Text: Dan Wilson, “[Review of Tales of Mystery, and Poems],” Canadian Journal of Industry, Science, and Art, ns. Vol. II, no. 8, March 1857, pp. 103-109


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­[page 103:]

REVIEW.

Tales of Mystery, and Poems. By Edgar Allan Poe. London: Vizetelly, 1857.

The writings of Edgar Allan Poe have already been appreciated in various forms, and they possess such an individuality of character, and a power of fascination even in their least attractive aspects, that we may be assured they will again and yet again be subjected to re-issue, criticism, censure, and laudation: as intellectual products, ephemeral in their aspect, and pet such as this age at least will not willingly let die. We have purposely selected for our present notice, the volume named at the head of this article, though it is merely a popular selection of a few of Poe’s prose writings, issued in a cheap form along with his poems. At another time we may have larger space at our command, and shall then pass under review the more comprehensive literary memorial of this eccentric and wayward child of genius, recently issued from the American press. The publication we refer to is entitled “The Works of the late Edgar Allan Poe, with a memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold; and notices of his genius, by N. P. Willis, and J. R. Lowell.” In this latter work four substantial volumes are devoted to the Essays, Poems, and fugitive pieces, and to notices of the biography and genius of Poe, — a writer of whom, if America may not be proud, it is only because the strange moral obliquity of the man, has steeled the hearts of his countrymen against that pride, akin to love, with which they would otherwise have learned to regard the author and the poet. In some striking respects we feel tempted to designate Edgar Allan Poe the Charles Lamb of America — so marked is that strange whimsical individuality of his, that quaint gravity and affectation of seriousness in dealing with a jest, and that sober and deliberate purpose of laughing in his sleeve at the literary lies he successfully palmed upon the most credulous of publics. And yet, assuredly, no two men were every more dissimilar. When, some eleven years after Charles Lamb had been laid beneath the green turf of Edmonton Churchyard, a few survivors of his old circle of friends, — and among the rest his loving biographer, Sir T. N. Talfourd, — met to lay the remains of Mary Lamb along side those of her brother, his biographer thus records the revived memories which the scene awakened; ‘1 so dry is the Boil of the quiet Churchyard that the excavated earth left perfect walls of stiff clay, and permitted us just to catch a glimpse of the still untarnished edges of the coffin in which all the mortal part of one of the most delightful ­[page 104:] persons who ever lived was contained, and on which the remains of her he had loved with love passing ‘the love of woman, were henceforth to rest.” How strange the contrast of one whom even we who know him only by his writings cannot help loving, with this author who, like him, expresses such unmistakeable individuality and self-originating characteristics on every page, but only to make us admire with shuddering; as one might gaze on the cold glitter ing pinnacles of polar ice-cliffs. The poet Lowell has been called in to aid in setting forth the true attributes of his genius, but he had already stamped his just estimate of him in the pungent terseness of a stanza of his “Fable of Critics:”

“Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,

Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge;

He has written some things far the best of their kind,

But some how the heart seems squeezed out by the mind!”

Genius Poe unquestionably had; with eccentricities too, enough to furnish any ordinary half dozen of the irritable race of poets, critics, and editors. But the selfishness of morbid sneering cynicism never took a colder and more repellant aspect.; and we look back upon him with a strange sadness as on one of the gifted contributors to the permanent stock of our sources of literary pleasure, whom yet it is all impossible to love. In the prose of Poe, with its odd matter-of-fact anatomising of mystery, there is a singular artificiality of art that seems too much to betray the wires and pulleys of the puppet-master; but few as are his poems, it is difficult to believe the heart so well simulated, if no genial pulsation of human affection and sympathy actually throbbed beneath that cynic heart of his. To these, therefore, the rare and brief out-gushings. as it might seem, of the genuine feeling of “man of woman born,” we shall devote such brief space as the demands on our pages admix, is this notice of Edgar Allan Poe; remembering that for him, instead of the hero-worship, which fondly exaggerates the virtues of a favorite author, while “to his faults a little blind,” it has been till now his fate to be coarsely anatomised by those who have proved only too willing to expose his frailties, if not to deepen the shadows of his dark life-picture. For this there can beno excuse, for whatever his frailties as a man, no charge can be brought against him of having pandered his genius, or wielded his pen in the cause of vice.

The following brief but touching lyric, is dedicated — we may presume, — to the memory of the same “rare and radiant maiden whom ­[page 105:] the angels name Lenore,” who constitutes the heroine of his more famous “Raven” lyric. But sweet and gracefully touching as are some of the ideas, and musical as are the lines, the “ Raven” of Poe’s morbid genius flutters ever towards the close, and he winds up this, as well as nearly every other paean, with thoughts born of his own brooding misanthrophy which could well be spared.

LENORE.

Ah, broken is the golden bowl! the spirit down for ever!

Let the bell toll! — a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river;

And Guy de Vere, halt thorn no tear! — weep now or never more!

See! on yon drear and rigid bier, low lies thy love, Lenore!

Come! let the burial rite be read — the funeral song be sung! —

An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young —

A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young.

 

“Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth, and hated for her pride,

And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her — that she died!

How shall the ritual, then, be read? — the requiem how be sung!

By, you — by yours, the evil eye — by yours, the slanderous tongue

That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young?

 

Peccavimus! but rave not Thus! and let a Sabbath gong

Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong

The sweet Lenore hath “gone before,” with Hope that flew beside,

Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride —

For her, the fair and debonnair, that now so lowly lies,

The life upon her yellow hair, but not within her eyes —

The life still there upon her hair — the death upon her eyes.

 

“Avaunt! to-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,

But waft the angel on her flight with a paean of old days

Let no bell toll! lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,

Should catch the note, as it loth float up from the damned earth,

To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven

From hell unto a high estate fair up within the heaven

From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.”

The same strangely morbid bent of thought which mars the beauty of the stanzas here is perhaps even more apparent in his piece called “The Bells,” suggested we can scarcely doubt by Moore’s “Evening Bells.” ringing, unconsciously perhaps, in memory’s ear. But the American Poet’s theme is, in its starting point at least, a thoroughly native one: the mirthful, heart-enlivening music of the sleigh-bells, which give a music to our long winter that repays in part the coyness of the spring’s forest-songsters, and cheeringly contrasts with the melancholy pathos of our summer nightingale, the Whip-poor-will. We say nothing of certain ­[page 106:] Valentine. Some of the rhymes, here as elsewhere, read strangely to unfamiliar ears, e. g. Lœda and reader. But such are not with out precedent on the American Parnassus. Whittier constantly rhymes such words as law and tsar, as in the following couplet:

“Still shall the glory and the pomp of war

Along their train the shouting millions draw.”

No one, however, can have read Poe’s “Raven” without recognising his complete mastery of the varied cadences of alliteration, resonance, and the ample musical compass of English rhymes; though in the following bagatelle he had other accomplishments in view:

For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,

Brightly expressive as the twins of Lœda,

Shall find her own sweet name, that nestling lies

Upon the pare, enwrapped from every reader.

Search narrowly the lineal — they hold a treasure

Divine — a talisman — an amulet

That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure —

The words — the syllables! Do not forget

The trivialest point, or you may lose your labour!

And yet there is in this no Gordian knot

Which one might not undo without a sabre,

If one could merely comprehend the plot.

Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering

Eyes scyntillatina soul, there lie perdus

Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing

Of poets, by poets — as the name is a poet’s too.

Its letters, although naturally lying

Like the knight Pinto — Mendez Ferdinando —

Still form a synonym for Truth. — Cease trying!

You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do.

This the reader perchance pronounces no great poetic feat; but he has not yet solved the poet’s riddle. In the days of old George Wither, poets were wont to invent for themselves new shackles, and to write rhomboidal dirges, triangular odes, and lozenge-shaped lyrics or canzonets. The acrostic is an old fashion not yet altogether obsolete; and the ordinary restraints of the sonnet, Spenserian stanza, or the ottava rims, still furnish pleasant “poetic pains,” as in elder centuries. But the hardest of such poetic labours are trifles compared with that which Poe has here achieved; as will be seen it the reader undertakes its solution according to the following directions. Read the first letter of the first line in connection, with the second letter of the second line, the third of the third line, and so on to the end, and the name of the ­[page 109:] fair object of the poet’s pains will be revealed; a name which though far from common is not unfamiliar to Canadian ears, nor without its memorial amongst ourselves. After all, however, it is on his “Raven” that Poe’s fame as a poet will rest, and its strange odd mingling of morbid and beautiful fancies with the luscious surfeitings of rhyme, will long attract and repel the reluctantly admiring reader with its curiously fascinating charms.

D. W.


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Notes:

Dan Wilson is listed as the general editor of the journal.

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[S:0 - CJSLA, 1857] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of Tales of Mystery and Poems (Dan Wilson, 1857)