Text: Charles Leonard Moore, “The American Rejection of Poe,” Dial, January 16, 1899, 47:40-41


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­[page 40, column 1:]

THE AMERICAN REJECTION OF POE.

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Accepted authors are like those old estates which were held by the annual rent of a rose or a piece of fruit: we have nothing to do but to enjoy them and pay them a passing tribute of praise. A poet such as Poe, however, is like the feudal tenures which were retained on condition of service at arms. Every new admirer has to fight against the prejudices and lingering malignities which obscure and injure his chief. Burke complained that with all his services to the state he could get no credence or acceptance anywhere. At every gate he had to show his passport. In his own country, at least, Poe’s fame is continually under arrest, and his friends have always [column 2:] to be giving bail for him. Perhaps this demand for defense evokes a love and loyalty which are in themselves a reward.

Why is it that America has always set its face against Poe? What defect was there in his life and art, or what deficiency in the American character and ├Žsthetic sense, or what incompatibility between these factors in the case, to produce such a result? That to a great extent he is ignored and repudiated is unquestionable. His life has been written and his works edited of late in a spirit of cold hostility. Volumes of specimen selections of prose or verse appear with his work omitted. In those foolish lists of American great men which it was the fashion recently to cause school-children to memorize, he was always left out. Meanwhile, Europe has but one opinion in the matter; and whereas Tennyson is domesticated in English-speaking lands, Poe is domiciled and a dominant force wherever there is a living literature.

Poe never had a good back, such as the New England writers obtained, to push him to the front and keep him there. He was of the South — the very incarnation of the South; and the South has always ordered its authors to move on, for fear they might die on the parish. The South wreaked itself on politics — ruined itself by politics — and has never had the will or desire to stand up for its greatest son. The North has always had plenty of plain livers and high thinkers who ought to have welcomed the martyr of thought and imagination; but something exotic in Poe, which hinted of another clime and age, repelled these cold and clannish spirits. So, homeless in his life, Poe is still beating about like the Flying Dutchman, ever seeking and always denied a harbor in his country-people’s hearts.

Poe had of course a part in this tragedy of errors and misconceptions, — but, as I should judge, an entirely honorable one. There are three excellent ways in which a man can get himself disliked by his fellows: he may stand aloof from them, he may indulge in the practice of irony, and he may be “ever right, Menenins, ever right.” Poe was an offender in all these respects. He never seems to have had an intimate friend — anyone who could do for him what Hamlet craved of Horatio with his dying breath. Somebody said of Calhoun that he looked like one who had lost the power of communicating with his fellow beings. A like spell of isolation is upon Poe. Wanting in humor, he sometimes tried to range his mind with others by the use of irony; or he assumed an air which I suppose he thought that of a man of the world, but which is quite detestable. He wrote an essay on Diddling as an exact science, and people jumped to the conclusion that he was Jeremy himself in person. He took a grim delight in scenes of horror, and people imagined he acted them in life. “The Raven” has been described as an utterance of remorse. Remorse for what? I have read everything that has been gathered about Poe, and I cannot, for my life, imagine him as ­[page 41:] anything but a stainless and chivalrous knight. The few, trivial, and usually unsubstantiated smutches which microscopic industry has found on his armor would not show at all against a panoply less pure and white.

I remember reading an anecdote of a lieutenant in the British Navy who entertained Byron on his ship in the Levant. Byron was proud of his seamanship, and the acute officer would carefully have something disarranged in the top hamper of the ship before the poet came on deck in the morning. When the latter did so, he would cock his eye aloft and immediately discover and point out the irregularity. The lieutenant would apologize, and have it remedied. Byron liked that lieutenant, and men in general like those who give them something to forgive. Poe, a logic machine, was absolutely incapable of those pleasing flaws and deficiencies which allow other people to have a good opinion of themselves. He always added up true. The tradition is that he was a drunkard. There is not evidence enough against him to hang a dog. All the testimony actually produced — all the witnesses who give their names and addresses, people who lived with him and knew him best, deny it. That he was easily affected by liquor and sometimes overcome by it, is possible, — and what does it matter? That there was any debauchery is impossible. His poverty proves it — the amount of work he did proves it; and, most of all, the quality of what he wrote, which grew in power and concentration to the last. There is more plausibility in the accusation of irregularity in money matters. In a life so harassed as Poe’s, a few ragged debts might easily be left. But here again there is nothing definite. Nobody has come forward with notes of hand or evidences of defalcation. On the contrary, letter after letter has come to light showing Poe’s scrupulous exactitude about obligations. Practically, he was cheated by almost everyone with whom he came in contact — and then these, to shield themselves, cried after him “Stop thief!” He built up two or three magazines for others, and when, dissatisfied with the pittance thrown him, he designed a magazine of his own, he was laughed at and decried. Really, my only grievance against Poe is that he was too good. He ought to have taken to the road and compelled a just tribute at the point of the pistol.

Poe’s principles of criticism are true enough within limits, but they are far from being the whole truth. His lack of humor, deficient knowledge of human nature, and insensibility to that side of greatness which results from mere mass, quite incapacitated him from criticising the mightiest works of literature. But he never attempted such criticism; and for the work he had to do — the appreciation of our modern English or American masters — he was almost infallible. And surely no writer has ever praised his contemporaries and rivals as he did. He seems to have written with no thought of self, with a humility almost pathetic. He may be said [column 2:] to have discovered Hawthorne, and he crowned him king of the short story. His article on Bryant is still a just estimate. The innocently imitative quality of Longfellow’s genius offended him, but he speaks of the New England poet otherwise with respect, and calls him the leading poet of the day. He fairly returned Lowell’s praise. His enthusiasm for Tennyson was excessive: it was idolatry. He pointed out Mrs. Browning’s faults, but wrote of her with a fervor which no one else has imitated. His eulogy of the singularly neglected R. H. Horne sets one in a glow. This high and generous appreciation of the best in contemporary literature was coupled with a decided distaste for trash, — and, unfortunately, his calling as a critic compelled him to deal more with trash than with excellence. He wrote his Dunciad, and after his death the dunces had their revenge.

Every one of Poe’s greater poems is a distinct and original effort. He could not repeat himself. In the case of the majority of poets, the style is the same throughout — or at most they have two or three different manners. It would not be difficult, for example, to piece together, into a seamless whole, portions of separate poems by Wordsworth or Tennyson. But each one of Poe’s in a vital entity — born once, and not again. He is not, in poetry, one of those constellations which spread over half the sky, which hold their heads in the zenith while their skirts are obscured below the horizon, — rather, he is a small compact cluster of stars. If we could imagine the stars of the Pleiades differently colored — one red, one yellow, one green, and so forth, but each one vividly aflame in its several hue — we should get a good image of Poe’s poetry. He is not, like Shelley, a poet of the fourth dimension, yet neither is he distinctly sensuous, and he furnishes but few copy-book maxims or proverbial phrases. Rather in him imagery, diction, music, merge into one effect, as fire is a compound of a hundred different things. His thought, too, does not obtrude itself. He has, indeed, what I might call the sentiment of profundity rather than special precision of thought.

Poe’s tales seem to me the third collection in point of merit in literature — the other two being the Arabian Nights and Boccaccio. He has not the humor of the one nor the human nature of the other; but he surpasses them both in depth and imagination, and for originality he is unrivalled anywhere. No one else has opened so many paths, burst into so many new regions of romance. Indeed, as one sees authors all over the world painfully following in his tracks, each one exploring a single region which Poe discovered and dismissed in a few pages, one feels that he was the compendium of all possible literary pioneers and explorers — a dozen Columbuses rolled into one.

There is a small group of Poe’s tales, usually passed over, which is worth a moment’s mention. It consists of “The Power of Words,” “The Colloquy of Monus [[Monos]] and Una,” “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” “Shadow, a Fable,” and ­[page 43:] “Silence, a Parable.” They are not wanting in a certain alloy of De Quinceyism which at times mars Poe’s style of perfect plainness; but they are singularly impressive in thought. They have that manner or sentiment of profundity which I have spoken of, more even than his poems; and they lead up to Poe’s final work, “Eureka.”

“Eureka” has, I judge, been less read than anything else Poe wrote. Certainly it has been little discussed. The average critic probably finds it difficult to place, and so lets it alone. It is difficult to place. It is too scientific for rhapsody — too plain for mysticism; and yet it is hardly either science or metaphysics. It might be tersely described as the ideas of Spinoza in the language of Newton. Poe as a thinker resembles those old Greek philosophers — Pythagoras, Parmenides, or Empedocles — who chanted in verse their luminous guesses as to the origin and constitution of things, without troubling themselves as to any analysis of their knowledge. Coleridge said of Spinoza that if It rather than I was the central fact of existence, Spinoza would be right. It and not I was the basis of the Pre-Socratic Greek thinkers; and perhaps our most modern philosophy has the same foundation. Schopenhauer’s substitution of Will for Consciousness as the final fact, and the Darwinian theory, both tend that way. Without knowing anything of Schopenhauer, and anterior to Darwin, Poe’s thought also tends that way. He has nothing of the mathematical pedantry of Spinoza, and of course none of the immense scientific detail of the evolutionists; but I do not see why his guess is not as good as theirs. In one very startling idea he seems to have been anticipated. Deducing that the Universe is finite — mainly because laws cannot be conceived to exist in the unlimited — he goes on to say there may yet exist other worlds and other universes, each in the bosom of its own private and peculiar God. Cardinal Newman is authority for the statement that Franklin used to dally with this idea in conversation. Poe, while in Philadelphia, may possibly have heard of Franklin’s speculation. I can recall nothing like it elsewhere.

I have not space to follow Poe into the other spheres of his intellectual activity — into his studies in Landscape Gardening and Household Decoration, on Versification and the Philosophy of Composition, and much else. Poe, in my judgment, was the greatest intellect America has produced — assuredly the best artist. He reminds me of a sower stalking down a furrow and scattering broadcast seed which a multitude of crows attendant upon him appropriate to their own use and behoof without a single croak of thanks. In a crude new world, a spirit was born to whom even the old world, where time has mellowed and enriched men’s lives by layer on layer of myth and metaphysic, drift after drift of legend and history, decay above decay of citadels and cities and empires, — to whom even this soil and surrounding would have seemed harsh and strange. The crude new world could make nothing of this spirit, except [column 2:] that it was not worth while to waste good provisions on such an uninvited guest, and that it was best to huddle him into his grave with lies. But enough! The little that Poe got is gone. The much that he gave remains — a glory forever.

CHARLES LEONARD MOORE.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:1 - DIAL, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The American Rejection of Poe (C. L. Moore, 1899)