Text: Charles Leonard Moore, “Poe Again,” Dial, April 1, 1899, 47:286-287


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­ [page 236:]

POE AGAIN.

(To the Editor of THE DIAL.)

Is it not strange how Poe’s name is usually the signal for a free fight? One might go up and down the streets proclaiming that Longfellow or Bryant or Whitman or anybody was the greatest American poet, and all would be somnolent and calm. But to speak of Poe in that connection is to evoke cudgels. In my case it is all Donnybrook to a single shillelab. One critic, indeed, whom I am proud to call my friend, Mr. Pennypacker of the Philadelphia “Inquirer,” has stood forth to champion the champion of an oppressed poet. Mr. Pennypacker is in some sense the father of the new Poe cult, so it is only right he should fight for his offspring.

Although I assumed in my article printed in THE DIAL Some time since that there was a widespread prejudice against Poe, I am surprised at the extent of it. One correspondent, dating, of all places, from Baltimore, is particularly incensed. He claims it to be a well-known fact that whenever Poe wished to make a parade of learning he was in the habit of getting Professor Anthon to coach him. I did not refer to the vexed question of Poe’s scholarship in my article, deeming it superfluous to do so. In all probability Poe had the same sort of learning as had Shakespeare, Goethe, and Emerson. It was rich and various and vital, rather than exact and dull and dead. He knew at least the alphabets of the whole circle of sciences and arts, — knew their relations to each other and their bearings on human life. And when he wanted any special information he knew what slave of the lamp, Anthon or another, to summon up to get it for him. The notion that he had Professor Anthon on tap during the whole of his literary life is really a humorous one. We must imagine him sending an order for an assorted bill of erudition, and getting in return, as per invoice, samples and supplies of such goods to deck his show-window. In nine cases out of ten such a procedure would be more trouble to any man who had wits of his own than to study up the subjects for himself. The same correspondent also states that he has talked with several New York literary men about Poe, and they all gave him a bad character. Very likely. New York literary men are capable of anything. My correspondent has the advantage over me in knowing them, and I cannot contradict him. I have gone up to New York more than once, but I always camped on a hillside and preached the destruction of the city from afar.

However, my proper purpose in recurring to the Poe question is to answer, as far as I may, the temperate and courteous communications which have appeared in THE DIAL. With Professor Tolman I have very little quarrel. I have no doubt he is sealed of the tribe of Poe himself. His analysis of Poe’s “additions” is amusing. I always suspected there was something queer about that treasure chest, but I never worked it out. Such errors, however, are even more trivial than Shakespeare’s anachronisms, and do not touch what I meant when I spoke of his inerrancy. I referred to what I might term the mathematics of character, — that sense of logic in him which compelled him to think straight and act straight in a world which is fond of curves and compliances. I have no desire to make Poe out an angel or an unsinning man. He was doubtless [column 2:] nothing of the sort. But his faults were such as comport with truth. His great sin indeed was the same as Dante’s, and he has doubtless long been treading with bended back that ledge of Purgatory where Pride is punished.

Professor Tolman says that Poe can never be popular. Mr. Harvey, on the other hand, claims that he is popular, or at least widely prized. This is the crux of the case. He was immensely popular in his lifetime — his work startled the public and vivified magazines — and yet he was unpaid. He is popular in death — “The Raven,” I suppose, is, after Gray’s “Elegy,” the best known short poem in the language — and yet he is proscribed. It is the horrible injustice of this fate which moved me to protest.

Mr. Harvey, in spite of real fairness, is dominated by the traditional conception of Poe as a sort of a Giant Pape sitting in the door of a cave strewn with human bones and grinning horribly. It does not appear to me that Poe is often baleful or ghastly; his art is usually controlled by too strong a sense of beauty to be really unpleasant. But he is prevailingly tragic. If Mr. Harvey will look squarely at the masterpieces of tragic poetry he will find that they are all of the charnel and the pit. What breath of plain air is there in the “Ædipas Tyrannos,” or “Macbeth,” or the greater part of “Faust”? Is there not in all of them the intense and contorted atmosphere of a thunderstorm? And with lesser tragedians, such as Ford or Webster or Emily Brontë, the sheer horror is still more accentuated. The difference between these writers and Poe is that they get their tragic effects from human beings, while he deals mainly with abstractions. From a Greek point of view, and even more from that of the art of the East, this conventionalizing and generalizing may be defended as tending to unity, proportion, and effect.

And this brings me to Mr. Barrows’s charge against Poe of a want of realism, naturalness, or, to put it in its strongest word, truth. Truth, like heaven, has many mansions. Every age inhabits a different one — or to be more accurate, mankind vibrates between its town house of conventionality and its home amid the forests and the floods. In the day of the “Spectator,” Shakespeare was thought a barbarian or a wildly irregular genius. In the time of the domestic novel, Poe naturally went to the wall. The volcanoes are extinct or are piped to furnish heat to our hot-houses. The witch Imagination has been thrust out of doors and the hag Fact installed in her place. Our ideal felicity is a balance at our bankers, a country villa, and everything handsome about us. But the slicked-up human being is a savage still. Fire and flood and famine and disease and war still exist. The perturbations of nature and the passions of man are still untamed. And because Poe, in an odd enough way I grant, expresses these primal things, he is nearer eternal truth than the painters and reporters of the surface of society.

It may be answered me that there are other primal things — sunlight and peace and happiness. Of course. But Tragedy does not much deal with them. People may say that they do not like Tragedy — that they will not read Tragedy. The incredible childishness of the American mind does say something of the sort. And it identifies the artist with his art; it executes the bearer of bad tidings; it hisses the villain of the melodrama from the stage. The consent of the rest of the world, however, calls him the greatest poet who faces the darkest storm of life, who searches the deepest chasms ­[page 287:] and climbs the most inaccessible peaks of human nature. Poe’s art is tragic — therefore it deals with evil — it could not do otherwise. But that he compromises with evil or is wanting in moral motives is a singular error. The reverse is the case to a degree that hurts his art. His spirituality and high-mindedness are everywhere apparent. Conscience comes too easily upon the scene; the Furies lark around every corner; Nemesis follows upon the slightest transgression. It is only necessary to compare him with Stevenson to bring this out. Stevenson deals with evil almost in the spirit of mischief. The worse his characters are the better he likes them. He as much exceeds the sane tolerance of Shakespeare, which accepts evil because it is necessary and then does justice to it, as Poe falls short of such an outlook.

“Place aux dames” is an honored custom, and I hope my woman critic will forgive me for leaving her communication to the last. I do it because it is perhaps the most important one I have to deal with. To give up Poe as a heartless genius is too much — it leaves his intellect living in too dry a place. My own view of the matter is that his nature vibrated between the two poles of thought and feeling; that it was his super-sensitiveness, his extra emotionality, which brought him half his hurts, and which caused him to case himself as in a shell against the world. To those who accept Lowell’s flippant characterization of Poe as one whose heart had been squeezed out by his brain, it must seem strange that nearly all his best poems were dictated by personal affection — were tributes to those he loved. It is true they are not like the usual run of poems of the affection — the keepsake kind. Poe was a conscious artist even when most moved, when most inspired. “Ulalume” was rejected originally by a woman editor, and it is a strange dirge for a dead wife. One of the main uses of books of travel, however, is to teach us that all men do not think or feel alike. In this matter of high sentiment, as Matthew Arnold would scoffingly phrase it, the Anglo-Saxon temperament is not to have the last word. I do not see that Poe’s embodiment of his wife in Ulalume is more out of the way than Petrarch’s personifications and canonizations of Lady Laura, or than Dante’s using Beatrice to typify the Divine Wisdom and putting in her mouth immeasurable sermons of scholastic philosophy. Petrarch and Dante have not been accounted heartless men, though both of them were probably more faithless to their loves than Poe. It will be admitted, I think, that it is difficult as well as ungracious to argue with a woman. Their methods of thought are different from those of men; and, besides, like Britomart in Spencer, they always tilt with enchanted lances. My critic reproaches Poe for not voicing the common feelings of mankind and then when he does this very thing, coining his heart blood into tokens of beauty which must be current forever — she turns upon him and taunts him with the musical outpourings of self pity. What will satisfy her? A poet must speak his feelings and he must not. Resolve me this riddle. As for girding up his loins in the strenuous Anglo-Norman fashion — I should like to know what else Poe was doing all his life. I know of no poet who played his part in a manlier way. He faced the world with fierce independence. He cringed to no one and asked no help. He labored honestly to support his family. He paid his own “freight,” which we have the authority of Eugene Field for asserting that Horace did not do. He did not go gallivanting after strange [column 2:] women. And when his wife died he mourned her in an immortal poem. In the name of all the Gods and fishes what can the most exacting feminine ask more?

I have only one thing else to notice, and that is what somebody calls the “bad physics and worse metaphysics” of the “Eureka.” I am not to speak of physics, yet I can see there are some considerable errors in the piece. A notable one is a grossly absurd theory as to the variations in vegetation in high latitudes in past times. The received hypothesis is that they were caused by the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit. Poe was perfectly cognizant of Kepler’s laws and the mistake is a mere oversight. There an other flaws, but I do not believe enough of them to make his physics at all foolish. His main position, the finite nature of the physical universe, is, I understand, coming to be the accepted astronomical view. As to his metaphysics, he shares the fate of all other philosophers in that they are not provable. But this thought is interesting and in the main original. One of the most remarkable things in “Eureka” in the suggestion of a new method of proof — or of a sense for reaching such a proof, which he names the intuitional faculty. To a certain extent this faculty is the same an Kant’s moral judgment that issues “categorical imperatives,” and it is still more closely akin to Cardinal Newman’s Illative Sense. That the physicists and English School of philosophers deny the existence of any such judgment or faculty or sense does not rob Poe of the credit of a bold speculation.

And now I am done. It is not the least my desire to claim for Poe a place with the great world poets. I think, though, that he is the most vital and universal force in letters America has yet produced. As compared with Tennyson, when one takes him with all his best and makes the necessary omissions and exceptions from Tennyson, they are, I think, about equal in range and equal in execution. And the underivable and daemonic spark burns brighter in Poe than in the English poet. On the whole, I would rank him beside the great originating poets of the beginning of the century, beside Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Leopardi, and Heine. If this estimate is true he has not had his just deserts. That it is true in my thesis, which, as I think I have sufficiently defended it, I deliver to the judgment of others.

CHARLES LEONARD MOORE.

Philadelphia, March 17, 1899.


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Notes:

Charles Leonard Moore (1854-1925) was a poet and author of several essays. He was also a member of the Pegasus Club, a club of poets in Philadelphia with more than a few hints of Poe’s fictional Folio Club. (The Pegasus Club is briefly discussed in Publisher’s Weekly, July 7, 1894, pp. 12-13, and the New York Times, January 25, 1902.) More comments futher on Poe in his book Incense & Iconoclasm: Studies in Literature (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).

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