Themes and Meanings

Once the lines are deciphered, the poem’s meanings emerge without too much difficulty. The poem was written for an occasion and fulfills its function—to defend Poe against his attackers and against Philistines generally. After Poe’s death, a “friend” of his named Rufus Griswold produced a biography of the poet which emphasized his faults and his lifelong struggle with alcohol. Since the world often seems ready to believe the worst about poets, and about creators in general, Griswold’s account of the life of Poe did him considerable harm. It took several decades, and the devoted work of many of Poe’s admirers, before Poe’s true stature—the first American writer of originality, and a creator of world importance—became apparent.

The French, especially, came to Poe’s defense. Charles Baudelaire, who felt very close to Poe in personality and aesthetic principles, translated many of Poe’s stories and poems, and Mallarmé himself worked for many years to introduce Poe to the French literary scene. The life of Poe, filled with poverty and suffering, seemed to the French exactly what the life of a creator in a Philistine society would be. The French poet Paul Verlaine, who also admired Poe, invented the phrase les poètes maudits, the accursed poets, to describe the fate of poetic creators in the modern world. Of these, Poe was held to be one of the most maudit. Therefore, when Mallarmé flew to the defense of Poe, he was fighting for all poets against the petty and mean jealousy of the world.