ONE fact about our literature has not received adequate attention, — the fact that it had no childhood. In its beginnings it was the record of a people who had long passed the age of play and dreams, and were given over to pressing and exacting work. We are a young nation, but an old people ; and our books, as distinguished from English books, are the products of a mature people in a new world. The world in which books are written has much to do with their quality, their themes, and their form ; but the substance of the books of power is the deposit of experience in the hearts and minds of a race. In American literature we have a fresh field and an old race ; we have new conditions, and an experience which antedates them. We were educated in the Old World, and a man carries his education with him. He cannot escape it, and would lose incalculably if he could.
The kind of originality which inheres in a new race and runs into novel forms we do not and shall not possess ; the kind of originality which issues out of direct and hand-to-hand dealing with nature and life we may hope to develop on the scale of the Greeks or the English. A great literature must be waited for, and while we are waiting it is wise to be hopeful of the future; for expectation is often a kind of prophecy, and to believe in the possibility of doing the best things in the best way is in itself a kind of preparation. To say that literature in this country, to the close of this century, is the product of an old race is not to charge it with lack of first-hand insight and force, but to explain some of its characteristics.
Goethe speaks of his mother’s joyousness and love of stories. Her temperament was the gift which irradiated the pedantic father’s bequest of order, industry, and method to the author of Faust. Art is the constant assertion that man has a right to live as well as to work ; that the value of work depends largely upon spontaneity; and that the springs which gush from the soil have the greatest power of assuaging the thirst of the soul. This element of the uncalculated, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, or at least undirected play of human energy finds full and free expression in the literature of the youth of races, and is the special and prime quality of literature at that stage of development. As the man is born first in the boy’s temper and spirit and ideals, and born again in the struggles of experience, so the creative imagination of a race is shaped, colored, and formed largely in the earliest contacts of that race with nature and with life ; with the order about it, and the inward and outward happenings of its life. Work and play, the conscious putting forth of energy and the unconscious responsiveness to all manner of impressions, must be kept in equilibrium, if there is to be continuous and rich productiveness. But the pressure of suffering and toil is so great upon the mature race, as upon the mature man, that it can be met only by a great accumulation in youth of idealism and joy. In the popular epics and in the early ballads there is a freshness, a vitality, an uncalculated and captivating charm, which make the reader of a more sophisticated age feel that in reading or hearing them he is near the springs of literature.
That there are close and vital ties between all the arts of expression and the life behind them ; that the poem and the story reflect in interior and elusive but very real ways the quality of the race which fashioned them ; that genius itself, although in a sense independent of character, is conditioned, for its full, free, and highest expression, upon character, the large majority of students of literature are agreed. But these structural laws are never obvious in the great works of art; they are obeyed, not because they have been arbitrarily imposed by an authority from without, but because they are at one with the deepest artistic impulses and necessities. Shakespeare does not need to remind himself that he is an Englishman in order to write like one; he has but to follow the line of least resistance in expression, and his work will be English to the core.
Literature may be said to approach perfection in the degree in which it reveals the life behind it, and at the same time conceals all trace of intention, contrivance, or method in making its revelation. In the highest work of all kinds obedience is spontaneous and apparently unconscious ; for it is of the very essence of art that all traces of the workman should be effaced. A great poem has the volume, the flow, the deep and silent fullness, of a river; one cannot calculate the force of the springs which feed it; one gets from it only a continuous impression of exhaustless and effortless power. One has but to glance at the Rhone to feel that the Alps are feeding it. In the literature of races in their youth there may be no greater power than in the literature of the same races at maturity, but there is likely to be more buoyancy, confident ease, overflowing vitality, than at a later period ; and these earlier works enrich all later work by the qualities they bring into the race consciousness. There was something in Homer which the dramatists could not reproduce, but which profited them much ; there was a joy, a delight in life, a fragrance of the morning, in Chaucer which, reappearing in Shakespeare, make the weight of tragedy bearable. It is well for a race, as for a man, that it has childhood behind it, and that in those first outpourings of energy in play the beauty of the new day and the young world sinks into its heart and becomes part of its deepest consciousness ; for it is out of these memories and dreams that the visions of art issue. The artist is always a child in freshness of feeling ; in unworldly delight in the things which do not add to one’s estate, but which make for inward joy and peace ; in that easy possession of the world which brings with it the sense of freedom, the right to be happy, and the faith that life is greater than its works, and a man more important than his toil. A race, like an individual, must get this consciousness of possession before the work of the day becomes imperative and absorbing. The man who has not learned to play in childhood is not likely to learn to play in maturity; and without the spirit of play — the putting forth of energy as an end in itself, and for the sake of the joy which lies in pure activity — there can be no art. For work becomes art only when it is transformed into play.
Our race has had its youth, its dreams and visions ; but that youth was lived on another continent; so far as the record of experience in our literature is concerned, we have always been mature people at hard work. The beginnings of our art are to be found, therefore, not in epics, ballads, songs, and stories, but in records of exploration, reports of pioneers, chronicles and histories ; in Captain John Smith’s True Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Happened in Virginia ; in William Bradford’s History of Plymouth ; in John Winthrop’s History of New England, a narrative not without touches of youth, — " We had now fair sunshine weather, and so pleasant a sweet air as did much refresh us, and there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden ; ” in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia ; in Poor Richard’s Almanac; in Mrs. Bradstreet’s rhymed history of The Four Monarchies ; in Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom, of which Lowell said that it became “ the solace of every fireside, the flicker of the pine knots by which it was conned perhaps adding a livelier relish to its premonitions of eternal combustion.” There are touches of beauty in Jonathan Edwards at his best; there is a spiritual charm in John Woolman’s Journal; the directness and simplicity of genuine literature are in Franklin’s Autobiography ; in Freneau and Hopkinson there are strains which, in a more fortunate time, might easily have turned to melody ; there were great notes struck by the writers and orators of the Revolutionary period, — by Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Henry. But in all this early expression of the English race in the New World there is a clear, definite purpose, an ulterior aim, a subordination of the art to the religious or political intention, which stamp the writing of the time as essentially secondary. Art involves forgetfulness of immediate ends; complete surrender to the inward impulse to give form to the beautiful idea or image or truth because it is beautiful. Of the naïveté of the old ballad, the careless rapture of Chaucer when the lark sings and the meadows grow sweet with the breath of May, the free and joyous play of imagination in Shakespeare, there is no trace in early writing on this continent. That writing was serious and weighty, often touching the heights of eloquence in noble argument for the inviolability of those rights which are the heritage of the English race ; but the spontaneity, the freedom, the joyousness, of creative art were not in it. They could not be in it; the men who wrote our early chronicles and histories, who took part in the great debates which preceded the Revolution, and made the speeches which were heard from Williamsburg to Boston, had other work to do.
In Charles Brockden Brown a new note is heard, — a note of mystery and tragedy ; as if into the working world of the new continent the old elements of fate had come, to give experience a deeper tinge, and to make men aware that in the fresh as in the long-tilled soil the seeds of conflict and sorrow are sown. There is none of the joyousness of youth in Brown’s romances ; but there is the sense of power, the play of the imagination, the passion for expression for its own sake, which are the certain signs of literature. There is, above all, the dæmonic element, that elusive, incalculable, mysterious element in the soul of the artist, which is present in all art; and which, when it dominates the artist, forms those fascinating, mysterious personalities, from Aristophanes to Poe, who make us feel the futility of all easy endeavors to formulate the laws of art, or to explain with assurance the relations of genius to inheritance, environment, education, and temperament. In art, as in all products of the creative force, there is a mystery which we cannot dispel. If we could analyze genius, we should destroy it. To the time of the publication of Wieland, or the Transformation, it is easy to explain the written expression of American life, to show how it was directed and shaped by conditions in the New World ; but with the publication of Wieland the inexplicable appears, the creative spirit begins to reveal itself. Charles Brockden Brown did not master his material and organize it, and his work falls short of that harmony of spirit and form which is the evidence of a true birth of beauty ; but there are flashes of insight in it, touches of careless felicity, which witness the possession of a real gift.
The prophecy which the discerning reader finds in Brown’s sombre romances was fulfilled in the work of Poe and Hawthorne. It is conceivable that a student of the Puritan mind might have foreseen the coming of Hawthorne ; for the great romancer, who was to search the Puritan conscience as with a lighted candle, was rooted and grounded historically in the world behind him. There was that in Hawthorne, however, which could not have been predicted : there was the mysterious co-working of temperament, insight, individual consciousness, and personality which constitutes what we call genius. On one side of Hawthorne’s work there are lines of historical descent which may be clearly traced ; on the other there is the inexplicable miracle, the miracle of art, the creation of the new and beautiful form.
It is the first and perhaps the most obvious distinction of Edgar Allan Poe that his creative work baffles all attempts to relate it historically to antecedent conditions ; that it detached itself almost completely from the time and place in which it made its appearance, and sprang suddenly and mysteriously from a soil which had never borne its like before.
There was nothing in the America of the third decade of the century which seemed to predict The City in the Sea, Israfel, and the lines To Helen. It is true, work of genuine literary quality had been produced, and a notable group of writers of gift and quality had appeared. Irving had brought back the old joyousness and delight in life for its own sake in Knickerbocker’s History of New York and in the Sketch Book; Cooper had uncovered the romantic element in our history in The Spy ; Thanatopsis had betrayed an unexpected touch of maturity ; Emerson was meditating at Concord that thin volume on Nature, so full of his penetrating insight into the spiritual symbolism of natural phenomena and processes ; Longfellow had returned from that first year of foreign residence which had enriched his fancy, and through the sympathetic quality of his mind was to make him the interpreter of the Old World to the New. Hawthorne, born five years earlier than Poe, — so like him in certain aspects of his genius, so unlike him in temperament and character, — destined to divide with him the highest honors of American authorship, was hidden in that fortunate obscurity in which his delicate and sensitive genius found perhaps the best conditions for its ripening. The Twice-Told Tales did not appear until 1837. Lowell was a schoolboy, a college student, and a reluctant follower of the law ; the Biglow Papers, his most original and distinctive contribution to our literature, being still a full decade in the future. Oliver Wendell Holmes, born in the same year with Poe, — that annus mirabilis which gave the world Foe, Holmes, Tennyson, Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, — had touched the imagination of the country by the ringing protest against the destruction of the Constitution in Old Ironsides, and in the same decade revealed his true lyric gift in The Last Leaf. Whittier was a young Quaker, of gentle nature but intense convictions, who was speaking to hostile audiences and braving the perils of mob violence in his advocacy of the antislavery cause.
These names suggest the purity and aspiration, the high idealism and the tender domestic piety, which were soon to give early American literature its distinctive notes. To these earlier poets, romancers, and essayists were, later, to be added the name of Sidney Lanier, whose affluent nature needed another decade for its complete unfolding and coordination ; and of Walt Whitman, who was so rich in the elemental qualities of imagination, and so rarely master of them. There was something distinctive in each of these writers, — something which had no place in literature before they came, and is not likely to be repeated ; and yet, from Bryant to Whitman, there were certain obvious relationships, both spiritual and historical, between each writer and his environment. Each was representative of some deep impulse finding its way to action ; of some rising passion which leaped into speech before it turned to the irrevocable deed.
To the men who were young between 1830 and 1840, there was something in the air which broke up the deeps of feeling and set free the torpid imagination. For the first time in the New World it became easy and natural for men to sing. Hitherto the imagination had been invoked to give wings and fire to high argument for the rights of men ; now the imagination began to speak, by virtue of its own inward impulse, of the things of its own life. In religion, in the social consciousness, in public life, there were stirrings of conscience which revealed a deepening life of the spirit among the new people. The age of provincialism, of submission to the judgment and acceptance of the taste of older and more cultivated communities, was coming to an end. Dr. Holmes called the address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in August, 1837, “ our declaration of intellectual independence.” That independence was already partially achieved when Emerson spoke those memorable words: —
“ Perhaps the time is already come . . . when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fulfill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions, arise that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the polestar for a thousand years ? ”
This striving of the spirit, breaking away from the old forms and feeling after new ways of speech, was shared by all the New England writers. Beneath his apparent detachment from the agitations of his time, Dr. Holmes was as much a breaker of old images as Lowell or Whittier ; and Hawthorne, artist that he was to the last touch of his pen, is still the product of Puritanism. The breath of the new time was soft and fecundating on the old soil, and the flowers that were soon afield had the hue of the sky and the shy and delicate fragrance of the New England climate in them.
Poe stood alone among his contemporaries by reason of the fact that, while his imagination was fertilized by the movement of the time, his work was not, in theme or sympathy, representative of the forces behind it. The group of gifted men, with whom he had for the most part only casual connections, reflected the age behind them or the time in which they lived ; Poe shared with them the creative impulse without sharing the specific interests and devotions of the period. He was primarily and distinctively the artist of his time; the man who cared for his art, not for what he could say through it, but for what it had to say through him. Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Bryant, Irving, and, in certain aspects of his genius, Hawthorne might have been predicted ; reading our early history in the light of our later development, their coming seems to have been foreordained by the conditions of life on the new continent; and, later, Whitman and Lanier stand for and are bound up in the fortunes of the New World, and its new order of political and social life. Poe alone, among men of his eminence, could not have been foreseen.
This fact, suggests his limitations, but it also brings into clear view the unique individuality of his genius and the originality of his work. His contemporaries are explicable ; Poe is inexplicable. He remains the most sharply defined personality in our literary history. His verse and his imaginative prose stand out in bold relief against a background which neither suggests nor interprets them. One may go further, and affirm that both verse and prose have a place by themselves in the literature of the world.
There are, it is true, evidences of Poe’s sensitiveness to the English landscape, and to certain English philosophical and literary influences. The five years spent in the Manor House school in the suburbs of the London of the early part of the century gave the future writer of William Wilson and The Fall of the House of Usher a store of reminiscences and impressions of landscape and architecture which touched some of his later work with atmospheric effects of the most striking kind, and gave that work a sombre and significant background of immense artistic value. It is not difficult to find in his earlier verse, as Mr. Stedman has suggested, the influence of Byron and Moore, whose songs were in the heart of that romantic generation. It is easy also to lay bare Poe’s indebtedness to Coleridge. This is only saying, however, that no man of imagination ever grows up in isolation ; every sensitive spirit shares in the impulses of its time, and receives its education for its own work at the hands of older teachers. When all is said, however, Poe remains a man of singularly individual genius, owing little to his immediate or even to his remoter environment; an artist who felt keenly the spirit of his art as it has found refuge in beautiful forms, but who detached himself with consistent insistence from the influence of other artists.
Until Poe began his brief and pathetic career, the genius of Virginia and of the South had found expression chiefly in the moulding of national institutions and the shaping of national affairs; and it may be said without exaggeration that rarely in the history of the world has public life been enriched by so many men of commanding intellect and natural aptitude for great affairs. The high intelligence, the wide grasp of principles, and the keen practical sense of the earlier Southern statesmen gave the stirring and formative periods of our early history epic dignity. In such a society Bacon might have found food for those organ-toned essays on the greatness of states and the splendor of national fortunes and responsibilities. It was due largely to the Virginians that the earlier public discussions and the later public papers so often partook of the quality of literature. In Poe, however, the genius of the South seemed to pass abruptly from great affairs of state into the regions of pure imagination. In The City in the Sea, Israfel, and the verses To Helen — to recall three of Poe’s earliest and most representative poems — there is complete detachment from the earlier interests and occupations, and complete escape into the world of ideality. It is part of the charm of these perfect creations that they are free from all trace of time and toil. Out of the new world of work and strife magical doors were flung wide into the fairyland of pure song; out of the soil tilled with heroic labor and courage a fountain suddenly gushed from unsuspected springs.
In this disclosure of the unforeseen in our literary development, in the possession of the dæmonic element in art, Poe stands alone in our literature, unrelated to his environment and detached from his time ; the most distinctive and individual writer who has yet appeared in this country.
Among the elements which go to the making of the true work of art, the dæmonic holds a first place. It is the essential and peculiar quality of genius, — the quality which lies beyond the reach of the most exacting and intelligent work, as it lies beyond the search of analysis. A trained man may learn the secrets of form; he may become an adept in the skill of his craft; but the final felicity of touch, the ultimate grace of effortless power, elude and baffle him. Shakespeare is never so wonderful as in those perfect lines, those exquisite images and similes, those fragrant sentences akin with the flowers in their freshness, and in their purity with waters which carry the stars in their depths, which light comedy and tragedy and history as with a light beyond the sun. Other aspects of his work may be explained ; but the careless rapture of such phrases as leaves us wondering and baffled. We have no key to them. This natural magic, this divine ease in doing the most difficult things, is the exclusive property of the man of genius, and is his only in his most fortunate hours. No man can command this consummate bloom on human speech ; it lies on his work as it lies on the fields, because the creative spirit has passed that way. It came again and again to Wordsworth during fifteen marvelous years; and when it passed it left him cold and mechanical. It is the pure spirit of art moving like the wind where it listeth, and, like the wind, dying into silence again. This magic was in Poe, and its record remains, and will remain, one of our most precious literary possessions. The bulk of the work upon which it rests is not great; its ethical significance is not always evident; it is not representative after the manner of the great masters of poetry; but its quality is perfect. The importance of half a dozen perfect poems is not to be discovered in their mass ; it lies in the revelation of the imagination which shines in and from them. Among a practical people, dealing with the external relations of men, and largely absorbed in the work of the hands, the sudden flashing of the “ light that never was on sea or land ” was a spiritual event of high significance. That men do not live by bread alone is the common message of religion and of art. That message was delivered by Poe with marvelous distinctness of speech. That he knew what he wanted to say, and that he deliberately and patiently sought the best way of saying it, is clear enough; it neither adds to nor detracts from the artistic value of what he did that he knew what he wanted to do. The essential fact about him and his work is, that he was possessed by the passion for beauty for its own sake, and that at his best he had access to the region of pure ideality.
Lights that do mislead the morn ;”
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,”
The spiritual value of art lies not only in its power to impart ideas, but also in its power to clear the vision, to broaden the range of human interests, and to liberate the imagination. Poe’s work attests again the presence of an element in the life of man and in the work of his hand which cannot be foreseen, calculated, or controlled ; a quality not dissociated in its perfect expression from historic or material conditions, but in its origin independent of them. It is the witness, in other words, of something divine and imperishable in the mind of man, — something which allies him with the creative energy, and permits him to share it. The fact that he is sometimes unworthy of this high disclosure of the ultimate beauty, and sometimes recreant to his faith and his gift, diminishes the significance and value of his work no more than a kindred infidelity nullifies the word of prophets of another order. In the mysterious spiritual economy of the universe, there are coördinations of gift and character, relations of spirit and environment, which elude all efforts to formulate them ; not because they lie outside the realm of law, but because the mind of man has not yet been able to explore that realm. And in this very incompleteness of the philosophy of art lies that inexhaustible spiritual suggestiveness which is at once the inspiration of art and its burden. Poe is distinctively and in a unique sense the artist in our literature, — the man to whom beauty was a constant and sufficient justification of itself.
Such a faith is not without its perils; but in a new and working world, whose idealism had run mainly along lines of action, it was essential and it was of high importance. This single-mindedness of Poe in the pursuit of perfection in phrase and form was not a matter of mere workmanship ; it was the passion to match the word with the thought, the melody with the feeling, so vitally and completely that the ultimate harmony, in which all men believe and for which all men crave, might become once more a reality amid the dissonances of a struggling and imperfect society. It is the function of the prophet to declare the inexorable will of righteousness amid a moral disorder which makes that will, at times, almost incredible ; it is the office of the artist to discern and reveal the ultimate beauty in a time when all things are in the making, and the dust and uproar of the workshop conceal even the faint prophecies of perfection.
In the vast workshop of the new society, noisily and turbulently coördinating itself, Poe’s work has been often misunderstood and undervalued. Its lack of strenuousness, its detachment from workaday interests, its severance from ethical agitations, its remoteness from the common toils and experiences, have given it to many an unreal and spectral aspect; there has seemed to be in it a lack of seriousness which has robbed it of spiritual significance. Its limitations in several directions are evident enough ; but all our poetry has disclosed marked limitations. The difficulty in estimating Poe’s work at its true value has lain in the fact that his seriousness was expressed in devotion to objects not yet included in our range of keen and quick sympathies and interests. Poe was a pioneer in a region not yet adequately represented on our spiritual charts. To men engrossed in the work of making homes for themselves the creation of a Venus of Melos might seem a very unimportant affair ; its perfection of pose and moulding might not wholly escape them, but the emotion which swept Heine out of himself when he first stood before it would seem to such men hysterical and unreal. When the homes were built, however, and men were housed in them, they would begin to crave completeness of life, and then the imagination would begin to discern the priceless value of the statue which has survived the days when gods appeared on the earth. The turmoil of the struggle for existence in Greece has long since died into the all-devouring silence, but that broken figure remains to thrill and inspire a world which has forgotten the name of the man who breathed the breath of life into it. It is a visible symbol not only of the passion for perfection, but of the sublime inference of that passion, — the immortality of the spirit which conceived, and of the race among which the perfect work was born.
This passion, which is always striving to realize its own imperishableness in the perfection of its work, and to continue unbroken the record of creative activity among men, possessed Poe in his best moments, and bore fruit in his imaginative work. He was far in advance of the civilization in which he lived, in his discernment of the value of beauty to men struggling for their lives in a world full of ugliness because full of all manner of imperfection ; he is still in advance of any general development of the ability to feel as he felt the inward necessity of finding harmony, and giving it reality to the mind, the eye, and the ear. In older communities, looking at our life outside the circle of its immediate needs and tasks, he has found a recognition often denied him among his own people. If Poe has failed to touch us in certain places where we live most deeply and passionately, we have failed to meet him where he lived deeply and passionately. Matthew Arnold held that contemporary foreign opinion of a writer is probably the nearest approach which can be made to the judgment of posterity. The judgment of English, French, and German critics has been, as a whole, unanimous in accepting Foe at a much higher valuation than has been placed upon him at home, where Lowell’s touch-and-go reference in the Fable for Critics has too often been accepted as an authoritative and final opinion from the highest literary tribunal.
The men of Lowell’s generation in New England could not have estimated adequately the quality of Poe’s genius nor the value of his work. Their conception of their art was high and their practice of it fruitful, but their temper of mind threw them out of sympathy with the view of art which Poe held, and which has been illustrated in much of the most enchanting poetry in the literature of the world. The masters of pure song, with whom Poe belongs, could hardly have drawn breath in the rarefied air of the New England of the first four decades. It was an atmosphere in which Emerson breathed freely, and the purity and insight of his work, like that of Hawthorne’s, will remain an enduring evidence that intense moral conviction and deep moral feeling are consistent with a true and beautiful art. But Keats could not have lived in the air which Emerson found so full of inspiration; and Keats is one of the poets of the century. This is only saying that if you have one quality in a very high stage of development, you are likely to be defective in other qualities equally important. A national literature must have many notes, and Poe struck some which in pure melodic quality had not been heard before. As literary interests broaden in this country, and the provincial point of view gives place to the national, the American estimate of Poe will approach more nearly the foreign estimate. That estimate was based mainly on a recognition of Poe’s artistic quality and of the marked individuality of his work. Lowell and Longfellow continued the old literary traditions ; Poe seemed to make a new tradition. The dæmonic element in him, the pure individual force, brought with it that sense of freshness and originality which men are always eager to feel,and to which they often respond with exaggerated cordiality. It is not surprising that those who are full of the passion to create, and rarely endowed with the power, sometimes go too far in rewarding the man who does what they long to do, but cannot. The artist always pushes back the boundaries a little, and opens a window here and there through which the imagination looks out upon the world of which it dreams so gloriously, but which it sees so rarely ; and we are not prone to mete out with mathematical exactness our praise of those who set us free. If we lose our heads for a time when Kipling comes with his vital touch, his passionate interest in living things, the harm is not great. Poe may have been overvalued by some of his eager French and German disciples, but, after all deductions are made, their judgment was nearer the mark than ours has been ; and it was nearer the mark because their conception of literature was more inclusive and adequate.
The nature of Poe’s material has had something to do not only with foreign appreciation of his genius, but with the impression of distinct individuality which his work produces. Sprung from a people of naturally optimistic temper, with unbounded confidence in their ability to deal with the problems of life, Poe stands solitary among men of his class in fastening, as by instinct, upon the sombre and tragical aspects of experience. In the high light which rests upon the New World, the mysterious gloom which enshrouds The Fall of the House of Usher, The Lady Ligeia, and Ulalume is thrown into more impressive relief. Against the wide content and peaceful domesticity of this fruitful continent, the story of Berenice, The Assignation, and The Masque of the Red Death are projected with telling effectiveness. The very limitations of Poe’s interests and insight contribute to the definiteness and striking individuality of his work. One finds in it no trace of that vague generalizing tendency which an English critic has recently called the " Alexandrine note ” in American literature ; on the contrary, every touch contributes to the sharp distinctness of the whole.
The severance between the writer and his surroundings, already noted, is constantly brought home to the reader by the subjects, the persons, and the landscapes which appear in Poe’s work. Tragedy in Shakespeare’s historical plays is felt to be unusual and exceptional ; it belongs to a few periods, it is wrought out in the careers of small groups of persons ; but it is in no sense abnormal; it readily relates itself to English character and society. The tragic element in Scott and Dickens has the same natural setting, the same normal relationship to obvious social or political conditions. The tragic element in Poe’s work, on the other hand, lies deep in the recesses of individual temperament, and seems remote, unreal, and fantastic, unless we approach it sympathetically. Some of it is unreal and phantasmal; but the potentialities of Poe’s tragedy are in most men. They are, however, essentially subjective; for the action in Poe’s stories is really symbolical ; that which is significant and appalling lies behind it. At this point Poe and Hawthorne approach each other, and it is the pure subjectivity of the tragedy which gives its working out at the hands of both writers a touch of remoteness, and in some cases an element of unreality.
Poe, like Hawthorne, gives expression to the ideality of the American mind : an ideality disclosed in very different ways by Emerson and Lowell and Whittier ; an ideality which has made our literature pure and high, but has robbed it so far of a certain robustness and power shared by all the great writers of our language beyond the sea. American literature, as contrasted with other literature, is touched throughout with aspiration, but lacks solidity and passion. These defects in Poe’s work, which are often regarded as peculiar to it, are found in the work of his contemporaries. It would seem as if, so far, the imagination of the country had not been adequate to the task of penetrating and illuminating its immense practical energies ; or as if its activities were too vast and varied to admit of imaginative coordination at this early day in our history. Poe reacted so radically from the practical ideals and work of his time that he took refuge in pure ideality. The refuge of the artist is always to be found in his art; and to a nature so sensitive as Poe’s, a mind so delicately adjusted to its tools and its task, and so easily thrown out of relation to them, there was perhaps no other resource. Between the art of the author of Israfel and the life about him there was a deep abyss, which the poet never attempted to cross. The material with which he constantly dealt becomes significant alike of the extraordinary susceptibility of his genius, and of the lack of the forms of life about him to satisfy and inspire him. He expresses the dissonance which has so far existed between the essentially ideal quality of the American mind and the intensely practical character of the task which has fallen to Americans. If he had been born a century later, his verse and prose might have come closer to the heart of his people, without losing that exquisite fineness which reveals the rare and beautiful quality of his genius. It is hardly possible to miss the significance of the fact that two men of such temper and gifts as Hawthorne and Poe were driven by inward necessity to deal with the life of an earlier time, with life in an older and riper society, or with the life of the spirit in its most disturbed and abnormal experiences. Such a fact throws a penetrating light on the delicacy of the adjustments between a genius of great sensitiveness and its environment, and sets at naught the judgment, so often and so hastily reached, that the American mind is essentially materialistic. That judgment is impeached by the whole body of our literature, but Poe and Hawthorne made it absolutely untenable.
Poe’s dæmonic force, his passion for perfection of form, his ideality, and the sensitiveness of his temperament are all subtly combined in the quality of distinction which characterizes his best work in prose and verse. His individuality is not only strongly marked, but it is expressed with the utmost refinement of feeling and of touch. In his prose and verse, Poe was preëminently a man who not only brought artistic integrity and capacity to his work, but suffused it with purity, dignity, and grace. In the disconnected product of his broken life there is not a line to be blotted out on the score of vulgarity, lack of reticence, or even commonplaceness. In his most careless imaginative writing the high quality of his mind is always apparent. So ingrained is this distinction of tone that, however he may waste his moral fortunes, his genius is never cheapened nor stained. In his worst estate the great traditions of art were safe in his hands.
The quality of distinction was of immense importance in a literature like our own, which is still in its formative stages. Poe’s exquisite craftsmanship has made the acceptance of cheap and careless work impossible. Such work may secure an easy popularity from time to time, but it can find no lodgment in the memory of the race on this continent. To go so far as Poe went toward perfection of form is to exclude from the contest all save the fleetest and the strongest. It is to do more, for the service of the artist really begins when his work is completely finished, and separated from his own personality : it is to keep before a people tempted to take lower views of life the reality of individual superiority. In a society which holds all the doors open, and affirms in institution and structure that a man shall go where he can, there is always the danger of confusing opportunity with gift. The final justification of democracy lies in its ability to clear the way for superiority ; but it is often interpreted as signifying equality of endowment and skill. If, in the long run, democracy lowers instead of advancing the standards of character and achievement, it will be the most disastrous of political failures. Equality of opportunity for the sake of preparing the way for the highest and finest in dividualities will bring us, perhaps, as near a perfect social order as we can hope to attain. Poe was such a personality ; a man whose gifts were of the most individual kind, whose tastes were fastidious, whose genius was full of a distinction which involved and expressed remoteness from average standards, detachment from the rush and turmoil of practical tasks. A nation at work with grimed hands is a noble spectacle ; but if such a people is to get anything out of life after it has secured comfortable conditions, it must not only make room for poets and scholars and thinkers, but it must reserve for them its highest rewards.
Without the presence of the superior man, the “ paradise of the average man,” as this country has been called, would become a purgatory to all those who care chiefly, not for success, but for freedom and power and beauty. One of the greatest privileges of the average man is to recognize and honor the superior man, because the superior man makes it worth while to belong to the race by giving life a dignity and splendor which constitute a common capital for all who live. The respect paid to men like Washington and Lincoln, Marshall and Lee, Poe and Hawthorne, affords a true measure of civilization in a community. Such men invest life for the average man with romance and beauty. Failure to recognize and honor superiority of character, gift, and achievement is the peculiar peril of democracies, which often confuse the aristocracy of the divine order in the world with the aristocracy of arbitrary and artificial origin. So long as the saints shine in their righteousness it will be idle to attempt to conceal their superiority ; in the order of the spiritual life the best survive. Of these best was Poe ; a man whose faults are sufficiently obvious, because they bore their fruit in his career, but the quality of whose genius and art was of the finest, if not of the greatest. In expressing the idealism of the American mind, this rare and subtle workman made images of such exquisite shape and moulding that by their very perfection they win us away from lesser and meaner ways of work. By the fineness of his craftsmanship he revealed the artistic potentialities of the American spirit.
Of a proud and sensitive nature, reared among a proud and sensitive people, Poe found in the region of pure ideality the material which expressed most clearly his genius, and received most perfectly the impress of his craftsmanship. In the themes with which he dealt, and in the manner in which he treated them, he went far to eradicate the provincialism of taste which was the bane of his time and section, — the bane, indeed, of the whole country. Poe’s very detachment in artistic interest from the world about him was a positive gain for the emancipation of the imagination of the young country, so recently a province of the Old World. His criticism was almost entirely free from that narrow localism which values a writer because he belongs to a section, and not because his work belongs to literature. He brought into the field of criticism large knowledge of the best that had been done in literature, and clear perception of the principles of the art of writing. His touch on his contemporaries who won the easy successes which are always within reach in untrained communities was often caustic, as it had need to be ; but the instinct which made him the enemy of inferior work gave him also the power of recognizing the work of the artist, even when it came from unknown hands. He discerned the reality of imagination in Hawthorne and Tennyson as clearly as he saw the vulgarity and crudity of much of the popular writing of his time. By critical intention, therefore, as well as by virtue of the possession of genius, which is never provincial, Poe emancipated himself, and went far to emancipate American literature, from the narrow spirit, the partial judgment, and the inferior standards of a people not yet familiar with the best that has been thought and said in the world. To the claims of local pride he opposed the sovereign claims of art; against the practice of the half-inspired and the wholly untrained he set the practice of the masters. When the intellectual history of the country is written, he will appear as one of its foremost liberators.
Poe’s work holds a first place in our literature, not by reason of its mass, its reality, its range, its spiritual or ethical significance, but by reason of its complete and beautiful individuality, the distinction of its form and workmanship, the purity of its art. With Hawthorne he shares the primacy among all who have enriched our literature with prose or verse; but, unlike his great contemporary, he has had to wait long for adequate and just recognition. His time of waiting is not yet over; for while the ethical insight of Hawthorne finds quick response where his artistic power alone would fail to move, Poe must be content with the suffrages of those who know that the art which he practiced with such magical effect is in itself a kind of righteousness. " I could not afford to spare from my circle,” wrote Emerson to a friend, “a poet, so long as he can offer so indisputable a token as a good poem of his relation to what is highest in Being.” To those who understand that character is never perfect until it is harmonious, and truth never finally revealed until it is beautiful, Poe’s significance is not obscured nor his work dimmed by the faults and misfortunes of his life. The obvious lessons of that pathetic career have been well learned ; it is time to seek the deeper things for which this fatally endowed spirit stood ; for the light is more than the medium through which it shines.
Hamilton Wright Mabie