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
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of our undiscriminating eyes, but long since superseded,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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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!
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.
let us take another and even better example of Poe's
work from the same selection, the lines "To 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.
again, for the comparison's sake, place beside it Byron's-
walks in beauty, like the night;
is not fair to outward view,
As many maidens be;
dwelt among the untrodden ways.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
South should be proud of Boner and that poem. Poe himself
never did anything better.