It is nearly fifty years since the death of Edgar Allan Poe, and his writings are now for the first time gathered together with an attempt at accuracy and completeness. The alleged reason for this indifference to the claims of a writer who has received almost universal recognition is that the literary executors of Dr. Rufus B. Griswold, Poe’s first editor, held until recently the copyright to his works. But in reading the various memoirs of which, at one time or another, Poe has been the subject, it appears that other causes have been at work. One and all, even the most flattering estimates of Poe’s genius, are pervaded by a curious antipathy to him as a man, and this prejudice, no doubt, has been largely responsible for the absence of any serious demand on the part of the public for a fair representation of the author in his works. A part of the disfavor with which Poe is regarded is due to Dr. Griswold’s biography; for of all men Poe had best reason to pray that he might be delivered from the hands of his friends. But still more is chargeable to the extraordinary confusion of the man with his work—of the ethical with the purely literary aspect—which is so characteristic of literary judgments in this country.
This puritanical tang is to be detected even in a study so conscientious as the Memoir by Professor Woodberry, which occupies the opening pages of the first volume of the new edition. However, unlike his predecessor, Professor Woodberry has not allowed his lack of sympathy with his subject to interfere with the precision of his editing. Every care has been given to the preparation of the text and the notes. Whenever obtainable, the exact date of publication of the various papers has been ascertained, as well as other facts of interest regarding them, although no new light is thrown upon the source of Poe’s inspiration.
Besides the Memoir by Professor Woodberry, the Tales, Criticisms, and Poems are severally preceded by a critical introduction by Mr. E.C. Stedman. These essays are distinguished by a very just appreciation of the merits and demerits of Poe as a writer. In effect, Mr. Stedman pronounces him a critic of exceptional ability, and agrees with the opinion of Mr. James Russell Lowell that Poe’s more dispassionate judgments have all been justified by time. As a story-writer, Mr. Stedman considers that Poe’s achievement fell short of his possibilities; he lacked the faculty of observation of real life, a defect for which his unique imaginative power in part compensated, but which will prevent his being classed among the greatest writers of fiction of his century. These qualities, however, appear in their proper aspect when he is regarded as a poet; they then fall into their right relation to his work, and are seen to have made him what he was, a master in his chosen field.
The imaginative illustrations have scarcely the quality of Poe’s own creative genius, but the edition is well supplied with portraits of Poe, his wife, and his mother, as well as interesting views of places with which Poe’s name is associated.
This edition is supposed to include all of Poe’s writings which are of value. The Elk is here reprinted for the first time, while The Landscape Garden and The Pinakidia, a collection of quotations which struck Poe as important or suggestive, are omitted. Whatever may be thought of the omission of the first paper, that of the second is surely an error. It is conceded that not more than a half dozen of the tales, less than that number of the critical essays, and not all of the poems are of interest to the public at large. The sole reason, therefore, for publishing a complete edition of the works of Poe, as of any other writer, must be to increase the facilities for the student of the particular period in which he lived. To exclude writings in which an author has recorded the influences, however slight, which have moulded his thought is plainly to eliminate the chief reason for the compilation of such an edition. In this case, it amounts to an assumption on the part of editors and publishers alike that the last word in regard to Poe has been said. But as yet we have had no critical history of the intellectual development in this country during the past century. There remains, therefore, for the student of Poe’s life and times, a field of research practically unexplored; and as long as this is the case it is impossible to form any conclusions in regard to him which can be considered final.
For Poe was essentially the product of his time. The intellectual activity which characterized the educated class in this country before 1860 was no sporadic instance, but the logical result of influences which belong to universal history. For example, when Goethe made his discovery of the unity of structure in organic life, it gave to the philosophers a physiological argument for the suppression of tyrants, and put the whole of creation on an equal footing. The French Revolution pointed the moral most effectually, and to the dullest mind brought a host of new deductions. These deductions necessarily involved a realization of the dignity and value of the individual, whether man or beast, and presented life in an entirely new aspect.
To us Americans these ideas came filtered through the mind of Coleridge, vivified by his enthusiasm. They found a fertile soil, and resulted in a growth of new ideas so vigorous and rapid that a kind of explosion of righteousness took place, which effectually and permanently upset some ancient and picturesque notions of might and right.
The so-called Transcendentalists of New England were the most conspicuous result of this new enthusiasm for the individual. In spite of his scorn for their pretensions, Edgar Allan Poe, in his way, was as deeply affected by the enthusiasm as the most radical among them. He was not, indeed, a reformer in the ordinary sense; he remained always, so to speak, just within the outer fringe of this new humanist movement. Its effect upon him was purely psychologic and the human mind became, in his estimation, a treasure-house of undreamed-of possibilities, which was but the poet’s version of the value of the individual. Yet he was no more conscious of this than he was that Goethe’s researches in natural history actuated him when, in imitation of Coleridge, he humanized his redoubtable raven. His mind was like a mirror in the precision with which it reflected the prevailing tendencies of his time, and with no more intention. The effect of Coleridge’s influence on Poe has never been properly estimated. Professor Woodberry, it is true, accuses him of “parroting Coleridge,” while Mr. James Russell Lowell also pointed out Poe’s great indebtedness to him. Both critics, however, failed to appreciate the extent of this indebtedness. Not only did Coleridge exert a general influence, which Poe shared with every other man of letters in this country, but he transmitted a special and unique influence to him alone. This had already made of Coleridge a great poet, while to it Poe owes the tardy measure of fame which has been accorded him.
One aspect of the general influence which Coleridge exerted upon Poe is curiously exemplified in his poems from the time that he began to write. Coleridge was among the first to humanize nature. It was a fashion of the day, and a part of those tendencies of thought already briefly indicated. It arose, probably, from a haziness as to the limitations of self-consciousness. But whatever its cause, the idea strongly affected the poets, and animals, birds, plants, and insects were given human attributes, or were made to symbolize all kinds of abstractions. Christabel, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and many of the political poems, such as The Destiny of Nations and The Raven, are evidence of the attraction this notion possessed for Coleridge.
It apparently suited as well Poe’s mystical turn of mind. The Raven is, of course, the most conspicuous instance, and in the Philosophy of Composition Poe assumes that a talking bird is the most natural thing in the world. In his so-called Juvenile Poems, printed about 1831, thirteen years before The Raven was published, he already makes use of birds as symbols of Nemesis or Destiny, and many of the passages are nearly identical in thought with some of Coleridge’s lines. That Poe was familiar with the writings of Coleridge at that time is shown by his eulogistic reference to him in the preface to this early edition of his poems. The special influence which Coleridge had upon Poe relates to the development of his own poetical genius, and, to be understood, requires a short digression from the main subject.
About 1773, Gottfried August Bürger, a poor student at Göttingen, wrote a ballad under the title of Lenore. The composition of this ballad was due to Herder’s famous appeal to the poets of Germany for the development of a national spirit in poetry. Lenore was modeled upon the ancient ballad forms as Bürger found them in the collections of Bishop Percy, Motherwell, and Ossian. From these and other relics of folk-songs, as well as from the study of Shakespeare, he evolved a theory as to the requirements of a poem which should endure, — a poem, in short, which should possess a universal, and therefore a national interest. The ballad was written in strict accord with the theory, and its success justified its author’s conclusions. It was sung and recited by all classes throughout Germany, and its author, according to Madame de Staël, was more famous than Goethe. The poem was translated into nearly every language. In England it had seven different translators, among them Sir Walter Scott and Pye the poet laureate. It was set to music in many forms, and is said to have inspired The Erl King of Schubert. To the artists it was equally suggestive. Ary Scheffer and Horace Vernet both painted pictures which had for their subjects some episode in the poem, while two of the greatest illustrators of the day, Maclise and Bartolozzi, found it worthy of their best efforts.
Nor did the poets escape its influence. In England, Keats, Shelley, Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth either imitated or were inspired by it. Coleridge and Wordsworth were of all most deeply affected by its influence. From the evidence at hand it is apparent that the two poets based their famous new departure in poetry upon Bürger’s poetic theory, which had been formulated in the preface to the second edition of his volume containing Lenore; also, that Coleridge’s greatest poems, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, were its direct result. It is this theory which is the foundation of Poe’s Philosophy of Composition, and Poe was the third poet to be made famous by the careful application of it to his work. It is a striking confirmation of these facts that the productions in which Poe most faithfully conformed to the rules laid down by Burger are of all his writings those which have been considered by the critics as best worth preserving.
The famous theory whose effects have been so far-reaching is extremely simple. It is based upon a fundamental principle of aesthetics, that art, to endure, must deal with experiences common to all men. Simplicity of phrase, the narrative form, the refrain, and particularly the use of the supernatural are the ancient and essential means for the accomplishment of this end.
Bürger’s poems were well known in this country before 1840, but Poe undoubtedly received his knowledge of the theory from Madame de Staël and from The Lyrical Ballads. This, it will be remembered, is the volume of poems whose publication in 1798 marked the apostasy of Wordsworth and Coleridge from the classic models. In the appendix to the second edition their reasons are set forth at length, and Bürger’s ideas are referred to with enthusiasm. It is this explanation which Poe quotes in the introduction to his Juvenile Poems. The succession therefore, is uninterrupted: Bürger formulated his theory in the essay prefixed to the edition of his poems published in 1778; Coleridge and Wordsworth applied it and quoted it in The Lyrical Ballads in 1800; while Poe, in his turn quoted it, as adopted by Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the preface to the edition of his poems in 1831, and finally by its complete application made the chief success of his life.
It is clear from this that Poe was far from being the literary mountebank he is generally pictured. From his earliest youth he seems to have been actuated by a unity of purpose, an unswerving application of proven means to a desired end, which indicates in him the possession of qualities that are even Philistine, so respectable are they. As for Poe’s weaknesses, some day, perhaps, they may find a critic such as François Villon found in Stevenson, and Coleridge in Walter Pater, who will judge them together with his genius as alike the expression of a nature too keenly responsive to the exigencies of life.
In the mean time, satisfactory as the new edition of Poe’s works undoubtedly is to the general reader, we shall hope it may some day be supplemented by the republication of the papers now omitted, with the suggestion of new light to be thrown upon the tendencies of the period in which Poe lived.