Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Shadow-Land of Poe
By Sarah Helen Power Whitman (18031878)
[Edgar Poe and His Critics. 1860.]
WHILE the author of Eureka, like Lucretius,
dropped his plummet down the broad,
Deep Universe and found no God,
his works are, as if unconsciously, filled with an overwhelming sense of the power and majesty of Deity; they are even dark with reverential awe. His proud intellectual assumption of the supremacy of the individual soul was but an expression of its imperious longings for immortality and its recoil from the haunting phantasms of death and annihilation; while the theme of all his more imaginative writings is, as we have said, a love that survives the dissolution of the mortal body and oversweeps the grave. His mental and temperamental idiosyncrasies fitted him to come readily into rapport with psychal and spiritual influences. Many of his strange narratives had a degree of truth in them which he was unwilling to avow. In one of this class he makes the narrator say, I cannot even now regard these experiences as a dream, yet it is difficult to say how otherwise they should be termed. Let us suppose only that the soul of man, to-day, is on the brink of stupendous psychal discoveries.
Edgar Poes dreams were assuredly often presageful and significant, and while he but dimly apprehended through the higher reason the truths which they foreshadowed, he riveted public attention upon them by the strange fascination of his style, the fine analytical temper of his intellect, and, above all, by the weird splendors of his imagination, compelling men to read and to accredit as possible truths his most marvellous conceptions. He often spoke of the imageries and incidents of his inner life as more vivid and veritable than those of his outer experience. We find in some pencilled notes appended to a manuscript copy of one of his later poems the words, All that I have here expressed was actually present to me. Remember the mental condition which gave rise to Ligeiarecall the passage of which I spoke, and observe the coincidence. With all the fine alchemy of his subtle intellect he sought to analyze the character and conditions of this introverted life. I regard these visions, he says, even as they arise, with an awe which in some measure moderates or tranquillizes the ecstasyI so regard them through a conviction that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the human natureis a glimpse of the spirits outer world. He had that constitutional determination to reverie which, according to De Quincey, alone enables a man to dream magnificently, and which, as we have said, made his dreams realities and his life a dream. His mind was indeed a Haunted Palace, echoing to the footfalls of angels and demons. No man, he says, has recorded, no man has dared to record, the wonders of his inner life.
Is there, then, no significance in this supernatural soliciting? Is there no evidence of a wise purpose, an epochal fitness, in the appearance, at this precise era, of a mind so rarely gifted, and accessible from peculiarities of psychal and physical organization to the subtle vibrations of an ethereal medium conveying but feeble impressions to the senses of ordinary persons; a mind which, following darkness like a dream, wandered forever with insatiate curiosity on the confines of that
wild, weird clime, that lieth sublime
Out of Space, out of Time!
By each spot the most unholy,
In each nook most melancholy,
seeking to solve the problem of that phantasmal Shadow-Land, which, through a class of phenomena unprecedented in the worlds history, was about to attest itself as an actual plane of conscious and progressive life, the mode and measure of whose relations with our own are already recognized as legitimate objects of scientific research by the most candid and competent thinkers of our time? We assume that, in the abnormal manifestations of a genius so imperative and so controlling, this epochal significance is most strikingly apparent. Jean Paul says truly that there is more poetic fitness, more method, a more intelligible purpose in the biographies which God Almighty writes than in all the inventions of poets and novelists.