Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 06,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 54-61


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[page 54:]

CHAPTER VI.

DAWNINGS OF GENIUS.

EDGAR POE’S first literary venture was printed in its author’s natal city of Boston, in 1827. What caused him to visit his birthplace is a mystery. Whether a longing to learn something, further of his mother and her family — and neglected honours to her memory caused him frequent qualms of conscience in after years — or whether he merely pilgrimaged to the capital of Massachusetts in hopes of there finding a good market for his poetic labours, has not been, and probably never will be, discovered. At all events, the remembrances which he brought away with him of the “American Athens” were anything but pleasing, although then and there it was, apparently, that he made the acquaintance of his mother’s friends, the Ushers and the Wilsons, people whose names, at least, he made literary use of a few years later on.

His first known literary venture, a tiny tome consisting of only forty pages, inclusive of Preface and Notes, although printed for publication, was “suppressed [page 55:] through circumstances of a private nature.” of the little book runs thus: —

TAMERLANE

AND

OTHER POEMS.

BY A BOSTONIAN.

“Young heads are giddy, and young hearts are warm,
  And make mistakes for manhood to reform.” — Cowper.

BOSTON: CALVIN S. THOMAS.

1827.

What the private reasons were which caused the suppression of this most interesting memento of the poet’s early life can only be conjectured. It is not improbable that the too palpable nature of the autobiographical allusions, the doubtless obnoxious family researches which might be instituted by same, when the ” Bostonian ” of the title-page became identified with Edgar Allan Poe, and perchance the appeal for forgiveness foreshadowed in the motto from Cowper, all combined, or any one separately, may have led to the withdrawal of the book from circulation.

In the Preface to this volume the youthful poet informs his anticipated readers, that the greater part of its contents “were written in the year 1821-22, when the author had not completed his fourteenth year. They were, of course, not intended for publication,” he [page 56:] remarks, and “why they are now published concerns no one but himself. Of the smaller pieces,” he deems “very little need be said: they, perhaps, savour too much of egotism, but they were written by one too young to have any knowledge of the world but from his own breast. In ‘Tamerlane,‘” says the boy-poet, “he has endeavoured to expose the folly of even risking the best feelings of the heart at the shrine of Ambition. He is conscious that in this there are many faults (besides that of the general character of the poem) which, he flatters himself, he could with little trouble have corrected, but, unlike many of his predecessors, has been too fond of his early productions to amend them in his old age. He will not,” he confesses, “say that he is indifferent as to the success of these poems — it might stimulate him to other attempts — but he can safely assert that failure will not at all influence him in a resolution already adopted. This is challenging criticism — let it be so. Nos haec novimus esse nihil,” which concluding assertion, it may be remarked, he lived to prove the falsity of.

Following the preface is “Tamerlane,” which occupies about seventeen pages of the booklet; it is a very different poem from that of Poe’s later years, known by the same title, and is replete with the Byronian influence. A more connected story is afforded by this version than by the later editions; the heroine is [page 57:] named as Ada, and the hero as Alexis, “Tamerlane” being deemed to have been only a nom-de-guerre of the famous warrior. Very many lines, indeed many whole stanzas, are filled with personal allusions to their author, as those alluding to his innate pride and habitual day-dreaming, and when referring to one loved and lost even before what passion was could be known. A belief in his own budding powers is certainly portrayed in such lines as —

“The soul which feels its innate right

The mystic empire and high power

Given by the energetic might

Of genius, at its natal hour ”

and

“There is a power in the high spirit

To know the fate it will inherit

The soul, which knows such power, will still

Find pride the ruler of its will”

and allusion to those around him may readily be discovered by those sceptics

“Who hardly will conceive

That any should become ‘great,’ born

In their own sphere — will not believe

That they shall stoop in life to one

Whom daily they are wont to see

Familiarly — whom Fortune’s sun

Hath ne‘er shone dazzlingly upon,

Lowly — and of their own degree.” [page 58:]

The idea which the young aspirant for fame enunciated in verse, he also devoted a note to, to demonstrate that it is very difficult “to make the generality of mankind believe that one with whom they are upon terms of intimacy shall be called in the world a ‘great man,‘” and he deems the evident reason to be that “there are few great men, and that their actions are constantly viewed by the mass of people through the medium of distance. The prominent parts of their characters are alone noted; and those properties which are minute and common to every one, not being observed, seem to have no connection with a beat character.”

The “Fugitive Pieces” which follow “Tamerlane” are all more or less tinged with the same cast of thought which from first to last characterised their author, although perhaps more indicative of the influence of contemporary poets than any of his later productions. Haunting sorrow, strong ambition, and mental rambles into the shadowy realms of dreamland, permeate these earliest verses of his boyhood as profusely as they do the musical refrains of his “lonesome latter years.” In one of these mental adumbrations he cries —

“Oh! that my young life were a lasting dream!

My spirit not awaking till the beam

Of an eternity should bring the morrow.

Yes! though that long dream were of hopeless sorrow, [page 59:]

‘Twere better than the cold reality

Of waking life, to him whose heart must be,

And hath been, still upon the lovely earth,

A chaos of deep passion from his birth.”

The “Visit of the Dead,” which follows the piece quoted from, is evidently inspired by Byron’s “Dream,” whilst a succeeding lyric from the same source is confessedly entitled “Imitation;” some lines in it, however, are very characteristic, such as

“A dark unfathomed tide

Of interminable pride

A mystery and a dream

Should my early life seem.”

The well-known little lyric, “A Dream,” which appeared in this edition, also contained this initial stanza — afterwards omitted-of significant self-allusion:

“A wildered being from my birth,

My spirit spurned control;

But now, abroad on the wide earth,

Where wanderest thou, my soul!”

whilst the following penultimate piece, entitled “The Happiest Day,” to those who have thus far followed his story, cannot fail to be replete with autobiographical implication:

The happiest day — the happiest hour

My seared and blighted heart hath known;

The highest hope of pride and power,

I feel hath flown. [page 60:]

Of power! said I? Yes! such I ween;

But they have vanished long, alas!

The visions of my youth have been —

But let them pass.

And pride, what have I now with thee?

Another brow may ev‘n inherit

The venom thou host poured on me

Be still, my spirit.

The happiest day — the happiest hour —

Mine eyes shall see — have ever seen;

The brightest glance of pride and power,

I feel — have been.

But were that hope of pride and power

Now offered with the pain

Ev‘n then I felt — that brightest hour

I would not live again

For on its wing was dark alloy,

And as it fluttered, fell

An essence, powerful to destroy

A soul that knew it well.”

With the lines entitled “The Lake” — the poem in the collection — Edgar Poe’s earliest venture closes.

Taken altogether, and due allowance being made for some exceptional beauties and occasional originalities, there was not much in this 1827 volume to show the world that a new poetic power was about to arise; its author’s incomparable melody of rhythm [page 61:] and haunting power of words were not, as yet, fore shadowed.

But this little book was suppressed, and its author, in all probability, recalled to Richmond. Whatever arrangements were made as to the future can only be speculated upon — the result was, however, unless the poet’s most solemn word is to be doubted, that he departed for Europe; and it is generally supposed, and by Poe was never contradicted, in order to offer his services to the Greeks against their Turkish tyrants.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 06)