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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frederic William Henry Myers (1843–1901)
 
EDGAR ALLAN POE has on two grounds a saving claim to the inclusion of specimens of his work in an American collection of ‘The World’s Best Literature.’ His first claim is historical; arising from his position among the earliest distinguished writers of the great American branch of English-speaking folk. “Securus judicat orbis terrarum” 1 may be said now by the Western as well as by the Eastern world; and a man whom the United States count among their intellectual ancestry could have no better vantage-ground for enduring fame.  1
  Poe’s second claim to representation in this world-famous group must rest mainly, I think, upon a narrow ground; namely, the strange beauty of a few lines of his verse. How strong that claim will be with true verse-lovers I must presently try to show. First, however, a few words must be said on his prose writings. Poe’s historical position has been, perhaps inevitably, regarded as a reason for reprinting many volumes of his prose; but it is only on some few tales that his admirers will wish to linger. He wrote often actually for bread; often to gratify some mere personal feeling; sometimes (as in ‘Eureka’) with a kind of schoolboy exultation over imaginary discoveries, which adds a pang to our regret that so open and eager a spirit should have missed its proper training. With some of the tales of course the case is very different. A good many of them, indeed, are too crude, or too repulsive, or too rhetorical for our modern taste. But the best are veritable masterpieces; and have been, if not actually the prototypes, at least the most ingenious and effective models, of a whole genre of literature which has since sprung up in rich variety. Growing science has afforded a wider basis for these strange fantasies; and modern literary art has invested with fresh realism many a wild impossible story. But Poe’s best tales show a certain intensity which perhaps no successor has reached; not only in his conception of the play of weird passions in weird environments, but in a still darker mood of mind which must keep its grim attractiveness so long as the mystery of the Universe shall press upon the lives of men.  2
  Fear was the primitive temper of the human race. It lies deep in us still; and in some minds of high development the restless dread, the shuddering superstition, of the savage have been sublimed into a new kind of cosmic terror. “Je ne vois qu’Infini par toutes les fenêtres,” 2 said Baudelaire; and the Infinite which he felt encompassing him was nothing else than hell. Poe, whom Baudelaire admired and translated, was a man born like Baudelaire to feel this terror; born to hear—
  “Time flowing in the middle of the night,
And all things moving toward a day of doom”;
born to behold all sweet and sacred emotion curdling, as it were, on the temple floor into supernatural horror;
                  “—latices nigrescere sacros,
Fusaque in obscenum se vertere vina cruorem.” 3
  3
  To transmit this thrill without undue repulsion needs more of art than either Poe or Baudelaire could often give. Poe had not Baudelaire’s cruel and isolating lust, but he dwelt even more than Baudelaire upon the merely loathsome; upon aspects of physical decay. “Soft may the worms about her creep!” is his requiem over a maiden motionless in death: “this cheek where the worm never dies” is his metaphor for the mourner’s sorrow. Such phrases do not justify the claim sometimes made for Poe of goût exquis, of infallible artistic instinct. Yet this cosmic terror in the background of his thought gives to some of his prose pages a constraining power; and in some rare verses it is so fused with beauty that it enters the heart with a poignancy that is delight as well as pain.  4
  The charm of poetry can be created for us by but few men; but Poe in a few moments was one of these few. His poems, indeed, have been very variously judged; and their merit is of a virtuoso type which needs special defense from those who keenly feel it.  5
  Few verse-writers, we must at once admit, have been more barren than Poe of any serious “message”; more unequal to any “criticism of life”; narrower in range of thought, experience, emotion. Few verse-writers whom we can count as poets have left so little verse, and of that little so large a proportion which is indefensibly bad. On some dozen short pieces alone can Poe’s warmest admirers rest his poetic repute. And how terribly open to criticism some of even those pieces are! To analyze ‘Ulalume,’ for instance, would be like breaking a death’s-head moth on the wheel. But nevertheless, a dozen solid British poets of the Southey type would to my mind be well bartered for those few lines of Poe’s which after the sternest sifting must needs remain.  6
  To justify this preference I must appeal, as I have said, to a kind of virtuoso standard, which is only too apt to degenerate into mere pose and affectation. But in truth, besides and apart from—if you will, below—that nobler view of poets as prophets, message-bearers, voices of the race, there does exist a very real aspect of all verse-makers as a vast band of persons playing a game something like ‘Patience’ in excelsis: a game in which words are dealt round as counters, and you have to arrange your counters in such a pattern that rivals and spectators alike shall vote you a prize; one prize only being awarded for about ten thousand competitors in the game. Poe has won a prize with a few small patterns which no one in his generation could exactly beat.
  “Banners, yellow, glorious, golden,
    On its roof did float and flow,—
This—all this—was in the olden
        Time long ago.”
  7
  These lines contain no particular idea; and the last two of them consist literally of a story-teller’s formula as old as folk-lore. But who before Poe made this egg stand on its end? What inward impulse struck the strong note of Banners, and marshaled those long vowels in deepening choir, and interjected the intensifying pause—all this, and led on through air to the melancholy olden, and hung in the void of an unknown eternity the diapason of Time long ago? Or, to take a simple test, can you quote, say, from Byron one single stanza of like haunting quality;—can you quote many such stanzas from whomsoever you will?  8
  Such verbal criticism as this should not, as I have said, be pushed too far. I will conclude with the most definite praise which I can find for Poe; and this same poem, ‘The Haunted Palace,’ suggests the theme.  9
  The most appealing verses of many poets have been inspired by their own life’s regret or despair. Burns is at his best in his ‘Epitaph,’ Cowper in his ‘Castaway,’ Shelley in his ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection,’ Keats in his ‘Drear-Nighted December,’ Mrs. Browning in ‘The Great God Pan.’ In ‘The Haunted Palace’ Poe allegorizes the same theme. We cannot claim for Poe the gravity of Cowper, nor the manliness of Burns, nor the refinement of Mrs. Browning, nor the ethereality of Shelley, nor the lovableness of Keats. Our sympathy, our sense of kinship, go forth to one of these other poets rather than to him. Yet to me at least none of these poems comes home so poignantly as Poe’s; none quivers with such a sense of awful issues, of wild irreparable ill.  10
  [Greek]. 4 Little indeed of Poe’s small poetic output can stand the test of time. Call him, if you will, the least of the immortals: but let us trust that immortal he shall be; that the ever-gathering wind which bears down to us odors of the Past shall carry always a trace of the bitter fragrance crushed out from this despairing soul.  11
 
  [BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Both Poe’s parents were actors, and he was born while the itinerant company was playing in Boston, January 19th, 1809. Within three years both parents died, and the boy was adopted by John Allan, a merchant of Richmond, Virginia. The family lived in England from 1815 to 1820. In 1827 young Poe, after a single brilliant but disastrous year at the University of Virginia, made a still prompter failure in Mr. Allan’s counting-room, deserted his too indulgent foster-parents, printed a volume of verse in Boston,—and enlisted there as a private soldier! Rising from the ranks, he in 1830 secured a cadetship at West Point. “Riding for a fall,” he was dismissed for failure in his studies, March 1831.  12
  From this time Poe led a roving and precarious life, as author and editor, in Baltimore, Richmond, and finally for the most part in New York. His intemperate habits embittered his personal quarrels and hastened his business failures. He married his cousin Virginia Clemm in 1835 or 1836. Her prolonged illness, and her death in January 1847, gave the coup de grâce to Poe’s shattered constitution. He died forlorn in a Baltimore hospital, October 7th, 1849.  13
  The best biography of Poe is that by Prof. George E. Woodberry in the ‘American Men of Letters’ Series (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston); and the authoritative and complete edition of his works is that in ten volumes, edited by Mr. E. C. Stedman and Prof. Woodberry, and published by Stone & Kimball, New York.]  14
 
Note 1. “The world’s judgment is beyond appeal.” [back]
Note 2. “I see only the Infinite through every window.” [back]
Note 3. “To behold the sacral waters turning black, and the outpoured wine transformed into foul blood.” [back]
Note 4. Very little even of the little. [back]
 
 
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