Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Poe and His Life Work*


 

I have never had a more surprising literary adventure than in rereading the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. If your first acquaintance with him was long enough ago for the early impression to have been forgotten, you may repeat the experiment for yourself, and see if you get a like result.

Poe was an undoubted genius. As such he was recognized by the best of his contemporaries, as such his fame spread beyond the seas in days when American letters were only beginning to free themselves from the provincial and imitative stage. As such we accept him to-day without question.

Perhaps to most of us he has become merely a name, part of the more or less disused furniture of all educated minds, one of those treasured heirlooms on whose possession we pride ourselves but whose beauty we seldom enjoy. Doubtless we all have many such venerated antiquities hoarded away in the dusty storerooms of memory, silent acquisitions, like old tables and chairs, once the pride of our undiscriminating eyes, but long since superseded, and now eloquent only of a past which we no longer can realize. The longer we keep them out of sight and use the more valuable they seem to grow in our fertile but wholly untrustworthy remembrance, while all the time their actual worth to ourselves may remain unappraised. We may hold them at an absurdly exaggerated figure, or indignantly refuse even to consider their actual value at all, so foolish is human avidity. And yet if we bring them to an honest scrutiny they may look sadly inadequate indeed-as pathetic as some old finery that never could have been in good taste, and has long since been out of fashion.

Bring these old furnishings out into the light of day some fresh morning; set them up on the veranda where the sun of common sense and air of life can get at them; brush away the dust of sentiment; regard them without flinching, and ask yourself to say honestly what good they are to you, after all. Only too often we must turn from them with a pang, and admit, at least to ourselves, that they only serve to gather mysterious dust which settles on all our effects. Better abandon the attachment at once, and be rid of what we cannot use. Our treasures will seldom prove to be genuine pieces of Chippendale, worth refurbishing. As likely as not they will turn out to be nothing but black walnut of the antimacassar period.

Very possibly one may be embittered by the humiliating experience of such a housecleaning and put in an acrimonious mood. And acrimony is a deadly tincture to drop into criticism. But who would not be upset in such a dilemma? In a vigorous frame of thought and feeling you mount to the lumber room of your brain; haul down some old trophy; stand it up before you, and survey it with what you are pleased to fancy is a mature judgement after all these years; and behold, it is strange and paltry in your sight.

"What absurd claptrap!" cries disappointed petulance, And yet only a moment before doting memory was declaring how beautiful it was, how magical and moving. Either you must have been cherishing a delusion for two or three decades, or that boasted maturity of judgement is no better than a child's. And there you are!

Have you been a complacent dupe for a quarter of a century, or are you even now a dull Philistine? Take your choice, and call yourself names accordingly. But after you have exhausted the vocabulary of opprobrium, and humiliated your intellectual pride to a proper state of submission, let me advise you to consult the dictionary under "youth," "enthusiasm," "tradition," "romance," and "hero-worship." It may palliate your self-condemnation. After all, to err is often delightful in matters of art and mistakes of taste are not the most heinous. Meanwhile, trust is not less great than it ever was and in criticism as in real life a handful of sincerity is worth a carload of magniloquence.

The hundredth anniversary of Poe's birth will no doubt set many to reading him again, as much as to inquire, "Let us hear what he has to say, after all this time." By all means let us hear. Let us see what our old furniture looks like, whether it had better be discarded, or polished up and restored to a place in the living room.

Let us take Poe at his best. Here is a selection of poetry by Mr. Andrew Lang, no mean critic in such matters. In "The Blue Poetry Book" are half a dozen selections from Poe, presumably some of his most memorable achievements. Let us first turn and reread "To One in Paradise." Very likely we admired it of old, along with many of Byron's stirring lyrics. I will not quote it all. Let the third stanza serve as a sample:

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!

This is the sort of self-pitying lyric soliloquy in which the juvenile poetic heart delights to indulge. What shall we say of it? Is it a genuine Chippendale? Let us not decide too rashly. Let us put beside it, for comparison, another piece, Shelley's brief lyric:

O World, O Life, O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of our prime?
No more-Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight;
Fresh Spring, and Summer, and Winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more-Oh, never more!

Do you see the difference? The unmistakable lustre of Shelley's minted gold makes "the jingle man's" coin look like a brass sequin. There is no making spurious metal ring like true. And Poe, with all his glitter, with all his elaborate arabesques, almost invariably has that thin tinkle which betrays him. His poetic change is counterfeit. It has the shape and color of veritable currency, but it lacks the weight. You may palm it off on the unsuspecting, but it will not stand the acid.

But let us take another and even better example of Poe's work from the same selection, the lines "To Helen:"

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

And again, for the comparison's sake, place beside it Byron's-

She walks in beauty, like the night;

or Coleridge's-

She is not fair to outward view,
As many maidens be;

or Wordsworth's-

She dwelt among the untrodden ways.

And let us admit that Poe stands the test remarkably well. Judged by this single instance, we should have to rank him among these admirable Georgian poets. Unfortunately he is almost never at this pitch of excellence, while with Byron and Wordsworth it is characteristic. We are here in a region of profound personal emotion, where poetry needs an intensity of feeling like Byron's and a depth of sincerity like Wordsworth's to carry it to success, and where a brilliant shallowness like Poe's is fatal.

Poetry, with all its imagination and detachment and seeming irresponsibility, is yet inevitably rooted in the actual world. It must deal with things as they are, and bring its light to bear on life as we live it and see it lived all about us. However fanciful it may be at times, it can never be irrational without becoming futile. At its best it is more than a criticism of life; but it must always have some point of attachment with our intellectual as well as with our purely spiritual needs. Many poets appeal to us too exclusively, perhaps, on this rational side, and offer us platitudinous discourse which is often only poetry by virtue of its meter. It is a tendency which appears even in excellent poets like Pope, and reaches its climax in indifferent poets like Tupper. Poe was not of this class. His great lack as a poet is that he has almost nothing of this essential quality, this sane penetrating criticism. If he is ineffectual in the region of human emotion, he is even more futile in the region of intelligence. One cannot go to him for wisdom.

Any estimate of Poe which does not take account of "The Raven" and "The Bells" is necessarily incomplete, for it is by these two poems that he is best known. They are, moreover, two of his more characteristic productions, exhibiting that novelty of metrical effect, which more than anything else contributed to his fame. They are not as strange and bizarre as "Ulalume" but with all their technical elaboration, come easily within popular comprehension. Like "The Ancient Mariner," "The Raven" belongs to that romantic kind of art which does not concern itself so much with bringing wisdom to our service, as with transporting us to a region of fantastic and inconsequential emotions where wisdom is inapplicable and sanity superfluous-a region always fascinating to immature imaginative minds, perplexed by the difficulties of life, and one in which Poe was much at home.

It is the first impulse of all sensitive artistic personalities, when confronted with the incongruity between the ideal and the actual world, to revolt against the stubborn necessities of the latter and to retreat into the dim shadows of imagination, where common sense cannot bring them to book. Freedom of spirit they demand at any price, even at the cost of becoming wild and unintelligable. They do not understand that the higher life of man implies an exodus from the vague borderland of mere lyrical emotionalism into the clear air of divine reason. And as a consequence they are willing to pass too large a part of their lives in the magical but deceptive moonshine of dreams. Keats, who died at twenty-six, and Shelley, who died at thirty, had an abundance of the rapt idealism of youth; but they also had an abundance of sanity which saved them from the disastrous futilities of caprice. They were too strong of character to remain ineffectual or visionary. Byron, who died at thirty-six, and Burns, who died at thirty-seven, were too sagacious and human to have felt this dilemma at all.

But Poe, although he lived to be forty, never outgrew it. He seems never to have grown up to a realization of the obligation which lays upon all art and poetry-the demand that in the long run they shall be rational as well as imaginative, sane as well as beautiful. He knew that poetry must be something moving and lovely, that it must appeal to our spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities. He failed to consider that it must also appeal to our love of truth and satisfy in some degree the ever curious mind.

Many poets have built for themselves Palaces of Art. Tennyson did in his earlier poems, Coleridge in "Cristabel" and "The Ancient Mariner," Spenser in "The Faery Queene," Rosetti and William Morris in much of their work. But they did not live in their palaces continually. They came out at times and spoke to us in our own tongue, so that all men could understand them and profit by their greater knowledge and insight. Poe, too, built himself a palace of art, but he never came out of it. We may go in there if we will, and spend an hour in its strange, iridescent light, but the open air of day and our common sun never penetrate its exotic halls. And we come away unsolaced and unrefreshed, as from the dwelling of the king of the gnomes, not because the palace is unbeautiful, but because the experience is wholly fantastic, irrational, aimless. A delighful adventure in pure romance, if you will, suited to the irrational days of our youth. But scarcely a source of abiding pleasure or inspiration to a perplexed and harried world of men and women. And that, in the last analysis, is what we demand of poetry and art, some illumination of our difficulties, some reasonable and beautiful joy, some ideal that shall not be impossible of fulfillment. Unless art and poetry give us something like this, they have but a slight hold on our regard.

How are we to account for Poe's great vogue abroad? Partly, no doubt, through the novelty of his gift. He was essentially original, when American letters were only emerging from the dominance of tradition. His note was his own. Moreover, he was a brave devotee of Poetry's eternal cause. His life was stormy and distressful, and not long. And it was deadly serious. He never reached the calm zone of the forties, where the turbulence and stress of earlier years begin to be left behind. He was eminently a figure of a poet, as conventional sentiment has conceived him-saturnine, impetuous, ill-regulated, and rapt in his own mantle of dream-just the figure to become a nucleus for a great fame. His misfortunes evoke our sympathy and the very aloofness of his poetry helps to remove him into the shadowy glory of Parnasus.

But, after all, it matters very little how we account for Poe's surpassing fame. If it seems to-day out of all proportion to his actual achievement, that does not matter either. If now, in a different age from his, with greater needs and more exacting demands, we must ask from poetry a more rational and sturdier service than was required of it in Poe's day, we need not therefore disparage his performance. Not many poets are great enough to survive the mode of their own time. And we may revise our estimate of Poe's poetry without belittling his illustrious name. Let us keep our conception of him without detraction. Let me even add to that conception by quoting from one of the most fitting and perfect elegies in the language, the late John Henry Boner's poem on "Poe's Cottage at Fordham" (Printed at the head of the first column of this issue of THE NEW YORK TIMES SATURDAY REVIEW OF BOOKS.) This appeared originally in The Century, and was reprinted by the same magazine not very long ago, but is still less well known than it should be.

The South should be proud of Boner and that poem. Poe himself never did anything better.


"Poe and His Life Work," New York Times Saturday Review of Books, June 16, 1909 [back]