[PDF Notes] Get complete information on Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

His Work:

A brilliant though erratic critic, with a naturally fine literary palate and a bundle of prejudices; an ingenious versifier with flashes of greatness and a master craftsman in the romance of horror.

Thus, briefly may we sum up the work of this unhappy man of genius. As a writer of fiction he belongs to the Gothic school; only he achieves with remarkable skill what Mrs. Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Maturin and Monk Lewis did in cruder and more stumbling fashion; revels as they did in the eerie side of things; but he is a professional artist in horrors, while they were well-meaning amateurs succeeding only by fits and starts and more or less accidentally, in the art of blood-curdling.

Maturin,; in his Eastern Romances, approaches the closest to Poe in grim power; but a wide gulf divides Vamp from masterly studies like The Pit and the Pendulum and the Fall of the House of Usher.

In certain respects Poe resembles his greater contemporary, Hawthorne. He brings to bear upon his work an analytical intellect, a prying imagination. Like Hawthorne he is attracted towards the night side of things and is fascinated by pathological problems. But here the likeness ends.

Poe externalized his horrors; Hawthorne spiritualized them. Hawthorne stimulates our imagination; Poe sears it. In constructive power, Poe is superior; he has a more meticulous mind a more masculine genius. Butte; beauty, the delicacy, the essential sanity of Hawthorne is without his range.

Even while he grips he disgusts you. There is the reek of the charnel-house in the majority of his tales and his intensely morbid pre-occupation with pain and death oppress one like a miasma. His most agreeable work lies in the direction of the puzzle story.

Here his ingenuity and power of ratiocination mark him out as the pioneer of the modern detective story. He is the protagonist of Gaboriau and Du Boisgobey, Anna K. Green and Conan Doyle.

Of their kind, nothing could well be better done than his Murder in the Rue Morgue, his Mystery of Marie Roget, or The Gold Bug. On a somewhat lower plane come his pseudo- scientific tales such as The Descent into the Maelstrom; but even here he open a new field in fiction which has since his time been more fully exploited by Jules Verne and Mr. H. G. Wells.

His studies in morbid psychology exhibit yet a third side of his genius; and if he is excelled here in range and delicacy by his successor, Hawthorne, yet he certainly prepared the way; and putting aside the “spiritual clamminess” which R.H. Hutton found in his tales, the hunting intensity with which he can depict a guilty conscience, or trace the growth of some terrible obsession, as in the Tell-Tale Heart, is horribly effective and arresting.

Poe’s work, therefore, when viewed in relation to certain developments in the later fiction of the age, is of undeniable interest, even apart from its intrinsic merit. It is a pity that he wasted his genius so much in the merely gruesome; for his imagination was strong enough to disperse with those adventitious horrors. I do not find fault with him, as some do, because he elected to deal with problems of mental pathology; I blame him because he treats them too little as an artist, too much as a scientist.

As a poet, there is no American man of letters who is his peer in sheer artistry. There is greater artistry in his verse than in his prose and if the imagination shown is less flexible, less adventurous, it is also less rank, less variable. Its range is narrow; but in that range its effectiveness is remarkable.

In Israel and To Helen, he has achieved a fantastic beauty and melodic cadence, that of its kind has never been equaled in American Literature. Elsewhere in his tenuous body of verse he has shown himself a cunning master of verbal harmonics and three at least of his poems-The Raven, The Bells , and Annabel Lee -have taken captive the popular imagination to an extraordinary extent. Nevertheless, we cannot but feel the presence, more or less, of a certain strain of affectation and pretentiousness in his verse, which, although not impairing the universal sweetness of his music, debar one from classing it with the romantic lyrics of poets like Shelley, Keats and Tennyson.

The debatable border line between Art and Artifice finds Poe nearly always on the wrong side. Sometimes as in Annabel Lee and The Bells, faintly so; at others, as in The Haunted Palace and the over-praised Raven, markedly so. Of course, many readers do not feel this.

To them there is something peculiarly haunting and compelling in Poe’s imaginative power; nor do they feel any jarring note. But excepting Israel, which seems to me quite the most magically perfect thing that Poe ever wrote, there is no poem that is not spoiled, however, slightly, by some touch of tinsel.

There is the touch of tinsel even in Helen, with its elusive charm and fine phrasing. It occurs in the third line (the italics are mine):

“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”.

Why “perfumed”? This boudoir word strikes an artificial note and will not compensate eventful such felicities as:

“The glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome”.

Sometimes the touch of tinsel shows itself, not in a word or a phrase, but in the palpable effort on the part of the writer to intensify his effects. This is the weakness of The Raven: the effects are not subtle enough; the shadows are accentuated with too obvious a care to achieve the impressive. To a less extent The City in the Sea, with its admirable opening, suffers from over-elaboration. To compare with a fantasy that is perfect in its romantic art, let the reader turn to Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot after reading Poe’s verse and he will realize the difference.

Apart from its fitful, though genuine romantic beauty and admirable though not perfect artistic cunning Poe’s verse is singularly limited in its scope. He never touches the broad, general interests of life and thought and has nothing of the benign sanity of Longfellow, the tender humanity of Whittier or the naked force of Whitman.

Yet he is an attractive and influential poet in his own way and as a prizeman one of the few original forces in American letters. Had his breadth and sanity of outlook been at all commensurate with his shaping and imaginative faculty, he would have had no peer in the literature of his country.

The Haunted Palace :

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!

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,

On its roof did float and flow

(This-all this-was in the olden Time long ago),

And every gentle air that dallied,

In that sweet day,

Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,

A winged odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley,

Through two luminous windows, saw

Spirits moving musically,

To a lute’s well-tuned law,

Round about a throne where, sitting


In state his glory well befitting,

The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing

Was the fair palace door,

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.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,

Assailed the monarch’s high estate.

(Ah, let us mourn! for never morrow

Shall dawn upon him desolate!)

And round about his home, the glory

That blushed and bloomed

Is but a dim remembered story

Of the old time entombed.

And travelers now, within that valley,

Through the red-latten windows see

Vast forms, that moves fantastically

To a discordant melody,

While, like a ghastly rapid river,

Through the pale door

A hideous throng rushes out for ever

And laugh -but smile no more.

The City in the Sea :

Lo! Death hath 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 lanes- up Babylon-like walls-

Up shadowy long -forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers-

Up many and many a marvelous 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 that wilderness of glass-

No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea-

No heaving’s hint that winds have been

No seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!

The wave-there is a movement there

As if the towers and 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.

Israfel :

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

“Whose heart-strings are a lute”;

None sing so wildly well

As the angel Israel,

And the giddy stars (so legends tell),

Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell

Of his voice all mute.

Tottering above

In her highest noon,

The enamored moon

Blushes with love,

While, to listen, the red Levin

(With the rapid Pleiades, even

Which were seven),

Pauses in Heaven.

And they say (the starry choir

And the other listening things)

That Israfel’s fire is owing to that lyre

By which he sits and sings-

The trembling living wire

Of those unusual strings.

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.

Therefore, thou art not wrong,

Israfel, who despises

An unimpassioned song;

To thee the laurels belong,

Best bard, because the wisest!

Merrily live and long.

The ecstasies above

With thy burning measures suit-

Thy grief, thy joy, they hate, they love,

With the fervor of thy lute-

Well may the stars be mute I

Yes, Heaven is thane; 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 Israel

Hath dwelt and he where I,

He might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody,

While a bolder note that this might swell

From my lyre within the sky.

The Note of Realism in American Fiction:

The later years of the nineteenth century witness change in the character of American fiction. Hitherto the romantic note had predominated; but just as in England realistic stories of town and country life gradually grew more and more numerous and relegated romantic adventure to the background, so in America the note of realism becomes gradually insistent.

The change was ushered in by no great names as in England and few would prefer the milk- and-water sentimentalities of The Wide, Wide World of ELIZABETH WETHERELL and The Lamplighter of MARIAS. CUMMINS to the flamboyant excitement of Cooper and Melville.

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