The Domain of Arnheim” and “Landor's Cottage.” We also recognize Poe's monomaniacal narrator who seeks to remember and to know the indescribable:

Well I know, now this dim lake of Auber—
          This misty mid region of Weir:—
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber—
          This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

(M 1: 418)

From not knowing (For we knew not / And we marked not / We noted not / We remembered not) the speaker now claims to know, but what he knows we never find out. Poe forces us to remain on the boundary of the not, a vacancy (and for the narrator, a resistance to sense) that he achieves through too much concentration, a too exacting anatomization of the haunting “unthought-like thought.” The final revelation of the name “Ulalume” written on the tomb door leads only to more repetition and the barring of the quester from the secret “that lies in these wolds— / From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds.”

Mallarmé's turn to Poe was prompted by this craft of spectralization, the cult of suggestion that repels the thing: “j'invente une langue qui doit nécessairement jaillir d'une poètique très nouvelle, qui je pourrais definer en ces deux mots: Peindre, non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit” [I invent a language that must inevitably spring from a very novel poetic that I would define in these two words: To paint, not the thing, but the effect that it produces].20 In what is perhaps Poe's last work, “The Light-House,” we progress from the obvious “upper-current” to the unsaid (or unspeakable)—to the “very profound under-current” (H 13: 148). This journal of “a man all alone” in a lighthouse (a variation of Usher's light-imbued tunnel painting), with the task “to manage the light”—a “duty,” he claims as “a mere nothing” (M 3: 1390)—ends with a revelation where no objects (no words) intervene.

Like the chalky, white surface of the lighthouse floor, this diary of negations (“—but oh, no!—this is all nonsense / to ‘see what I can see’. … To see what I can see indeed!—not very much / Nothing to be seen / A few sea-weeds came in sight; but besides them absolutely nothing all day—not even the slightest speck of cloud. …”) terminates with a final string of ellipses. Although editors have claimed these marks denote an intent to fill in, thwarted by Poe's death, I suspect these points signal the deliberate reduction of words to the interstices, leading to a very determinate void. Like Mallarmé's “faux manoir” that crumbles in its attempt to impose limits on infinity, but has earned the right to declare, “l'infini est enfin fixé,” Poe's text breaks down.21

No mere sea, though, could accomplish anything with this solid iron-riveted wall—which, at 50 feet from high-water mark, is four feet thick, if one inch. … The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk. …

Jan. 4.

Reducing the ellipses (from eight to six to one) to “a point,” where, as Poe wrote in “Mesmeric Revelation,” “the interspaces must vanish, and the mass absolutely coalesce” (M 3: 1024), the final entry, a date in some “vague infinity,” demarcates the claims of the absolute.

Out of this full blank, Mallarmé (who once lamented his paper “implacably white”) will found a cosmos. His universe of stars on the page, Un Coup de Dés, asserts essential language to be cosmic law, and recalls Eureka in its projected “l'explication orphique de la Terre, qui est le seul devoir du poète et le jeu littéraire par excellence” [the orphic explanation of the Earth, which is the poet's only duty and the literary game par excellence].22 In “Du Fond D'Un Naufrage,” Mallarmé resurrects Poe's alternations between presence and absence in the moves of black against white in the pages of Un Coup de Dés, ever in pursuit of “l'unique Nombre qui ne peut pas être un autre” [the unique Number which cannot be another].23

Mallarme's disarticulation of language, his dream—“simplifier le monde”—and his crisis of “élimination,” the reduction that would lead him to “la sensation des Ténèbres absolues” engenders Poe's second coming as Mallarmé divined: “Tel qu'en Lui-même enfin l'éternité le change” [Such that eternity changes him into Himself], Mallarmé's “Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe.”24 As any reading of a Mallarmé alexandrine reveals, he calls for sublimity (the pure space of the blank page) not through vagueness but through extreme precision (the “unanime blanc conflit” of “Une Dentelle s'abolit,” for example). And yet, as we look through Mallarmé back to Poe, it is striking that Mallarmé, in translating the poetry of his “master,” converts into prose the rigorously shaped and concentrated Poe poem. This could say something about the linguistic givens of Poe's writing: words make their impact in sound and association, and the true indefiniteness might be housed in an apparently alien, ultra-determined form.

But it says even more about Mallarmé's relationship to what he termed Baudelaire's “interdit” against translating Poe. Mallarmé cites this warning in his notes to his own translations: “‘Une traduction de poésies aussi voulues, aussi concentrées, peut être un rêve caressant, mais ne peut être qu'un rêve’” [A translation of poetry so deliberate, so concentrated, may be a cherished dream, but it can only be a dream].25 Taking Baudelaire at his word, then, Mallarmé extends and loosens the formidable verbal cameo Baudelaire noted with another implicit turn, back to Baudelaire's preface to Spleen de Paris and his endorsement of a poetic prose, “musicale sans rhythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée pour s'adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l'âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresauts de la conscience” [musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and brusque enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of dream, to the jolts of consciousness].26

Poe projected this musicalization of mind in Eureka, “a fluctuating domain, now shrinking, now swelling, in accordance with the vacillating energies of the imagination” (H 16: 204). By opening up the line to the suggestive undercurrent dear to Poe, Mallarmé has generated a text that crosses poetry and prose, translating one into the other to endorse the convertibility celebrated in Eureka: he allows the cosmology to double back on the poetry, swelling what was compressed. When Mallarmé renders “Ulalume” into a rhythmic prose broken up by the Poe dash, he follows what Poe thought poetry to be, as he put it in his one clear definition: “I would define the poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (H 14: 275). Mallarmé breathes the spirit of Eureka back into the established Poe poem, forcing his French reader to perform the conversions to and fro between matter and “matter no more.”

Eureka's science of forms and relations, of gravity's pulls and collapsings, prophesies Mallarmé's sudden insight into “la corrélation intime de la Poésie avec l'Univers.” And when we read his demand for an orphic explanation of the earth, we should recall that this tracker of the absolute learned of limits, measure, and the scansion of thought from Poe's “philosopher proper,” the cosmographer/poet whose “frenzy takes a very determinate turn” (H 16: 293).


When we turn to Eureka in its American context we face what is perhaps Poe's greatest failure, but for the future of a certain kind of modern poetry, his most significant work. His emphasis on method, the crossing of prose and poetry and his turn to science, reveal him as the unacknowledged legislator of what Whitman celebrated as “the gangs of kosmos and prophets en mass.”27 Poe's combination of science and lyric, his mimicry of cosmic consolidation and fragmentation through a language alternately condensed and digressive, set the stage for subsequent efforts to turn the traditional epic into the fundamentally anti-generic long poem.

Whitman's poetic experiments begin at a critical juncture: in between frenzy and control, measure and the oceanic, matter and spirit. Although the contrasts with Mallarmé are obvious (the impersonal vs. personal poet, elite vs. democratic voice, poésie pure vs. an unpolished, prolific extravagance), I am concerned with the attempts of both poets to translate things into thoughts. In Eureka Poe sets up a method of what I have called “convertibility,” where matter and spirit operate together to articulate the unsayable.28

Eureka sets out with Poe leaving no doubt as to the nature of his new language: “there is … no such thing as demonstration—but the ruling idea which, throughout this volume, I shall be continually endeavoring to suggest” (H 16: 185). We might think then of Mallarmé's “Suggérer, voilà le rêve,” but know that it will be Whitman who, in his belief in the possibility of a “grand American expression,” enacts most powerfully a program for “indirection.” And nowhere do we get such a sense of the transits between the rough Walt of the object-filled catalogs and the fathomless “real me” as in the remarkable “Preface” to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) and the untitled “song” that follows it (later to be titled “Song of Myself”). When the two compositions are read together, we see how Whitman tries to confute and combine the expectations of prose and poetry: the ellipses of his “Preface” carry over into the poem, acting much in the way as Poe's dash to structure (and unstructure) the writing, to control our reading, and finally, to give a breath, a rhythm to what he calls the “perfect poem” (14).

What, then, is the nature of Whitman's “language experiment”? Like Mallarmé, who founded his poetic on a use of words that would repel the thing (while ever fettered to it), Whitman will invent a language in order to prove what he had promised: “the words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.” In his “Preface” he admits: “My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality.” But Whitman never allows the claim for obliqueness (the poem works by “curious removes, indirections”) to annihilate the definite, his amatory sensible world. As “the channel of thoughts and things,” Whitman's poet takes his stand in between apparent oppositions: “The indirect is always as great and real as the direct. The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body” (19). As with Poe's call for a language of “Common Sense,” what he calls “ordinary language” (H 11: 253) or a “natural” depiction of things, Whitman's bid for “the dialect of common sense” is only part of his project, a means toward, or rather a necessary complement to the unsaid: “It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible” (23).

A few examples from the 1855 “song” demonstrate Whitman's language of conveyance, how his poet fulfills his obligation to the American people: “to indicate the path between reality and their souls” (10):

Lacks one lacks both … and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.


The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.


I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.


I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul.


Equating opposing “facts,” Whitman keeps words pending, and in the process, words as bearers of determinate meaning are neutralized. And it is this “effect” of indifference that brings about Whitman's immaterialism, a turn toward the inexpressible by expressing everything. So, he declares in “Starting from Paumanok”: “I will make the poem of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems” (18).

Finally, Whitman's poet whose “thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things” (9), his demand for love “between the poet and the man of demonstrable science” (14), recalls Poe's “Double Dupin”: the “creative and resolvent,” the mathematician and poet. When Whitman turns against a language of “romance,” he, like both Poe and Mallarmé, chooses to promote “the concrete realities and theories of the universe furnish'd by science.”29 He tells his “poets of the cosmos” to return to “first principles,” to “be under the general law,” to follow Newton in his quest for the “truth” in “simplicity.” “Nothing is better than simplicity” (12). We know, however, that Whitman's “simplicity,” like his “definiteness” calls equally for the opposite. That is how his language works, and his stress upon construction, upon “exact science and its practical movements,” though perhaps a ruse, is his necessary trope of poetic making: it will give us Whitman's “tally,” the accounting that makes the terms of physical science his initiative for a new form, an urgent but carefully gauged poetic attitude.


Though there are few open recognitions of Poe's radical technical innovations and their influence on twentieth-century American poetry, we can attend to surprising hints and resonances. Poe's work remains present in the writings of those poets, who while not acknowledging his influence, yet write poems that tempt us to remember Eliot's qualification: “And yet one cannot be sure that one's own writing has not been influenced by Poe.” In Poe we read of “chemical combination,” the “chemistry of the intellect,” to be revised in Eliot's analogy of the poet's mind and the “shred of platinum,” Williams' energizing “imagination” that “uses the phraseology of science,” and Charles Olson's belief that the poet should “cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature.”30 And in words that foreshadow Eliot's call for “depersonalization” in which “art may be said to approach the condition of science,”31 Poe notes that “a poem … will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms” (H 11: 277). For Poe, if “the mind of the poet [had] been really ‘crowded with strange thoughts,’ and not merely engaged in an endeavor to think, he would have entered at once upon the thoughts themselves, without allusion to the state of his brain. His subject would have left no room for self” (H 11: 20).

Eliot, ignoring Poe's injunction to read Eureka as poem, remarks on Poe's “remarkable passage about the impossibility of writing a long poem” and concludes “what we have to bear in mind is that he himself was incapable of writing a long poem.”32 However, what Poe claimed as impossible in “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition” did not prevent him from leaving for posterity a text that works through impossibility to demonstrate how to extend the limits of poetry. And, of course, when reading Poe's theoretical critique of the long poem, we must be aware that Eureka is a deliberate attempt to do what he said could not—or should not—be done.

Poe's argument for a poetic prose (the precision of the prose line combined with an “ideal” of poetry) looks forward to Pound's appreciation of the “Prose Tradition in Verse.” In 1840, reviewing Moore's “Alciphron,” Poe wrote: “the poem is distinguished throughout by a very happy facility which has never been mentioned in connection with its author, but which has much to do with the reputation he has obtained. We allude to the facility with which he recounts a poetical story in a prosaic way” (H 10: 68). And for Pound, Ford Madox Ford is “significant and revolutionary because of his insistence upon clarity and precision, upon the prose tradition; in brief, upon efficient writing—even in verse.”33

Auden would recognize Eureka as a poem and praise “this cosmology, ‘the story of how things came to exist as they do,’” as achieving “in English in the nineteenth century what Hesiod and Lucretius had done in Greek and Latin centuries before.” Yet, he recognizes it as an anomaly: as a long poem it “violates every article in his critical creed.”34 Recall Poe's preface to Eureka and its surprising conclusion: “Nevertheless, it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.” A flat contradiction to his oft-pronounced, “A ‘long poem’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms,” Poe yet defines this paradoxical genre in words that describe exactly what happens in Eureka, words that will be taken up both by Whitman and Eliot when reflecting on their use of the long public form. Poe explains, “What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects.” This idea of a string or sequence of poetic moments recurs throughout his essays. Although on one level (the most obvious), Poe endorses a lyric elevation of soul (“The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement”; “all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief”), Poe also condemns “a poem too brief,” which “may produce a sharp or vivid, but never a profound or enduring impression” (H 13: 152). Significantly, his complaint against Milton's Paradise Lost sets the stage for his own cosmology. We can regard Milton's epic, he explains, as “poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems.” Even if we try to preserve its unity by reading it in a single sitting, Poe claims, “the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression,” or, in other words, a move from poetry (excitement/elevation) to prose (depression/dullness) (H 14: 267). For “at least one half of ‘Paradise Lost’ is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions” (H 14: 196).

In Eureka Poe redefines what he originally meant by unity of effect. If Yeats writes his Vision to find metaphors for poetry, Poe writes Eureka to pursue those combinations, “from either Beauty or Deformity,” that can make a poem out of “the most combinable things hitherto uncombined—the compound as a general rule” (H 12: 38). In the overlay of two apparently contradictory modes, the ordinary details of prose set off by heightened poetic moments, lies the potential for a novel synthesis. If Poe damns Milton for his poem Paradise Lost, he praises him for his prose, but in a way that collapses any distinction between the two modes. Reviewing The Prose Works of John Milton, Poe says that Milton pushes “his more directly controversial works” toward “a species of lyrical rhapsody—divinely energetic.” The poet of Paradise Lost in his Areopagitica forged a something “constituting for itself a department of composition which is neither prose nor poetry, but something with all the best qualities of each, and upon the whole superior to either” (H 12: 245).

Just as Eliot's references to Poe reveal a curious blind spot to Eureka as precursor to the modern epic, Whitman also neglects Poe's analytic side, his language of science, and the demands such a language makes on poetic production. In Specimen Days Whitman recalls the poet as a sick genius incarnating the nineteenth-century “tendency of poetic culture to morbidity, abnormal beauty.” While taking Poe's concrete phenomenalism to its extreme as a “Kosmos, Walt Whitman, of Mannahatta the son,” it is curious that Whitman never refers to Eureka.35

At the end of his life, Whitman turned again to Poe. In 1889, three years before his death, Whitman made a powerful confession that comments on Leaves of Grass and recalls Eureka by way of Poe's criticism of the long poem. Like Eliot, Whitman concentrates on the lyric poet of a single effect. Eureka goes unmentioned, but Poe's polemic against the long poem continues to haunt Whitman. And in “A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads,” we read:

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems—of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excelled ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic arena is very spacious—has room for all—has so many mansions!) But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem. The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me.36

Whitman here recalls Poe's pronouncement in “The Poetic Principle”: “But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again” (H 14: 267).37 Using Poe's definition and negations of the genre to question his Leaves of Grass, Whitman renews the problem of the long poem for his time. And in absorbing the Poe he attempted to deny, Whitman will end up violating his own long poem, converting it into the compressed and polished lyrics of “Goodbye, My Fancy.” These poems end, delimit, and undo his earlier composite text, his “seething mass of materials.”

Poe's crossbreed, his quest into the parameters of science and poetry, provokes those subsequent sequences founded on the fact of combination. The consistency of “interleaving,” whether in a mix of ill-digested remnants (Poe's early poems) or the bold blurring of a poetic idea through prose (Eureka and certain tales), opens up the poetic line to generate a new, expansive space of proximate levels, jagged, oblique, and rough. The amorphous, galvanic medium that Poe makes of his prose urges us to rethink the long poem in mechanical terms. What Poe calls “the Cloud-Land of Metaphysics” emerges the locale for poetic language, for Olson's “things on a field,” for Williams' “field of action,” and finally, for what Valéry called “le spectacle idéal de la création du langage.”38

Poe shows how “truth” can be seized by a language that mimes the two tendencies of matter, “attraction and repulsion,” convergence and dispersal. And it is no exaggeration to claim that Poe's strategies of reduction and expansion give us a method for discussing the modern poetic sequence: Whitman's Leaves of Grass, as well as Pound's Cantos, Williams' Paterson, and Olson's Maximus.39 The dual insistence on laconic compression and visionary sweep produces that taut unevenness of a journey through Paterson or Dogtown.40 Perhaps Poe's preface to Eureka initiated the dialogue between those poems that refuse closure, that court their own incompleteness, the open road leading from Whitman to his sons, those “Recorders ages hence.” These later poetic scenes return us to Eureka in its extraordinary blend of romanticism, science, philosophizing, exhortation, and reverie.


  1. “Preface,” The Raven and Other Poems (1845), cited in Poe, Poetry and Tales, ed. Patrick F. Quinn (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 18.

  2. H = The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902). M = Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978). O = The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1948). All further references to Poe are cited parenthetically in the text with volume and page number.

  3. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 979.

  4. Poe's ideal of “indefinitiveness,” his turn to the “ethereal,” “ideal,” “breath of faery,” or “mystic” should be seen as words masking his real emphasis on a method that subverts any purported fiction of the ideal. For a study of Poe's critique of romance as revealed in Eureka, see Joan Dayan, Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1987).

  5. William Carlos Williams, “Edgar Allan Poe,” In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956) 21.

  6. William Carlos Williams, Kora in Hell, in Imaginations (New York: New Directions, 1971) 18.

  7. William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, in Imaginations 111, 100, 89.

  8. Yvor Winters, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism,” In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1943) 251.

  9. Milton, Paradise Lost 2: 616-18. Poe's revisions of Milton's Comus as well as Paradise Lost merit further study. In Comus (244-52) a constellation of images reappear as echoes in “The Raven”: “upon the wings / Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night / At every fall smoothing the Raven down / Of darkness till it smiled!”). The lost lady “Lenore” in this poem and in Poe's poem of the same name could have been suggested to Poe by Milton's three poems to a “Leonora”: “To Leonora Singing in Rome”; “To the Same,” which presents “Another Leonora [who] made a captive of the poet, Torquato, / who, for passionate love of her, went mad”; and the subsequent “To the Same,” to “the Naiad of the Shore.”

  10. Poe praises Shelley's “The Sensitive Plant” as an “example of a poem of purest ideality” (H 8: 299).

  11. In The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981) 58, John Hollander notes, “the phrase ‘come away,’” was an “early seventeenth-century lyric cliché … to introduce an echo-song.” When Poe, in his theoretical writings, talks about the suggestive undercurrent, calling for the “Naiad voice” that addresses the reader “from below,” he again tempts our return to Milton. See Milton's evocation of “ravishment” in Comus: “Sure something holy lodges in that breast / And with these raptures moves the vocal air / To testify his hidden residence” (246-48).

  12. See Emily Dickinson: “A something in a summer's Day / … A something in a summer's noon— / A depth—an Azure a perfume— / Transcending ecstasy” (# 122).

  13. See especially that striking passage where Mallarmé dematerializes something as flushed with life as a rose in a scene of ever-intensifying vacancy: from “aroma” to “roses” to an “empty bed” hidden by “a snuffed candle,” and finally leading to nothing but “an aroma of cold bones” (Oeuvres complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry [Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945] 42).

  14. For a fuller discussion of how Poe uses the dash to restructure prose in accord with Newton's dynamic of attraction and repulsion in the universe, see Joan Dayan, “The Analytic of the Dash” in Fables of Mind (55-79).

  15. As Yves Bonnefoy stresses in “The Poetics of Mallarmé”: “Mallarmé is fundamentally attached to objects, as nature—nature as the eighteenth century understood it” (Yale French Studies, no. 54 (1977): 17). In 1926, T. S. Eliot contributed to “Hommage à Stéphane Mallarmé,” in La Nouvelle Revue Française, vol. 27. In this seldom cited, but crucial essay Eliot recognized that both Poe and Mallarmé, while being examples of “la passion de la spéculation métaphysique,” never lost themselves in a world of dream and hallucination. They remained committed to the real world: “ils ne sautent pas brusquement dans un monde de rêve; c'est le monde réel qui est par eux agrandi et continué” (525).

  16. Paul Valéry, “Situation de Baudelaire,” Variété ii (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1930) 142. This and all succeeding translations from French to English in the text are mine.

  17. See Mallarmé, “Variations sur un sujet,” Oeuvres complètes. In Eureka Poe opposes “vulgar” to his own “more philosophical phraseology” (H 16: 215).

  18. Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1862-1871, ed. Henri Mondor (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1959) 207.

  19. Mallarmé, “Igitur,” Oeuvres complètes 451. Poe's own exercise in repetition demonstrates further this deliberate impoverishment of words. In “The Philosophy of Composition” he explains that “the refrain … depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought,” and then he adds, stressing the debilitation he intends: “Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect” (H 14: 199, 203).

  20. Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1862-1871 137.

  21. Mallarmé, “Igitur,” Oeuvres complètes 442.

  22. Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1871-1885, eds. Henri Mondor and Lloyd James Austin (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1965) 301.

  23. Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes 463.

  24. Oeuvres complètes 189.

  25. Oeuvres complètes 228-29.

  26. Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975) 275-76.

  27. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855), ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin, 1976) 22. Further quotations are from this edition.

  28. In Poe's tale of the universe, “convertibility” of terms and phrases, fact and fancy, matter and spirit, enacts God's plot of perfect reciprocity in a human text. In Fables of Mind I argue that convertibility as a stylistic device is the key to Poe's thought and to his experiments in fiction.

  29. Whitman, “A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads,” Leaves of Grass, eds. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1973) 567.

  30. Williams, Spring and All 149; Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966) 25.

  31. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950) 7.

  32. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry (Hudson Review, Autumn 1949), reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric Carlson (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1970) 211.

  33. Ezra Pound, “The Prose Tradition in Verse,” Literary Essays (New York: New Directions, 1968) 377.

  34. W. H. Auden, “Introduction” (Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1950), reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe 255.

  35. Gay Wilson Allen notes that Whitman would have heard several astronomers who lectured in New York in the 1840s. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchell lectured in the Broadway Tabernacle in December 1848, and A Course of Six Lectures in Astronomy was published the following year. Even if Whitman had not attended Poe's lecture, “The Universe,” in 1848, he must have heard of it, since although it was poorly attended, it was well publicized.

  36. Whitman, Leaves, eds. Bradley and Blodgett 569.

  37. Eliot, as if responding to Poe's relegation of the long poem to the past, writes that he does not “believe that the ‘long poem’ is a thing of the past; but at least there must be more in it for the length than our grandparents seemed to demand.” He also argues for “an interaction between prose and verse” as “a condition of vitality in literature.” See The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933) 152.

  38. Valéry, “Le Coup de Dés,” Variété ii 171.

  39. The modern sequence poem, a long poem without a sustaining narrative framework, is treated at length in M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry (New York: Oxford UP, 1983). See also the fine essay by Joseph N. Riddel, “A Somewhat Polemical Introduction: The Elliptical Poem,” Genre II (Winter 1978): 459-77.

  40. I refer both to Williams' Paterson and Olson's landscape for the wanderings of “I, Maximus” in his Maximus Poems. Dogtown is the lonely highland of Cape Ann, Gloucester, now uninhabited. “This being the last place created,” goes an old saying, “all the rocks not needed in the rest of the earth were dumped here.” Olson like Poe envisioned a poetry that would follow a cosmological imperative: “I happen, as a poet to be interested in what is the old word, I think, for creation as a structure—which is the word cosmology,” Poetry and Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1971) 13.

James Postema (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Postema, James. “Edgar Allan Poe's Control of Readers: Formal Pressures in Poe's Dream Poems.” Essays in Literature 18, no. 1 (spring 1991): 68-75.

[In the following essay, Postema studies Poe's attempt to control reader response to his works through the deliberate withholding of information that would allow readers to arrive at alternative interpretations.]

In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe is clearly concerned with how the word-choices, sounds, and rhythms of “The Raven” might control the way readers respond to that poem. Many writers have either supported or denied Poe's claims that he wrote “The Raven” with the reader in mind, but to a surprising extent the discussion of Poe's intended effects on readers has remained largely within the bounds set up by his own theoretical works; at least in the area of criticism, Poe has in fact controlled readers' responses.1 Instead of arguing about Poe's intentions in the “Philosophy of Composition,” however, we can look to the formal structures of Poe's poems themselves and see that several of them do indeed limit the information they give to readers, thereby governing the roles that readers may play in interpretation of the poems. “Dream-Land” and “Fairy-Land” provide two instructive examples: each poem opens into a fantastic world which defies any interpretations that are based upon readers' everyday experiences, but each poem also offers readers a logical, formal structure that pushes interpretation in a particular direction.

Fifteen years separate these poems; the first version of “Fairy-Land” was published in 1829, while “Dream-Land” appeared in 1844. But they begin with the same premise: in each we see nearly identical images of misty, mystical landscapes obscured by “tears that drip all over,”2 scenes which somehow open into larger, more easily visible worlds. The cause of the tears is unclear; they may be evidence of the poetic personae's own unhappiness, or they may simply be metaphorical descriptions of some foggy, rainy state.

What is clear is that because the tears obscure “forms we can't discover” (“FL” [“Fairy Land”], line 3) readers must trust the speaker's description of what lies behind the tears. Each of these works is a dream poem, and Poe's dream poems in particular control readers quite strictly: because such poems depict worlds that differ greatly from the “real” world, they do not allow readers to use everyday logic. We cannot rely on our experience of natural laws to understand “Ulalume” or “The City in the Sea,” for example. We are forced to suspend disbelief more fully in these poems than in other poems.

Readers know from the very beginning of “Fairy-Land” [I] that events in the poem do not operate on normal rational principles. Instead, Poe replaces cause-and-effect logic with metonymic connections: things are related simply because he puts them together. The landscape obscured by tears begins the poem, followed by a scene in which “Huge moons … wax and wane.” But the poem then seems to jump from one discrete scene to another: the moons and other images in the poem don't seem to be obscured by tears; rather, the tears and the moons are only related sequentially, by appearing in the same poem.

The description of the moons begins a chain of metonymic imagery that stretches throughout “Fairy-Land.” In lines 9-10 the moons acquire faces, from which they can “put out the star-light”; a concealed metaphor here equates star-light with a candle, which can be blown out by a breath. In lines 12-14 the moons decide by “trial” which of them is “the best,” with the winner described as “more filmy than the rest.” And in the rest of the poem Poe relates the moon to drapery, to a “labyrinth of light” that “buries” the world beneath, to a “moony covering” which soars with storms in the skies, to a yellow albatross, and to a tent. In the final lines the moon breaks into a shower of “atomies” that come to rest on butterflies' wings.

Poe's reasons for using such metonymic associations may be related to his opinion of the relative imaginative qualities of various figures of speech. Studying Poe's practical criticism, Robert D. Jacobs concludes that “Poe had claimed that metaphor was more imaginative than simile, but he had also suggested that an imaginative poet rarely used figurative language” (282). And Jacobs explains that for Poe, “A figure of speech, insofar as it specifies resemblance between objects, belongs to the real world, the phenomenal world that can be perceived by the senses. … Poe would have had the imagination soar completely beyond actuality” (243). By using metonymic associations, Poe could attempt to do just that, since he could disregard the normal ways in which objects acted and interacted in the world of ordinary experience. But these metonymic deviations make some particular kinds of interpretation difficult, if not impossible: we cannot explain why any one event or image is connected to another, the way we might be able to in a realistic work, nor can we predict any actions or images that will appear next in the poem. The poem cuts itself off from interpretations based on cause-and-effect logic.

Poe further removes the poem from the realm of everyday logic by the use of personification. Butterflies are “never-contented” because the speaker gives them that quality; the moons meet together to decide who will be chosen for the descent to earth because the speaker says they do. It is easy for readers to accept, but impossible to predict, these personifications; we must simply accept Poe's description of the butterflies as malcontents and go on to try to form some interpretation on a different level.

It is possible to do so because Poe presents these images in a literary structure, a plot of sorts. The poem opens with a potential conflict for readers, if not for the speaker, when we first realize that this is a dream poem: the tears of the opening scene (which may or may not be the speaker's tears) obscure the forms of the landscape, imposing blindness and uncertainty on the reader, the protagonist, or both. But the poem progresses from that state to a calm, peaceful description of the moon's setting: its “wide circumference / In easy drapery falls.” In the next few lines we see a catalogue of things lighted by the moon, as it sets

Over hamlets, over halls,
Wherever they may be—
O'er the strange woods—o'er the sea—
Over spirits on the wing—
Over every drowsy thing—
And buries them up quite
In a labyrinth of light—

After the peaceful moonset, this catalogue helps resolve the poem's initial crisis of uncertainty. Even with the connotations of burial in a “labyrinth of light,” the description seems purposefully drawn out to resolve some of the tensions of that initial scene. In the next section, too, the speaker implies that people are going about their usual business in an everyday manner; the moon's dissolution above this normal scene could be interpreted as the coming of daylight and the restoration of clear vision, adding another step in the progression from metonymic uncertainty to a state of resolution.

The catalogue in the center of the poem helps diminish tension in another way, for despite the metonymic string of imagery, the description of the moon's setting in lines 16-24 brings some images together for more clearly rhetorical reasons. A moon could quite naturally appear to settle on the peak of a mountain. This is one of the few images that can correspond realistically to the natural world, providing readers with a more familiar scene. Further, the rest of the catalogue is made up of opposites, so that the name of one in each pair matches the other: poor hamlets suggest rich halls, woods form a parallel to seas, and “spirits on the wing” contrast with drowsy things. With the possible exception of flying spirits, all of these make logical sense when seen in a picture of moonlight, for the moon's spreading light is an image large enough to contain them all. The sense of completeness that this catalogue creates balances much of the uncertainty of the obscuring tears at the beginning: although we are in a different world, we seem to be able to see that world as a whole.

By using this catalogue and the progression of scenes, Poe provides readers with a logical structure that allows a certain kind of understanding of the poem. Readers do not have to accept this structure as a key to the poem's meaning; nor would I argue that all readers will accept it. But by eliminating interpretations based upon ordinary experience, and by providing these literary structures, Poe (whether consciously or not) puts formal pressures on readers to understand “Fairy-Land” in certain ways.

One of those ways is to lessen the reader's sense that he or she must arrive at any one interpretation of this poem. The calmness of the imagery gives the impression that, even if we misinterpret what the speaker is describing to us, nothing will be hurt; we can be wrong without any dire consequences. In everyday life we do not normally see the moon breaking up into a shower of atomies, but when it does so here the result is not cataclysmic upheaval; instead, we see a piece of that moon resting on the “quivering wings” of a rather harmless butterfly. When the moon sets over hamlets and halls, the speaker says, “then, how deep!—O, deep! / Is the passion of their sleep.” But this potentially threatening image is resolved in the next line: “In the morning they arise.”3

“Fairy-Land” [I] thus begins in tension and obscurity but progresses to an essentially peaceful state, and in doing so the poem reduces the importance of getting any exact interpretation correct. Instead, we are left with an impression that the poem is a complete narrative sequence of imaginative events in a pleasantly unreal world. The meaning of those events is not completely clear, but neither is the need for attaching a specific meaning to them.4

“Dream-Land,” on the other hand, is a much darker poem. Like “Fairy-Land,” it begins by letting readers know clearly that they are in an unreal world, but here Poe's poetic persona says so directly. Poe does not use metonymy so heavily in this poem; in the introduction he states that this is a world “Out of Space—out of Time,” a kingdom ruled by Night. Poe even calls that Night an “Eidolon,” making sure that readers know they are in ideal, unreal surroundings. After describing tears that obscure vision, as in “Fairy-Land,” the speaker takes us through an unsettled landscape, scenes constructed differently from those in “Fairy-Land.” All the images in this part of “Dream-Land” come from the natural world, yet nothing here has any natural bounds—we see “bottomless vales” and “lakes that endlessly outspread.” The unbounded elements constantly intermingle as well: the poem describes “Seas that restlessly aspire, / Surging, unto skies of fire,” and “Mountains toppling evermore / Into seas without a shore.”

This world not only exists outside the realm of our experience, but is contradictory to what we know; we can put together the words boundless and seas, as Poe has, but our minds cannot comprehend boundless seas, let alone shoreless seas with mountains falling into them. While Poe as poet can form such antithetical constructions, for us as readers, according to Roy Harvey Pearce, the words he uses are still “ineradicably tainted by the reality of the things and states to which they [refer]” (150). The fantastic world here does not rely on metonymy, as it does in “Fairy-Land,” but the effect of those oxymorons is the same for readers as with metonymy: because ordinary logic does not apply, we have to look elsewhere for clues to an interpretation of the poem.

Poe heightens our sense of unreality in this realm with his description of mountains “toppling evermore,” suggesting an existential insecurity and impermanence—there is quite literally no firm ground here. Yet by making the mountains topple eternally, Poe not only creates that insecurity but gives it a sort of permanence: readers can be sure that the mountains always will be falling. However, knowing this doesn't give readers any alternate structure for understanding the poem; rather, it reinforces the impression of anxiety. The idea of constancy in the mountains' constant falling reminds us that we can conceive of some sort of stable, permanent state in which we could rest, some rational interpretation of the poem; yet the constant falling also reassures us that such rest is completely unreachable. Unlike the moons in “Fairy-Land,” which eventually coalesce into a single moon, the recurrences here do not allow us any sense of closure or intellectual security.5

After this section, however, the poem moves back into more conventional imagery, with shrouded and white-robed figures walking around doing things that shrouded forms are supposed to do: “forms of friends long given, / In agony, to the Earth,” they “start and sigh.” These symbols are less powerful than earlier scenes because they already fit into widely accepted schemes of what death and the dead are like, in Poe's time as well as our own. But readers also can feel a little more secure in contemplating such figures because, even though the ghosts are in a morbid world, the idea of ghosts already exists in a context outside of the speaker's personal vision. They allow readers to feel again that they can see a larger, more coherent picture of this strange realm.6

Less clear than the symbolism of these figures is the reason why the traveler “May not—dare not openly view” this world. We learn that the unseen King of “Dream-Land” has decreed that “Never its mysteries are exposed / To the weak human eye unclosed,” perhaps suggesting that only the dead may look with impunity on sad waters and skies of fire. Yet the speaker is presumably human, if not alive, again creating self-contradictions in the speaker's statements. The “fringed lid” and “darkened glasses” necessary here also return us to less conventional images, ones that can carry some of the speaker's anxious view of this world without seeming trite (as some of the ghost imagery does). Again, these images remove the poem from the world of everyday experience, eliminating one kind of interpretation.

Yet, as he does in “Fairy-Land,” Poe includes in “Dream-Land” some structures that give readers direction for interpretations. The tone of these contradictory images is fairly consistent: while we cannot understand the world here logically, we can say that it is—uniformly—not a pleasant one. From the insecurity of “mountains toppling” to the projected emotions of “lone waters,” the poem has a dark, morbid tone. If this is indeed the realm of Night and of death, such morbid images make sense. So does the illogical nature of the region: visual perception breaks down at night, just as our experiential wisdom cannot understand the world of the dead. The poem thus turns on itself: the qualities that make it hard to understand end up serving as clues for interpretation; because we cannot interpret the poem's existential insecurity on an experiential level, we can see it as a statement about a world that is not secure and does not submit itself to everyday logic—the realm of Death. The poem's illogic becomes logical.

In the conclusion, Poe repeats the first six lines of the poem almost identically. In some ways nothing has changed since the beginning of the poem; the static, yet dynamic, world of the poem is apparently continuing in its cycles of destruction, but we still have no idea of how the narrator could survive in such a strange world.

By repeating these lines, Poe also creates a structure that allows no closure in the poem, even though the speaker has returned safely. He does not show a progression of images that comes to a close, as in “Fairy-Land,” nor does he even relate the frame of the introduction and conclusion directly to the interior of the poem (in Mabbott's edition, as well as in others, they are separated by spaces). Instead, we see a speaker returning (again) from a strange land, suggesting a cycle that will be repeated, just as the mountains fall again and again into “boundless floods.” But this lack of closure implies a kind of closure, an insecure security, as does the uncertain certainty of “mountains toppling evermore.” The structure of “Dream-Land” does not allow any narrative closure, as “Fairy-Land” does; nor does it let us arrive at a final meaning. But that is in itself a meaning. The poem is about a “Dream-Land,” one that cannot be dealt with on ordinary logical terms nor, as Poe here suggests, on conventional literary terms.

“Dream-Land” is harder for readers to deal with than “Fairy-Land” because the formal structures it offers to readers are thinner. While “Fairy-Land” presents a coherent plot that arrives at a resolution, this poem has no formally concluded narrative: the speaker simply ends the poem by stopping in the middle of an impossible description of a weird landscape, saying that now he or she has returned from that world. “Fairy-Land” offers the rhetorically structured catalogue of opposites that are all included in the moon's setting light, but here in “Dream-Land” the rhetoric itself is undermined by syntactic contradictions like “boundless floods.” The only structures that readers may use to build an interpretation of “Dream-Land” are the poem's consistent inconsistencies: its morbid tone, its lack of a logical structure.

In this poem, then, Poe controls readers and their interpretations by default. He denies readers the use of experiential knowledge in understanding the world of “Dream-Land,” and he builds the poem around a journey that seems never to come to an end, thus eliminating any resolution on a formal level. The only interpretation available to us is simply to take his word that this is a world “Out of Space—Out of Time,” and to leave it at that: we can make no interpretation, other than what he gives us, because nothing in the poem allows us to agree or disagree with what the speaker says. Poe thus creates the kind of controlling structure in “Dream-Land” that in “The Philosophy of Composition” he said he wanted to create: a poem that limits readers so severely that they must accept his interpretation. In effect, readers do not interpret here; they simply read.


  1. To my knowledge, the only two critics who go beyond restatement to consider Poe's ideas about his readers as readers are Robert D. Jacobs and George Kelly. Jacobs discusses Poe's normative psychology in making assumptions about a mass audience of journal readers (Poe 436). Kelly sees Poe's movement of “the point of critical focus away from the work of art to its interpreter” as a “drift toward subjectivism”; Kelly uses his own description of this drift as an opening statement, against which he contrasts what he sees as the objective strategies by which Poe “contravened” such a drift (35).

    Edward H. Davidson (esp. 67-75), Charles Feidelson, Jr., Albert Gelpi, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Tate discuss on a general level Poe's ideas about the power of language and the limits he could not overcome.

  2. Texts for both poems are taken from Thomas Ollive Mabbott's edition of Poe's texts.

  3. Compare Davidson's remarks on “Fairy-Land”: “nothing happens; no one really dies or lives; the moon and sun remain the same; only the protagonist who has ‘seen’ these things is changed” (31). While one might question whether or not the protagonist changes (if we see enough of this person even to call him or her a protagonist), Davidson and other critics generally agree about the light tone of this poem. Kent Ljungquist, Jacobs, and Mabbott all comment on its humor as well.

  4. I have been using the first version of “Fairy-Land,” which Poe wrote in 1829. He revised this poem in 1831, soon after the first version was published; the short time between revisions suggests that he was unhappy with his first drafts. As Mabbott remarks in his introduction to the second version, “Fairy-Land” [II] is “virtually a new poem, with an effect of its own” (161) because of Poe's many changes. It is interesting to note that one of his major changes was to anchor the description of “tears that drip all over” in a scene where the persona speaks to a woman named Isabel; the poem becomes in part a description of a vision addressed to her. Isabel's presence brings the poem closer to the realm of everyday experience, though the speaker wonders whether or not the spot where they sit and where the moon-beam fell is “all but a dream.” Poe also adds another interpretive level to the poem this way, since the relation between the speaker and this woman gives readers more grounds for speculation.

  5. Critics have offered various interpretations of the imagery in this poem. Davidson sees “Dream-Land” as “a place where everything that exists is in a state of disintegration, as though all matter and form were returning to its primordial condition of mere atomicity” (82). While this view is consistent with the tone of the poem, it fails to emphasize the eternal quality of the disintegration. Arthur Hobson Quinn remarks that Poe “produces the effect of vastness and desolation by his usual methods of denying limitations” (416).

  6. William M. Forrest and Mabbott (346) also see some Biblical imagery in “Dream-Land,” especially in this latter half. Forrest cites, for example, “the spirit that walks in shadow” (line 41) and “Behold it but through darkened glasses” (line 50) as derived from scripture (171). While Killis Campbell doubts the likelihood of Poe's direct borrowing from the Bible (547), images such as spirits and shadows are at any rate common in our culture.

Works Cited

Campbell, Killis. The Mind of Poe and Other Studies. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957.

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1957.

Eliot, T. S. “From Poe to Valery.” The Hudson Review 2 (1949): 327-42.

Feidelson, Charles. “Poe.” Symbolism and American Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1953.

Forrest, William M. Biblical Allusions in Poe. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Gelpi, Albert. The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Jacobs, Robert D. Poe: Journalist & Critic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

———. “The Self and the World: Poe's Early Poems.” The Georgia Review 31 (1977): 638-68.

Kelly, George. “Poe's Theory of Unity.” Philological Quarterly 37 (1958): 34-44.

Ljungquist, Kent. “Poe's ‘The Island of the Fay’: The Passing of Fairyland.” Studies in Short Fiction 14 (1977): 265-71.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. “Poe.” The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961. 141-53.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Poems. Vol. 1 of Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1969.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe; A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton, 1941.

Tate, Allen. “The Angelic Imagination: Poe and the Power of Words.” Kenyon Review 14 (1952): 455-75.

Beverly A. Hume (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Hume, Beverly A. “Poe's Mad Narrator in Eureka.Essays in Arts and Sciences 22 (October 1993): 51-65.

[In the following essay, Hume refutes criticism that assumes that Poe himself is the narrator of Eureka, and suggests rather that the narrator is a madman created by Poe.]

Edgar Allan Poe's critics generally regard Eureka as seminal to a proper understanding not only of the anomalies in Poe's poetic and prose fictions, but also of the metaphysics or philosophy which informs them. Here, however, agreement ends. Some argue that Eureka reveals a concern for moral or theological issues; others that it offers a romantic nihilism or materialism; and still others that it mocks both philosophical and scientific inquiry.1 Critics differ also on primary sources for Eureka, and Poe is variously credited with relying on the early cosmogonic poetry of the Greeks; on Alexander Von Humboldt's then popular Cosmos; on scientific thought accessible to the general nineteenth-century reading public; on Christian philosophy, particularly natural theology; and on the theories of Newton and Laplace, to name a few.2 The source of such differences seems to lie in whether one regards Eureka as Poe's final philosophical statement about the nature of being or as a hodge-podge of ideas which obscurely mirror Poe's confused sentiments about a variety of subjects ranging from scientific method to the follies of man; from poetic inspiration to dogmatic theology.

In this essay, I argue that although Poe's relation to the central narrator of Eureka is ambiguous, the cosmogonic theory of this work calls into question the bizarre metaphysics of other of Poe's works, particularly those narrated by seeming madmen. Numerous critics have already drawn analogies between the romantic cosmogony of Eureka and earlier of Poe's works, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “Descent Into the Maelström,” but few have used it to clarify the “metaphysics” of such narratives as “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”3 I will demonstrate, however, that the primary or central narrator of Eureka is not only unique among Poe's most insane narrators, but also that the nature of his madness is the most cleverly concealed. Despite his claims to coherence and intuitive knowledge, Poe's narrator in Eureka presents his theory of the universe in a repetitive and heavily punctuated manner which not only reveals the frenzied nature of his vision,4 but, by extension, any literary romantic who would be a scientist.

Because Eureka was first presented as a two-and-a-half-hour lecture called “The Universe” at the New York Society Library four months before it was published and because Poe insisted upon the truth, integrity, and beauty of this “prose poem,” some of his twentieth-century critics assume that the narrative voice in Eureka is Poe's and that he was presenting material to an audience who understood and accepted these views as his own.5 However, even a cursory consideration of the work and of Poe's reviewers reveals that the reactions of his contemporaries were mixed. Although, as Joan Dayan points out, reviews in the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer and in the 1850 Southern Literary Messenger praised Poe and his visionary genius in Eureka before (and after) his death (13), a reviewer for the 1848 Boston Transcript imagined that he saw the “mocking smile of the hoaxer … behind [Poe's] grave mask,” while another in an 1848 Home Journal wrote that there “was no great novelty in the scientific ideas advanced,” and a third for an 1848 Amherst College Indicator wrote, “We have read [Eureka] quite through, and it is our conviction that this time, Mr. Poe has egregiously hoaxed—not his readers—but himself” (Critical Heritage 280-292).

Equally ambivalent to many of Poe's past and present readers is the author's attitude toward his narrators, especially his mad ones. Although nearly all of Poe's narrators have seemed, to some degree, mad to various critics, “madness” seems to have been a problematic concept for Poe. After writing Eureka, for example, Poe offered some distinctions between genius (“the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion”) and “‘genius’ in the popular sense—which is but the manifestation of the abnormal predominance of some one faculty over all the others” and “is a result of mental disease or rather, of organic malformation of mind” (Fifty Suggestions 23, 490). Such diseased beings, Poe further observes, create works that “are never sound in themselves and, in especial, always betray the general mental insanity” (490). In an earlier “Marginalia,” however, Poe wrote that the “fate of an individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race” would be that he “would be considered a madman” (“Marginalia” 247, 388), and it is tempting to speculate, as does Burton Pollin, that “Poe thought of himself as this abnormally gifted individual” (388).

The nature of this problem is perhaps most tellingly revealed by Poe's Roderick Usher who, in pronouncing the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a “madman,” forever draws into question not only the narrator's rationality, but the nature of the phenomena he claims to have witnessed. Poe's ambivalence toward the popular and real nature of madness enabled him, I believe, to create many literary madmen who, like both his narrators in Eureka, invariably insist upon the truth of their visions even as their narratives undermine such truths. The difference between such madmen and the primary narrator of Eureka lies in Poe's development of the latter as a writer of prose and of poetry, one who attempts to convince his readers that he has used intuition, Newtonian science, and his intimations of eternity and divinity to discover the true relation between physical and spiritual realms. However, the resulting romantic scientism that pervades his narrative not only obscures the relation between madness, art, and science, but also reveals, finally, the narrator's bizarre and monmaniacal apprehension of a sadistic god and cosmos, one as, if not more, perverse than that envisioned by the narrator of “The Black Cat.”

In their recent studies of Poe, Joan Dayan and Michael J. S. Williams offer not only complementary summaries of the significance of Eureka to Poe's works, but also suggest why, for many modern critics, Poe “writes a cosmology that totters between farce and revelation” (Dayan 23). To Dayan, Poe “speaks excess and bombast in order to convert his readers to a more difficult, if less grandiose habit of mind” (24), offering both an attack and implicit philosophical alternative to “those who busy themselves in attempts at the unattainable” (29). Dayan argues further that in Eureka, Poe is involved in a “radical decentering” of language to make “us doubt our previous assumptions, and … to see language in its condition of mereness reduced before the very grandeurs Poe calls forth” (44). For Williams, similarly, “Eureka asserts that human existence is irreducibly inscrutable, and that language both allows us what we know of the world and paradoxically displaces us from it—inaugurating a desire that it necessarily frustrates” (151). Acknowledging the “possibility that the narrator's enterprise may itself be a product of monomania” and that Eureka offers a partially “satiric subversion” of “man's attempts to conceive a universal explanation” (150), Williams contends that Poe's narrator stages a conscious, even sophisticated, attack on systems of language, of thought, and that he (the narrator) mirrors Poe's sentiments.

These studies, along with other recent commentaries on Eureka, reveal the contemporary tendency of Poe's critics not only to take his narrator too seriously, but also to assume that Poe did too. “What I have propounded in Eureka,” Poe wrote to George Eveleth in 1848, “will (in good time) revolutionize Physical and Metaphysical Science” (Letters 2: 362). Although such a statement implies that Poe was intellectually serious in Eureka, a close reading of his “prose poem” suggests that the “revolution” he proposes to Eveleth is related to the creation of a narrator who, with the help of then-contemporary science, madly envisions a perversely materialistic and self-annihilating universe and god. For in Eureka, Poe creates a narrator, a nineteenth-century mad scientist of sorts who, in his attempts to understand his universe, not only becomes, like other of Poe's mad narrators, confused by his own designs, but resorts finally to a telling and near-hysterical theoretical digression about divinely sanctioned sado-masochism and the absolute necessity of evil and suffering to human existence.

Although Eureka has been summarized many times, its chaotic texture requires its readers to unravel its plot at the same time as they analyze it. This interpretive problem accounts, in part, for the conflicting perceptions of the meaning of the narrative. Poe's narrator begins his epistle with the construction of a second epistle, one from a second, “anonymous” author who is presumably writing in the year 2848 a.d. and who extravagantly praises intuition, mocks “crawling” scientific methods of the past (Poetry and Tales 1264-5), and rages against mathematical logic. This narrative is subsequently dismissed by the primary narrator as “chimerical” (1271), and the reader is then offered this narrator's vision: one which not only echoes the “anonymous” author's extravagant language, but makes even more astounding claims. The anonymous author attacks scientific method from Aristotle to Newton and beyond, while the primary narrator poses the argument that Newton's mathematically-derived principles, particularly his first law of gravity, are essentially correct, but can be arrived at by intuitive, rather than mathematical, means. Further, the central narrator argues, man may intuitively know all those inductions and deductions “of which the processes are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity for expression” (1276-7).

The primary narrator also tends to view reality, or the cosmos, in terms of its dualistic, or polarized, nature. He remains fascinated, also, at the prospect of demonstrating the incompetence of both the tradition and methodology of science. For example, Newtonian mathematics, he asserts, merely demonstrates the same law that he has intuitively pronounced “correct”; it demonstrates the law “that all bodies attract each other with forces proportional with the quantities of matter and inversely proportional with the squares of their distances” (1283-4).

The narrator continues to postulate in Eureka that gravitation, attraction, the human body, and atoms are metaphors for matter, while electricity, repulsion, the soul, and ether are metaphors for spirit. Further, though an atom in Eureka seems initially to refer only to cosmic particles, this narrator determines that it signifies the smallest and largest particles in existence (which he does not name, insisting nonetheless that they can be both luminous and non-luminous), planetary systems, solar systems, galaxies, men, gravity, animals, and cells. In short, these particles can be anything which the narrator determines that they are, anything which he “senses” exists physically in the universe. Although the use of metaphor to describe the relation of the physical universe to spiritual realms would not have been startling to an informed nineteenth-century readership, Poe's narrator uses such metaphors primarily to reinterpret principles that have been mathematically-derived in order to demonstrate, paradoxically, the limitations of mathematics. He concludes this “scientific” vision as obscure voices from his memory reveal the central truth of his narrative: that there is a “Divine Being” who “passes His eternity in perpetual variation of Concentrated Self” and “Infinite Diffusion” and all existing matter and all existing spirit are but this being's “present expansive existence,” an existence which must necessarily move back to the concentrated “One” from which it began (1358).

This narrator's theory seems to partake of two characteristic, but conflicting nineteenth-century approaches to understanding the cosmos: (1) reductionism or elementarism, in which emphasis was placed on reducing “the complex to the simple by an emphasis on a basic element or unit”; and (2) holism or field theories in which “total structures or contexts (wholes) were used to explain the action of the parts embedded in them” (Hilgard 12).6 For such a narrator, as Paul Valéry early surmised, the universe seems to be “formed on a plan the profound symmetry of which is present, as it were in the inner structure of the mind” (17). Unity, or the principle of oneness, according to Valéry and to other critics who regard Poe's narrator as visionary, becomes a central principle for such symmetry, while the universe becomes god's fiction, a pure and perfect design that is unlike human fiction which merely strives to imitate or recreate forgotten memory (1275). Despite his stated belief that as a man, he can only imperfectly recreate god's universe and also despite his intuitive dependence upon the “accidental” accuracy of Newtonian mathematics, this narrator madly plunges forward, using his intuition and his poetic vision to attain an absolute knowledge which he is certain (at least intuitively) lies somewhere beyond his comprehension.

According to many critics, however, Poe's narrator does successfully “sense” twentieth-century cosmogonic theories of the universe. He envisions, they claim, a universe which exploded from intensely compressed matter and expanded into existence, only to return to such a state—an apparently oscillating universe that consists of widely varied atomic particles (luminous and non-luminous). He envisions, they also maintain, a cosmos of dark voids where matter does not exist; of gravitational forces which are causing the universe to shrink and wear down; and of a solar system where the planet will eventually be consumed by an enlarged sun. Such cosmogonic notions, some critics suggest, can be “incorporated into fairly recent [scientific] concepts” (Valéry 20) such as the Big Bang universe, the steady-state universe, the oscillating universe, general and specific relativity, and black holes.7 Even critics who remain unconvinced tend to believe that Poe's narrator senses something; Poe's “science” becomes a “hit-and-miss hotchpotch, largely indebted to the work of Laplace, Newton, and Humboldt, and accidentally anticipative of the theories of Eddington, Einstein, and Meyerson” (Ketterer 47).

However, Poe's narrator in Eureka actually anticipates little, as his cosmogony is more clearly aligned with nineteenth than with twentieth-century science. Nineteenth-century scientists generally believed that the universe was finite, closed, and could eventually be explained. Similarly, Poe's narrator argues for a finite, closed cosmos in Eureka. In fact, he regards man's “cosmos” as itself a “Divine Being” or god (or sentient galaxy), one of many such closed and finite “Beings” who populate infinity infinitely. Although many of the insights of science have been accidental or developed from imaginative insight, none of them have been postulated as inanely as those of Poe's narrator. More like one of the figures in a twentieth-century absurdist drama, the “atomic” men described by the narrator of Eureka are more pathetic than powerful, more laughable than engaging. Like the narrator, they populate a universe already set in motion by an infallible, mechanistic, and self-fulfilling “god” who is composed of atoms, of matter, and whose essence, or spirituality, is atomic, material. Poe's narrator's intuitive leaps from the specific to the outrageously general, his perceptions of the contradictory nature of scientific insight, and his descriptions of an oscillating “Divine” universe (liberally sprinkled with dark voids and gravitational anomalies) all suggest, finally, that men can only vaguely apprehend the infinite, and then only through the intuition, not language—whether that of mathematics or of literature.

Despite its incommunicable nature, Poe's narrator zealously continues, man's intuition enables him to understand and to endure “Divine Injustice” and the horrors of human suffering. In the view that he has offered in Eureka, he states, “and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddle of Divine Injustice—of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone, the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more—it becomes endurable” (1357). It becomes “endurable” because, in his view, all suffering, all evil, becomes spiritually meaningful since “All” is devoted to the continuation of a mathematically and mechanically symmmetic cosmos or god. Human depravity and death become, in such a view, part of a universal design, one where seemingly violent and arbitrary acts are willed by a perfect god who, claim the “voices” of the narrator's memory, “feels his life through an infinity of imperfect pleasures … the partial and pain-intertangled pleasures of those inconceivable numerous things which you designate as his creatures” (1358). Such violence is willed by this god's “atoms,” including man. “Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow,” observes the narrator, “which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes—with a view—if even with a futile view—to the extension of our own Joy” (1375). Since the narrator's hedonistic pleasure and pain-seeking God is perfect, the man who looks inward can, as the narrator presumably does, intuitively know that all which seems “Evil” is actually part of a greater divine “Sorrow” and “Joy” and is necessary to sustain a continuously self-serving and eternal cosmos.

Such a “philosophy” embraces the idea that the universe is (as Newton and other eighteenth or nineteenth-century scientists might have agreed) mechanistic and materialistic, but, unlike such scientists, Poe's narrator also argues for the inevitable material or atomic dissolution of both the universal “Divine” and of humankind. His is a philosophy, then, which seems directly related to those posited by some of Poe's earlier, monomaniacal narrators. Not only are narrators in such works as “The Black Cat,” “Berenice,” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” inordinately preoccupied with the horrific, evil, insane, or perverse objects (such as evil eyes, strangely compelling teeth, and a black cat) in their fictive universes, but other narrators mock or indirectly ridicule such obsessions in humorous sketches such as “The Premature Burial,” “Loss of Breath,” “How To Write A Blackwood Article,” or “The Spectacles.” In these darker tales, whether parodic or horrifying, narrators or central characters look for a single reason or singular principle in order to explain their dilemmas or those of others. Their typically exaggerated, repetitive, dash-ridden, and mechanical language, when combined with their futile, histrionic posturing, makes them seem, like the narrator of Eureka, somewhere between the nightmare of annihilation and that of the equally unsettling world of grotesque literature—a world which, as Geoffrey Harpham summarizes, is “relatively easy to recognize … in a work of art,” but difficult to “apprehend … directly” since, at core, it lacks symbolic coherence (xvi).8

If “he” is nothing else, surely the “Divine Being” or god of Eureka is a grotesque figure. According to the narrator, this massive “Being” is both man and not-man, is forever collapsing and expanding, and is directly responsible for not only the joys of existence, but the horrors, not only the presence of human pain and sorrow, but of what humans perceive as “good” and “evil”:

The absolute irrelative particle primarily created by the Volition of God, must have been in a condition of positive normality, or rightfulness—for wrong implies relation. Right is positive; wrong is negative—is merely the negation of right; as cold is the negation of heat—darkness of light


Here, normalcy is equated with rightness, with goodness, with what is positive. Abnormality, on the other hand, is associated with an abstract wrongness, with evil, with negation. This simplistic cosmic equation is offered to the reader, however, to explain the narrator's perception of the absolutely “moral” structure of the universe which, like his understanding of the Newtonian principle of reaction, depends upon a rigidly mechanistic and polarized cosmos; a cosmos similar to others perceived by earlier of Poe's narrators such as those in “Berenice,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Tell-Tale Heart”—all mad narrators who, to their destruction, envision some manifestation of the physical universe in conspiracy against them.

Indeed, in such bleak narratives as “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat,” there remain nagging suggestions that the narrator's murderous and self-destructive actions are cosmically sanctioned: “I heard all things in the heaven and the earth. I heard many things in hell,” writes the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “How then am I mad?” (555); “Yet I am not more sure,” observes the narrator of “The Black Cat,” “that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man” (599). If madness is not a matter of acute sensibility, if perversity is not one of the “indivisible primary faculties” of a primordial unity (similar to that posited by the narrator of Eureka), then, these narrators query, how else are their fates to be explained? Such narrators use such single-minded theories to argue that their pathological and self-destructive behavior is not only natural but part of a cosmic design which, in terms of their narrative, it proves to be.

Although Eureka is ostensibly concerned with the beginning and the end of the cosmos, Poe's narrator is more concerned about delineating what he perceives as his present relation to the cosmos, to god. In so doing, he uncovers, he believes, a present which is continuous and simultaneous with the beginning and end of everything. Because of the limitations of human language, such a divine design, he claims, is not to be confused with human designs; that is, with fictive designs. For “in human constructions, a particular cause has a particular effect” while in “Divine constructions the object is either design or object as we choose to regard it—and we may take at any time a cause for an effect, or the converse—so that we can never absolutely decide which is which” (1341). At the same time, the difference between what is divine and what is merely human is crucial to the narrator's mad cosmogony in Eureka. Since he believes that language was created by man to explain his (rather than “His”) relation to the cosmos, all language-based explanations, including mathematical ones, remain imperfect. All fiction (including his own) is a lie, a distortion.

Like the mad narrators of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator of Eureka searches for cause and effect relations in the cosmos even as he proclaims that they do not exist. Also, like these monomaniacal narrators, his language confusedly suggests that men choose their fates, that some other force which they do not understand works through them to bring them toward inevitable doom. In the case of the narrator of Eureka, that doom comes with his final delusory vision or “memory” of voices which tell him that everything in the universe, including himself, is part of a finite but eternal god who has an inordinate, if not perverse, appetite for pleasure and pain.

In Eureka, Poe's narrator tries to communicate his intuitive vision of man's relation to the universe, but concludes that the most distinctive quality of that vision is its refusal to be communicated. What the reader is left with, then, is a fragmented philosophical scientism which passionately attempts to justify horror, suffering, evil, and annihilation in terms of a mathematical and mechanical god, one who has his own amoral reasons for creating human sorrow and joy, pleasure and pain. The gothic elements of Poe's earlier tales of terror may tend to mask the implicit cosmological views that their narrators sometimes embrace, but the narrator of Eureka reveals fully the language-based nature of his madness.

Although it may be too much to argue, as John Irwin has, that Eureka reveals Poe's thinly-veiled “death wish” (21), the unusual nature of this narrative suggests that Poe rejected, perhaps even detested, the metaphysical implications of the cosmic speculations of some of his more driven narrators. Examining the linguistic collapse in both his narrators in Eureka, Poe does, as Gerald J. Kennedy suggests, anticipate the linguistic anxieties Eveleth often associated with literary modernism. More than this, however, Poe reveals that “madness” can lie in language itself, that textual meaning does depend upon a certain metaphoric consistency, and that despite its symbolic nature, mathematical language (and the discoveries of science) may be incompatible with poetic understanding. That is, the intuitive leaps of scientists who construct cosmogonic theories of the universe may be as fallible as those posited by literary romantics.

Desiring to make a strong case for intuition and against the “crawling,” mathematically-based methods of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe, the narrators of Eureka inadvertently do the opposite, while Poe's own position remains provocatively ambivalent. More specifically, what Poe's central narrator demonstrates is that while a scientist's mathematical equations may be accurate, that same scientist's intuition or apprehension about the cosmic significance of these equations is no more or less reliable than that of the romantic poet. Poe, as D. H. Lawrence early suggests, seems like a scientist in his detailed and detached burrowings into human consciousnessness (61). However, in his portrait of the impassioned and erratic narrative voice(s) and vision(s) of Eureka, Poe offers, finally, a mocking portrait of the romantic writer as cosmogonic scientist, and vice versa. He also offers the implicit view that the synthesis of nineteenth-century science cosmogony and nineteenth-century American literary romanticism was inevitable, but could lead only to a chimerical view of the universe (and its atoms) as self-generating, amoral, materialistic, self-annihilating, and perverse—rather like the fictive universe envisioned by Thomas Pynchon's narrator in Gravity's Rainbow.

After discussing Poe's “full scale decreationism” in Eureka, in fact, and the “preoccupation with entropy in [postmodern American] apocalyptic” literature, James Tuttleton observes, “It is but a small step from the view that life is a nightmare of insane horrors to the view that this world deserves annihilation” (52). It similarly takes a short leap of illogic, as the narrator of Eureka reveals, from the view that there is a relation between mathematics and human consciousness to the view that this relation is sadistic, or at least painful—that man, in cooperation with a finite universe and god has “created” or “sensed” cosmic truths largely because they explain, logically, his cyclical and violent movement from being into nothingness and back again.

Like so many of Poe's mad narrators, the central narrator of Eureka not only determines that the universe works against human designs, but also that these designs, paradoxically, reveal a dark process both of self and cosmic annihilation. The revolution in physics and metaphysics that Poe envisioned in Eureka and promised Eveleth has not yet come, for Poe seems indirectly to have been envisioning not a revolution but rather an evolution in consciousness. That is, his primary narrator's madness directs Poe's readers toward the recognition that there is not and never has been a significant relation between human intuition and mathematically-based scientific inquiry. Implicitly, then, Poe seems to use the narrative of Eureka to suggest that the evolution of humankind will depend not only upon a rejection of the mathematically-based insights of then-contemporary Newtonian (or classical) science about the nature of the universe, but also upon a startling, new understanding of the profoundly complex nature of the relationship between human consciousness and the universe—an understanding which, as Poe's first “chimerical” narrator in Eureka postulates from 2848 a.d., will not even begin until some time short of a thousand more years of scientific, of human, ineptitude.9


  1. For example, Douglas Robinson argues that Eureka is a “deistic revision of Christian eschatology” (257); while Joan Dayan maintains that in Eureka, Poe's “rigorously indeterminate philosophy comes to be inseparable from a severely Calvinist theology” (19); G. R. Thompson argues that Eureka “presents a skepticism that results from the appalling possibility that the essence of the universe is neither creative nor destructive in any design—but simply void” (189), and Peter C. Page analyzes Poe's debt to Empedocles.

  2. For example, Peter C. Page suggests that Poe's source is the Greek trickster-cosmologer Empedocles and that Poe is mocking the narrator (21); John Irwin assumes that Eureka is based on Humboldt's Cosmos; and Barton Levi St. Armand cites Margaret Alterton's 1925 study of Poe (Origins of Poe's Critical Theory, p. 8) to support his perception that Eureka is based “in large part on his readings in a branch of Christian Philosophy … the field of Natural Theology and Apologetics.”

  3. In addition to Dayan and Thompson, representative critics relating Eureka to Poe's tales include Evan Carton in The Rhetoric of American Romance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); E. H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957); David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973); John F. Lynen, “The Death of the Present: Edgar Allan Poe,” The Design of the Present: Essays on Time and Form in American Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969): 205-271; and Thomas J. Rountree, “Poe's Universe: The House of Usher and the Narrator,” Tulane Studies in English 20 (1972): 123-134.

  4. Dayan argues that as Eureka “progresses,” the narrator's use of the dash “increasingly materializes the indefinite effect” (61), that is, crossing “repetition over repetition, the dash erases distinction while appearing to be definite” (75). Although Dayan argues that the dash is used by Poe to enhance his “sermon against the tendency to seek groundless principles of unity” (13), I think it more likely that he uses it both to symbolize intuitive ruptures in his narrator's consciousness and, perhaps, as a deliberate substitute for mathematical symbolism. In Marginalia 197, Poe himself refers to the dash as “an emendation” which makes “meaning more distinct” (325); that is, he grants the dash a symbolic force.

  5. In their book-length studies of Poe, for example, both Joan Dayan and David Halliburton suggest that during Poe's lecture, his audience had, as Halliburton observes, “no difficulty in following the argument” detailed in Eureka, or “The Universe” (407).

  6. Hilgard also demonstrates how these two approaches were crucial to the development of psychology in nineteenth-century American culture, as was “quantification,” or the production of “mathematical conjectures to explain psychological facts” (12). The narrator's breathless determination to replace mathematics (or quantification) in Eureka with intuition (and with dashes) may suggest Poe's awareness of currents in contemporary psychological thought and experimentation, particularly since, as Hilgard notes, such ideas were sometimes modified and published in popular nineteenth-century American journals.

  7. For a summary of contemporary cosmogonic theories, see Jayant Narlikar's The Structure of the Universe (105-139). Unlike Poe's narrator, modern cosmologists like Narlikar include mathematics and exclude god—though their speculations may be equally “intuitive.” Narlikar's text does not detail recent, postmodern cosmogonic notions based on Chaos Theory, which imagines the universe to be more “coherent” than was previously imagined. Neither does Narlikar discuss “Gödel's proof,” which demonstrates that any complex symbolic system, such as mathematics, generates statements which may be meaningful, but are ultimately unprovable and which, therefore, offer scientific and mathematical “proof” that a structure as complex as the cosmos can never be deciphered. However, perhaps to their credit, none of Poe's critics have yet attempted to apply these latter cosmogonic perceptions to Eureka.

  8. There is, however, no generally accepted view of the grotesque. As Harpham further summarizes, there have been notable conflicting critical perceptions regarding the significance or meaning of the grotesque, with two major critics, Wolfgang Kayser and Mikhail Bakhtin, managing “to contradict each other utterly on the most basic premises” of this literary concept (xvii).

  9. The author wishes to acknowledge support of this research by an Indiana University Summer Research Grant.

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Dave Smith (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode.” Southern Humanities Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1995): 1-10.

[In the following essay, Smith examines “The Raven” as an expression of Poe's despair as an orphan and an outcast.]

When I left home for college at the University of Virginia, I must have imagined history was something confined to textbooks and roadside commemorative markers, which occur in Virginia nearly as often as azaleas and daffodils. Among the splendid benefits of college nothing outweighs awakening to the presence of the past as it shapes and changes one's life. In 1963, for example, I lived in a cottage next door to James Southall Wilson, the founder of the Virginia Quarterly Review and a Poe scholar. He was also husband to the formidable granddaughter of President Tyler. He seemed to me, and I think he was, in accent, courtesy, rose gardening, and tales about Poe, an embodiment of the Southern gentleman, a type parents, preachers, and teachers invoked freely for my moral edification. Professor Wilson embodied the lost world of Southern refinement, principle, and neoclassical culture our schools proclaimed our due heritage. He was nothing like the men in my family, for whom being a Southerner meant only raising the stars and bars with a liquid rendition of Dixie.

Perhaps we find ourselves in the men that history isolates. Once, dawdling by the serpentine wall which Mr. Jefferson, as we were taught to call our founder, had built with slave labor, I exchanged pleasantries with a man who had written books I read in my classes, a man named Faulkner. Almost daily I walked to class by the brick pavilion where Edgar Allan Poe had lived in 1826. Poe was as great a Southern presence to me as Faulkner, for I had read his stories and poems. My school teachers were assiduous in noting that Poe was a Virginian like all of us, not merely a name in a textbook. Poe and Faulkner suggested to me I was not wholly outside a history found in textbooks. I was of it and of them.

I don't think I much considered what I was until my first-year English class read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, a book which made me so aware of “Southernness” that I remember where I read almost every page. I felt I was reading about family. Mine was the sort of family made mobile and modestly prosperous after the Second World War. I spent summers with my grandparents, often taking Sunday rides in a green Hudson automobile, meandering through the woody burgs of Yorktown and Williamsburg. These were places people lived in, not the toy villages they are now. I played on Virginia's much bloodied battlefields, but I did not trouble myself to know exactly whose blood was spilled or why.

Even as I began to see myself connected to others in the Southern story, I grew aware I also stood outside the official Virginia history, for I belonged to no patrician family and no prep school, hardly knew what an Episcopalian was, let alone a Catholic, and could point to no cultural ancestry which I possessed or whose loss, with family ground, shadowed me. I grew up in a subdivision where backyards debouched onto farms that had always been there, farms tended some by tractors, some by black laborers with names like “Peanut.” They seemed to think my name was “Mistuh.” Those farms are gone. Those who called me “Mistuh” are gone. Not gone with the wind but with the developers who bulldozed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses and schools for shopping centers, who made our Baptist Church an anachronism like Philip Larkin's in “Church Going.” Change in the South is the relentless bastard of greed. Its peculiar violence, so characteristic of a place in metamorphosis, leaves the Southerner orphaned, intensely aware of being there and simultaneously not being there.

That awareness marks Poe's writing, as actively in his poetry as in his fiction. Poe's university room, in 1963, was identified by a plaque that made it officially historic, yet a student lived in the room. I don't believe I ever saw its interior and so I could think of Poe, despite my old teachers, as a disembodied creator of tales, not a man. But I could also think of him as alive behind that door, a student with a university life not radically unlike my own. In this way, too, I was both in and out of Southern history. It did not then occur to me that Poe may have felt the same.

Today, the memorializers at the University have erected a barrier to this awareness. An impervious Plexiglas door seals his room, into which the monied visitor, that coveted pigeon, may gaze as if into Poe's soul. What the visitor will see is historically correct: a wooden bed, small desk, a few chairs, a rug, living accoutrements. Oddly, a raven (can it be plastic?) is perched on a branch as naturally as if it were a poster of Def Leppard. No stereos, no rack of books and tapes, no knickknacks, no letters from home, no photographs of mom and pop and favorite girl. The black-and-white prospect is sterile and chilling. They have buried Poe in plain view to a greater extent than Poe himself managed. University administrators seem to believe history is a containable pollutant. Undefiled, tourists come and stand and look for Poe as if he were Elvis, Sinbad, or Madonna. Some have read Poe and others have seen the Vincent Price movies. They want to see Poe, the bard of our nightmare of dispossession.

To be banished from the garden is western civilization's most painful sanction. It is recorded in the Genesis case of Adam and Eve vs. God. It is recorded in a long literary tradition of gardens and exiles. The intellectual historian of the South, Lewis P. Simpson, explains the garden image in The Dispossessed Garden. He calls it a “pastoral plantation” and defines it as “a secure world redeemed from the ravages of history, a place of pastoral independence and pastoral permanence” (17) and “a homeland of the life of the mind” (23). Simpson believes there was little modernist alienation in the antebellum Southern mind which, as he says,

was cut off from what affected the general stream of literary culture because of the involvement of the Southern man of letters in the politics of slavery. He could not participate in the opposition to society which distinguishes the function of the man of letters in Europe, and in New England, where it marks in important ways the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.


The antebellum mind viewed the Jeffersonian garden as encompassing, perhaps engendering, a civilization whose classico-Christian values link individuals to supernatural continuity, a community of souls. Yet the garden was lost to the encroachments of the modern world, to commercialized values, a dispossession and outage dramatized by civil war and so intensely felt that it became the signature of Southernness. The Southern literary voice is that of an outcast, an orphan, an outsider cut off from communal support and, importantly, communal definition which he once had and which henceforth he carries like a threatening headache. Or a pastoral memory. Or myth. James Joyce causes Stephen Daedalus to declaim, on Irish soil, this modern, nationalist, pathology: “History is the nightmare from which I cannot awake.” If Southerners could have thought it, they might have said it: Alienation, c'est moi.

The nightmare of half-being, half-knowing is that of not being and not knowing: dispossession. Until the twentieth-century so-called Renascence, Southern literature occupies only the garden of half-being and half-knowing, a netherland of knightly gentlemen, asexual ladies, and a contract Heaven. The divorce from reality experienced by protagonists is a denial of history, an orphaning. When the denial's lie festers sufficiently to invade the body of society, sickness requires treatment; writers probe the actual, becoming aware that historical conditions of ignorance, poverty, defeat, pain, brutality, hopelessness, self-delusion, and isolation from community have configured the South as different from the American ideal of positive change and credible hope.

That ideal empowered Jefferson to raise a university in the garden, to foster an enlightenment whose headache was slavery. The black man was, according to Simpson, “the gardener in the garden,” as much founder as Jefferson himself. The absent hand that let his garden go to seed was, inevitably, the slave's. Who more than a slave was the orphan dispossessed of his garden? Who more than an orphan could chronicle the simultaneously personal and cultural nightmare of outage?

We might answer that the nineteenth-century voice would be, wouldn't it, Charles Dickens? Or his American peer born scarcely three years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, I think, was also a gardener, a transplanter of the English garden of verse into dark American soil. From the first poems he published at age eighteen to his last, and in his remarks on form, Poe coveted an invariable, mechanistic prosody which might with legal force yield a predictable life, stable and evident, perhaps compensation for what his life lacked. His essay “The Philosophy of Composition” argues a dogmatic methodology he believes will lead him to improvisation and to an impression of platonic beauty which “The Raven” seems to many to have achieved. Even T. S. Eliot, no admirer, conceded Poe sometimes made the true magic of poetry. But Poe's rational blueprint of process tells us only what he thought about the poem; it does not tell us much of what he used to think the poem, or why.

“The Raven,” unequivocally the most famous of Poe's small body of poetry, may be among our most famous bad poems. Americans are fond of saying we do not read and do not care for poetry. It may be so. Yet Americans commonly recognize Poe's bird as subject of a poem by a weird guy who drank himself to death. Written and published in 1845, in print steadily for 148 years, the stanzas of “The Raven” are sonic flashcards. We may not know Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, or Eliot. But we do know Poe. We know “The Raven.”

A poem that might have been designed by Benjamin Franklin, “The Raven” purports to be explained by Poe's “Philosophy of Composition.” Poe wrote his essay for crowds smitten by his bird. Interestingly, he does not justify poetry with morality, as Emerson and Whitman would. He pretends to expose the poet's trade. Some recent criticism has seen “The Raven” as a parody of Romantic poems of personal discovery. Perhaps. What Poe leaves unsaid peels, layer by layer, toward two questions answerable only by speculation. The first asks why “The Raven” has for fifteen generations commanded the imaginations of people who have often enough known it to be a bad poem. The second question asks if Poe is a Southern writer. They are related questions.

That “The Raven” is a bad poem is unacceptable to many readers, and Poe people are not swayed much by rational argument. Were they, the plot alone would convict Poe. A man sits late in a storm; he laments a lost lady love; a bird not ordinarily abroad at night, and especially not in severe weather, seeks entrance to the human dwelling; admitted, the bird betrays no fright, no panic, its attitude entirely focused on its host—an invited guest; the bird, then, enters into a ventriloquial dialectic with the host and is domesticated to become an inner voice; we might say it is the voice of the innerground as opposed to underground, which word means much to the American spirit with its reasons to run, to hide, to contain itself. Action then ceases.

Poe knew this one-man backlot production for the smoker it was. His embrace of gothic machinery includes a terrified, obsessed man, an inhospitable, allegorical midnight in December, a “gifted” animal, extreme emotional states, heavy breathing of both cadence and melodramatic signifiers (grim, gaunt), the supernatural presence of inexplicables (perfume, Pallas, bird), all to portray a psychic battle in the mind. Poe assembles a version of saloon theater for the mind's ear. But his poem's form emerges from the unbuckled ways of the ode, the loosened metrics of which Poe knew in the work of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Poe's editorial slush pile was full of their imitators. Odes attracted people because, as Gilbert Highet has said, they “soar and dive and veer as the wind catches their wing.” The capacity for passion, personal experience, ambitious public utterance, and a celebrative finish defines the ode. The boosterism, self-infatuation, and lyceum podiums of nineteenth-century America made Poe and the ode a natural match.

Poe was drawn to what was left of the Pindaric ode with its systemically recurrent parts. The classical ode, both Horatian and Pindaric, implies fixity and continuity. The form manifests noble purpose, dignity of subject and demeanor; it is ordinarily public address with an encoded civics lesson. The same explosions of social change which scattered people over the globe loosened the metrical grasp of this lyric form until it is, in American practice anyway, not readily different from an elegy. Indeed, as comedians know, ode is a word suspect to both poet and reader, a synonym for what Ezra Pound meant by “emotional slither.” Once, perhaps, the ode celebrated and the elegy lamented. Both are, in some measure due to Poe, less specialized in contemporary practice.

Poe was attracted to the ode because, as English Romantics had used it, a classical rigor was maintained while a daring shift had begun which would result in lyric, singular, interior expression. Paul H. Fry, in The Poet's Calling in the English Ode, points to Allen Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” where Tate stands at the cemetery but cannot enter and be among that historical order. The ode permits Tate, Fry says, to dramatize that moment of being there and not being there, an awareness of visionary discontinuity prerequisite to pastoral. With “abysmal frustration,” Fry says, the ode writer at that gate discovers there is “no threshold at all between the self and what is unknown, or other,” and the ode of all forms “most boldly and openly tests the possibility of calling in the Spirit” (2). The intent of the ode is to marry the poet's voice with the God-voice in order to manifest reality—life, death, or other. The ode-voice identifies with, i.e., celebrates, all that it summons because whatever its various registers of discourse may be, it means to praise a “belonging-to” quality.

That the language strategies Poe employs, largely yoked under the braided tropes of reiteration and interrogation, are distantly related to the Pindaric tradition of triadic movement which desires aesthetic completion as well as to the Horatian tradition of monody seems obvious enough. It is not my intent to follow Poe's descent from either. Nor do I mean to examine the micrometrical features of the poem, but a look at a single stanza is helpful to establish Poe's chains of repetitions:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“'Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
                                                                      Only this and nothing more.”

Poe termed the meter of this quintet-plus-a-hemistich stanza “octameter acatalectic,” with alternation of “heptameter catalectic” in line five and “tetrameter catalectic” in the bob, or sixth line. The norm is a duple foot, either trochaic (louder) or iambic (softer). Lines one, two, and three have sixteen syllables; lines four and five have fifteen, and line six has seven. Full lines are broken by a mid-caesura and halves of each line link internally by rhyme exact or slant. The half-line, a lyric staple, surges against the longer and outswelling rhythm of the full line. The full line is a prose rhythm by virtue of both its feet-patterns of ascent and descent and its unitary sprawl and self-containment. The sonic adventure of each stanza is like a contained body of water into which some weight is dropped, causing outward swelling of wave action. When these waves reach and rebound from the containing walls, they dash against each other. Narrative events create new waves. The result is a psychic chaos, a pace that stumbles, almost, upon itself, imitating panic, queasiness, and fear. Poe wanted a rhythmic trance he felt was conducive to an impression of beauty but wanted the trance to dispossess the reader from tranquil stability. He relies on the catalectic, or broken pattern, a missing syllable that “bumps” our progression. Poe exploits a ballad half-line, with its comfortable lyric expectations, its mnemonic power, and its narrative momentum to tell a virtually plotless story, a story entirely interior and psychological. He has telescoped the ballad line into the ode's stanzaic regularity, controlling tropes, public address, and mixed dictions to accomplish what appears a personal complaint, not the ode's meditational tone for imponderables such as art, beauty, life, and death. The tale served by his machinery is the dispossessing myth of lost love, which Poe routinely furnishes with classical allusions to establish eternal resonance.

Our affection for Poe's bird must be, in some measure, due to his adaptations, clunky and juryrigged as they appear. Poe thought his work daring, and it is, in the presentation of the nightmare of absent consolation, or belonging-to. “The Raven” reverberates not with the usual flight-to-vision, return-enlightened celebration, but with the psychic thrill of confronting despair, isolation, and the utter futility of lovely words. The nightmare vision made the poem an allegory of the darkest self in terror.

Robert Lowell, in “Skunk Hour,” echoes Milton when he says “I myself am hell; nobody's here.” Poe's parable of loneliness, like Lowell's, nudges the reader beyond the problem of man without woman. The condition of self's hell is an orphan sensibility. It does not require too great a leap to read Poe's poem as the figure of a dispossessed garden, an eroded Southern culture, in which Poe seeks to know what, in any real sense, we might belong to. If the poem centers the bereaved lover, it emphasizes his plight as outsider. Poe finds himself alone in the time and season of human intercourse at its lowest ebb; a time, indeed, when we remind ourselves that we had better change our ways, or else—as Dickens' Scrooge learns. A knock at his door should bring Poe a human visitor, if any, an emissary from the community; yet there is darkness, and then the Raven, the predator. And a predator who seems to know Poe is doomed to an absence of civil intercourse, a silence, and words which echo without effect. Poe understands and declares that even the bird will leave him, as all others have done, as hope has done. With this, Poe's poem has arrived at nightmare, the living isolation from fellowship that popular horror movies have turned into the ghoulish marches of the living dead. If Poe's bird seems deadly, the incantatory rhythms which evoked the birdspell are the forbidding stanzas which clank forth and enchant us as if the bird were enacting some chthonic ritual. The bird, in fact, makes no move after arrival. It does not threaten, seems entirely content, is a creature not unfamiliar to odes. Yet how different from, say, a nightingale so sweetly caged by a form which for Poe permits the witness to come close to his creature and yet keep safe, a glimpsed but not engaged threat. Still, having summoned the raven, Poe cannot so easily deny or repress it: he tells us the bird sits in the forever of that last stanza, a curse neither expiated nor escaped. The bird is, as Ted Hughes has seen and shown with Crow, a nightmare.

I had better, at this point, say a nightmare of alienation. Alienation from what? Lenore, the woman who is always there and constantly not there, of course. I remind myself, again, that the ode is a celebratory form, a public form, and I am not apt to think of the “raven” as either, so private is its agon from start to finish. Again what is dramatized is what doesn't happen, the human visit; a moment of social cohesion fails; but a visit occurs that shifts the abandoned speaker toward public experience. The erotic, aesthetic, and familial resonances Poe celebrates in the missing Lenore may be read as symbolic of community. It will be missing eternally, for Poe cannot lift his soul “from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor” and that in-escape is the nightmare of alienation.

Doubtless, for most readers, Lenore, whoever she might have been and may be in her is-ness, constitutes the drawing power of the poem. We have loved and lost, felt heartbreak, felt ourselves abandoned. This is a basic country-western song and it sells more than we may want to think about. Yet few country-western songs last in admiration or consciousness as “The Raven” does. Poe's addition of the nearly voiceless but intimidating bird employs Gothic machinery to touch unresolved fears of what's under the bed or behind the door. But Poe's bird has the power of knowledge—it knows us—and this makes the world a more slippery place than we had thought. It exposes our inside. That is a problem for Poe, and for all of us, because he knows that the inside without connection to an outside is an emptiness, a desert. No self can supply love's support, community sustenance, or the hope we once drew from an outside system. Poe's terrible fable sticks with us because no matter what our intellects conceive, our hearts believe we are alien, each of us, and there is a god-bird that knows it, too.

But alienation from Lenore seems, finally, not enough. Poe is paralyzed, room-captured, divorced from books, ideas, poetry itself, and in the last stanza from the goddess of wisdom, Pallas, who has until this minute sat Virgil-like over Poe's bower. Not Pallas now; now the Raven. Why? Can being dumped by hard luck account for this depth of despair? Poe, in some important ways, has a modern's existential attitude. He has understood the relentless industrial rapacity which Dickens so brutally knew. The connection between them is that both were dispossessed. Poe may have gotten his bird, as some argue, from Dickens. He got his alienation from hard times.

Poe loved women who died, often violently, diseased. His mother went first; he was two and an orphan. He was taken in and raised as ward of John Allan and his wife Frances, a sickly woman who would die on him, but first there would be Jane Stanard, on whom he had a fourteen-year-old's crush. She was thirty-one when she died insane. Poe suffered the death of three women before he finished being a moody teenaged boy. His foster father Allan wanted and had children by a second wife, who had little interest in Poe. Allan raised Poe as the squire-son of a rising businessman—to a point. But Poe was not Allan's blood son.

Poe felt he had second-class treatment from his foster family. He felt himself orphaned. At eighteen he went to the University of Virginia, where he was undercapitalized and made to feel his inferior circumstance. He was pushed outside that society, too. Returned to Richmond, he found himself an outsider, and he embarked on one of his secret journeys. Wandering, turning up, writing, editing, trying to establish a domestic community, then wandering off—this was the pattern of Poe's life. In every relationship and in every circumstance, he was the outsider, the orphan.

No one feels the powerful attraction of the being there and the not being there more than the orphan. Jay Gatsby shows it. Poe lived it. Americans are, by definition, orphans. We were all, at one point, come-heres, all by scheme equal in opportunity taken according to ability. The positive idea of national possibility underwrites the very imagining of the “new world.” Poe's foster father, John Allan, a Scot, embodies the chance to make it, and one cannot doubt he would trumpet the values of American opportunity were he with us, no less than that great Kiwanian Walt Whitman. But with Poe the brilliant shimmer of hope brought by morning sun was leaden early on. It grew heavier all his life. He did not belong. He could not declare a belonging-to, as Gatsby would learn. And he could not lie about the world as he saw it. He was an artist, a truth-teller—nothing is more obsessive in his tales than that need. His truth was a nightmare.

If we read “The Raven,” despite its absence of specific local details, as an “awareness” of the life of America in 1845, we see that Poe has conjectured the nightmare of the individual cut off from history, abandoned by family, place, and community love. He experiences personally what the South will experience regionally and the country will, down the long road, experience emotionally. Though he means to celebrate Lenore, what he most intensely celebrates is the union with community, the identity of place and people which Poe simultaneously has and has lost. In this, in 1845, he speaks for the Southern white and, paradoxically, for the slave paralyzed in his garden and also dispossessed. This story is still the nightmare. Having seen it, Poe celebrates the sensibility or imagination that suffers and knows simultaneously, ultimately the figure of the artist. This figure will sit in the lost garden, knowing its lostness, without explanation, but aware that the change is hopeless and continuous. This poem will, in its late variations, become our outlaw song of the renegade, the cowboy in black, the rebel without a cause. “The Raven” is the drama of nightmare awakening in the American poetic consciousness where there is no history which is not dispossession, little reality to the American promise, and nothing of consequence to place trust in except the song, the ode of celebration. Poe knew that he stood, like Tate, who called him cousin, at the gate to the answers. But he could not go beyond it. Like Tate, he sought to form a culture (because one did not exist) out of the English poetic baggage, but too often it failed. “The Raven” is the croaking and anguished nightmare ode of allegiance, and we have been finding ourselves in it ever since Poe began hearing “Nevermore.”

Eliza Richards (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11073

SOURCE: Richards, Eliza. ‘“The Poetess' and Poe's Performance of the Feminine.” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 2 (summer 1999): 1-29.

[In the following essay, Richards discusses Poe's strategies for coping with the encroachment by women poets in the nineteenth-century poetic arena formerly reserved for men.]

… forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over …

Poe, “Dream-Land”

Poe's aesthetic discourse registers a crisis of masculine literary sentiment sparked by the influx of women poets to the American marketplace in the 1830s and '40s. At this time, white, middle-class women, supposed embodiments of the emotions associated with privatized domestic life, gained greater sanction not only to write, but also to publish in the most “intimate” of forms, lyric poetry. “The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward,” Poe proclaims in 1846, and women poets were invited to cultivate this potentially wayward public medium with genteel literary sentiments (“Marginalia” 139). Concerned that this emerging group might be more constitutionally suited to write poetry than they, male writers sought to define a specifically masculine literary sensibility. Stabilizing the shifting ground of aesthetic authority required delicacy, however, in order not to alienate female readers; for just as women entered the market in unprecedented numbers as producers of literature, they were also gaining influence as a powerful class of literary consumers.1

Poe's solution to the dilemma of women's encroachment in the literary domain did not lie in a simple dismissal of female achievement, because women's attention, both personal and literary, was extremely important to his poetic practices. Instead, he imagined women poets in ways that seek to reconcile their multiple roles: muse, literary competitor, and audience for his own poetry. While designating women as the “natural” site of poetic utterance, Poe also argues that poetic “truth” lies in a theatrical performance of the feminine.2 Identifying women poets with his poetic images of women, Poe enacts a drama of evacuation within his poems in which he drains women of their poetic potency while claiming that the transfer of powers is in the spirit of feminine mimicry. For an audience of women poets, Poe himself performs a “feminine” poetry which simultaneously mirrors and upstages their own practices. He extends and consolidates these aesthetic claims in his criticism, an almost exclusively male genre in the 1840s. Reappraising the impact of these forgotten women poets upon a canonical figure presents new ways to understand the work of canonical writers, the canonization process, and the structure and habits of American literary criticism.3

Imagining women as the power generators of poetic discourse, Poe's critical interest in their work is extensive and sustained. Although his reviews of women poets outnumber those of male poets in his later criticism, they are rarely treated in studies of his poetics.4 When not ignored altogether, these frequently positive reviews are usually dismissed as either a display of vapid gallantry or an aberration in taste bearing little relation to his more serious considerations of male peers such as Hawthorne and Longfellow. In his own time, however, Poe was considered a leading—and by far the most rigorous—critic of female writers, discriminating at one point between “poetesses (an absurd but necessary word),” and female poets worthy of admiration and serious critique (“Marginalia” 58-59). To the second category belonged writers like Frances Sargent Osgood, Sarah Helen Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett, Amelia Welby, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith. In a review of Barrett's Drama of Exile, Poe laments that “the inherent chivalry of the critical man” results in the “unhappy lot of the authoress to be subjected, time after time, to the downright degradation of mere puffery” (Complete [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe] 12: 1). Poe promises, in contrast, to pay Barrett the respect of telling her “the truth” about her work (2). While proving Poe's critical pronouncements “sincere” at any juncture would be a hopeless task, his critical treatment of women poets is comparable to that of their male counterparts.

Poe's critical pronouncements on women's poetry are torn between delimiting a separate character for female genius and rewarding poetesses by welcoming them into the male world of the “poet.” Poe trounces anthologist Rufus Griswold, for example, for elevating “aristocrats” over “poets” in his Poets and Poetry of America, and for relegating certain worthy writers, men and women alike, to the desultory category of “various authors.” Poe laments the disservice done to poets such as Sarah Josepha Hale, Horace Greeley, John Quincy Adams, and Frances Osgood (“one of our sweetest of poetesses”) by “throwing openly the charge of their incompetency to sustain the name of Poets, and implying that they were only occasional scribblers[.] (This and of such men, is again from Rufus Wilmot Griswold!)” (Complete 11: 241). More than once, Poe includes women, and even “poetesses,” under the rubric of “such men” and “Poets.” He compares Elizabeth Barrett favorably to Tennyson; he also says that “The Sinless Child” demonstrates that its creator, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, had the potential, even if she lacked the discipline, to have written “one of the best, if not the very best of American poems” (Complete 12: 16; 13: 85).

While Poe often measures everyone against a single aesthetic standard, he also attributes superior artistic powers to the woman poet. He defends Maria Brooks against Charles Lamb's claim that her poem “Zóphiël” was so good that a woman could not have written it:

As for Lamb's pert query—“was there ever a woman capable of writing such a poem?”—it merely proves that Lamb had little understanding of the true Nature of Poets—which, appealing to our sense of Beauty, is, in its very essence, feminine. If the greatest poems have not been written by women, it is because the greatest poems have not been written at all.

(Collected Writings [The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe] 358)

For Poe, the “true” “essence” of poetry is its “feminine” appeal to the reader's aesthetic sense. Designated as the natural location of feminine Beauty, women possess an innate capacity for poetic expression. While both Lamb and Poe were certainly familiar with the romantic commonplace that poetic accomplishment in men arises from their feminine aspect, Poe perceives a new dilemma: if one accepts a female claim to poetic authorship, one must recognize that women ostensibly contain more of that feminine element from which poetry emerges than men.5

Rufus Griswold tries to work through this problem in the introduction to his popular anthology The Female Poets and Poetry of America (an 1848 sequel to Poets and Poetry of America that newly segregates women poets in a separate volume—an organizational scheme which itself indicates male anxiety over female poetic achievement): “It does not follow, because the most essential genius in men is marked by qualities which we may call feminine, that such qualities when found in female writers have any certain or just relation to mental superiority. The conditions of aesthetic ability in the two sexes are probably distinct, or even opposite” (16). While Griswold's formulation reserves the domain of the feminine for the male writer, elsewhere he insists that the woman writer should emanate a pure essence of femininity, an accomplishment belonging preeminently to Frances Sargent Osgood: “All that was in her life was womanly, ‘pure womanly,’ and so is all in the undying words she left us. This is her distinction” (qtd. in Hewitt 16). In Griswold's aesthetic hierarchy, this ultrafeminine poetry takes a diminutive second place to men's accomplishments. His writings thus register an irreconcilable contradiction: if the feminine is the indispensable ingredient in poetry, then why isn't women's poetry, which supposedly contains a purer essence of femininity, superior to that of men?

This potential threat to male poetic accomplishment was partially neutralized through a frequent identification of antebellum women with poetic “song”: light, spontaneous-seeming amateur verse that “elevates” the reader's taste in preparation for more serious forms of literature. While feminine sensibility infused men's intellects, it resided in women's hearts, from which poetry emanated as naturally as a heartbeat (DeJong, “Fair” 269). Critic George William Curtis says, for example, that Sarah Helen Whitman's poetry exudes “pure and holy and feminine feeling, as if the singer's heart were a harp so delicate that even chasing sun and shadow swept it into music” (qtd. in Whitman, Hours x).6 Women poets were frequently characterized as fonts of authentic, unmediated emotion. The lyric, therefore, was the privileged vehicle for female poetic expression; however, because women's song was a natural extension of womanhood, by definition it was not art.

For both Poe and his contemporaries, then, female verse inextricably linked the personal and the poetic, and the physical body and poetic form: Poe goes so far as to say at one point that “a woman and her book are identical” (Complete 12: 1). But for Poe, more than other purveyors of female verse such as Griswold, a woman's duplication of her book may be construed doubly: her book may record the expressions of the heart, or the heart may also lend itself to the expressions of the book. In a review of Frances Osgood's “Elfrida, a Dramatic Poem, in Five Acts,” Poe celebrates this transitive relation: “There is a fine feeling blending [sic] of the poetry of passion and the passion of poetry” (Complete 13: 110). Emphasizing the harp over the heart in the conventional formulation of female poetic ability, Poe highlights the natural capacity of women to produce art. If women and poems are equally sources of beauty, then the woman poet displays artful rather than artless emotions. Thus, while much literary commentary of the period stressed the naturalness of women's poetic utterance, Poe emphasized the female poet's natural capacity for the artistic. This difference helps explain Poe's broad appeal for the women poets of his generation, who, regardless of self-effacing proclamations, energetically sought fame and literary acclaim.

Poe's theory of female artistry emphasizes women's dramatic abilities: if the body is drama's primary instrument, and women's bodies are naturally artistic, then women must make exceptional actors. For Poe (whose mother was a successful actress and his father a failure upon the stage), women possessed an uncanny ability to imbue their poems with the aesthetic impression of an emotional presence which was often emphatically not their own. Poe's association of the dramatic with both the woman and the poet is clear in a review of a performance by actress Anna Cora Mowatt, whom he greatly admired: “her seemingly impulsive gestures spoke in loud terms of the woman of genius—of the poet deeply imbued with the truest sentiment of the beauty of motion” (Complete 12: 187-88). Mowatt is admirable not because she is naturally impulsive, but because she can feign spontaneity so convincingly. Poe's syntax equates acting with both the woman of genius and the poet, implying that male poets must transform themselves into theatrical women if they wish to be poetic geniuses.

This homogeneous relation between women and art inevitably produces the dramatic lyric, a sincere form of theater, and Poe praised women's dramatic lyric performances as well. He voiced particular enthusiasm for “Lady Geraldine's Courtship” by Elizabeth Barrett, spoken in the voice of a male poet who has fallen in love with an aristocratic woman; an elegy by Amelia Welby, written from the point of view of a young man who mourns the death of his wife, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith's “The Sinless Child,” a story of a modern, blameless “Eva” told in the third person. All the poems evoke an author figure obliquely, as the object of the narrative rather than the speaking subject. Any strictly autobiographical reading is impossible, even while autobiographical speculation is encouraged. For Poe, the woman was the ultimate poet, or poem. The seamless performance, the very difficulty in distinguishing the artist from the production, or the woman from her role as artist, is the sign of poetic genius.

Poe participated in public literary romances with two of the poets he esteemed, Sarah Helen Whitman and Frances Sargent Osgood, because he valued their status as embodiments of poetic sentiment. This formulation counters the more familiar view that he flattered their poetry because he was blinded by their personal charms. Exchanging love poems with Whitman and Osgood in the pages of the literary journals and newspapers of the late 1840s, Poe participated in full-scale dramatic productions of personal life. Of Anna Blackwell Poe inquires: “Do you know Mrs. Whitman? I feel deep interest in her poetry and character. … Her poetry is, beyond question, poetry—instinct with genius” (qtd. in Ticknor 49). Due to the inextricable link between female “character” and poetry, Poe's poetic romances generate romantic poetry: he engages Beauty in dialogue in hopes of absorbing some of its power.

Of all the women poets, Frances Osgood, with whom Poe carried on a literary flirtation in the pages of the Broadway Journal while he was editor, symbolized poetry incarnate: “Mrs. Osgood was born a poetess only—it is not in her nature to be anything else. Her personal, not less than her literary character and existence are one perpetual poem” (Complete 13: 105). For Poe, Osgood was so poetic that she was incapable of writing anything else, namely any species of prose:

She begins with a desperate effort at being sedate—that is to say, sufficiently prosaic and matter-of-fact for the purpose of a legend or an essay; but in a few sentences we behold uprising the leaven of the unrighteousness of the muse; then, after some flourishes and futile attempts at repression, a scrap of verse renders itself manifest; then another and another; then comes a poem outright, and then another and another and another, with little odd batches of prose in between, until at length the mask is thrown fairly off, and far away, and the whole article—sings.

(Complete 15: 104)

In an ironic reversal, the “mask” of prose, associated with the real (the “prosaic”), is thrown off to expose the more artful genre, which is Osgood's true form of expression. Combining aspects of both genius and muse, Poe posits Osgood as a passive creator, the fecund site where wild poetry breeds and escapes into the world, even against her will. However, “the warm abandonnement of her style,” which makes her the visible manifestation of poetic process, prevents her from becoming a premier poet. Her amateurism reconfirms a poetry of presence, never to be matched by poetic output. With “more industry, more method, more definite purpose, more ambition,” Mrs. Osgood “might have written better poems; but the chances are that she would have failed in conveying so vivid and so just an idea of her powers as a poet” (Complete 13: 175). While Osgood's amorphous relation to poetry relegates her to the realm of eternal amateur, her “astonishing facility” also renders her capable of emitting poetry in any vein, and of imitating the signature verse of another. Poe took Osgood's talent so much to heart that, when he felt incapable of producing a new poem to read before the Boston Lyceum, he asked her to write “a poem that shall be equal to my reputation” (qtd. in Silverman 286).

By emphasizing Osgood's incompleteness as a poet, Poe creates a space for himself to finish what she so energetically starts. Osgood's work only “affords us glimpses … of a capacity for accomplishing what she has not accomplished and in all probability never will” (Complete 13: 176). The ambiguous phrasing suggests that Osgood affords Poe glimpses of his own capacity for accomplishing what remains a mirage in her own work. Poe imagined women poets as sites of poetic ore that he might mine, a theme that is familiar from his poems and tales, which often take as their source and center the death of a beautiful young woman. J. Gerald Kennedy has said that “in calling poetry the ‘rhythmical creation of beauty,’ and then designating the death of a beautiful woman as the most poetical of topics, Poe established an implicit metaphorical relationship between the death of beauty and poetic texts” that “dramatize[s] the writer's problematic relationship” to his work (75). The “metaphorical relationship” is more properly between the death of a beautiful woman and Poe's generation of a poetic text. This