Text: Arthur Hobson Quinn, “Chapter 07,” Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941), pp. 138-165


[page 138:]

Hope Deferred — Al Aaraaf

While Poe waited in Baltimore the results of his application, he looked up his relatives, of whom there were already quite a few, and made other contacts. According to Poe’s letter of May 20, 1829, to Allan from Baltimore, he was well received by men who had known his grandfather. He renewed his acquaintance with William Wirt, who had been offered the presidency and professorship of law at the University of Virginia during the year of Poe’s residence there. Wirt had just returned to Baltimore after his distinguished career as Attorney General of the United States, but it was probably his fame as the biographer of Patrick Henry that led Poe to confide his own literary aspirations to the older man. Wirt treated him with great courtesy, read “Al Aaraaf” at one sitting, and advised Poe to consult Robert Walsh, the Editor of the American Quarterly Review, and Judge Joseph Hopkinson, who were leaders of literary opinion in Philadelphia. Wirt was naturally puzzled by “Al Aaraaf,” but generously attributed the difficulty to his own supposed deficiency as a critic of poetry and prophesied that it would “please modern readers.”(1)

Poe took his manuscript to Philadelphia, and submitted it to Isaac Lea, of Carey, Lea and Carey, one of the foremost publishers of that day. The letter accompanying the manuscript is of singular interest, and has never been published. It is undated, but it was answered on May 27, 1829. It is the earliest known letter by Poe outside of the Valentine Letters.(2)

­ ­ ­

Letter from Poe to Isaac Lea (page 1) [thumbnail] Letter from Poe to Isaac Lea (page 2) [thumbnail] Letter from Poe to Isaac Lea (page 3) [thumbnail]

[Illustrations on pages 139-140]
Poe’s letter to Isaac Lea, explaining “Al Aaraaf”

Dear Sir,

I should have presumed upon the politeness of Mr. R. Walsh for a personal introduction to yourself, but was prevented by his leaving town the morning after my arrival — You will be so kind [page 142:] as to consider this as a literary introduction until his return from N. Y. I send you, for your tenderest consideration, a poem —

“Some sins do bear their privilege on earth.”

You will oblige me by placing this among the number.

It was my choice or chance or curse

To adopt the cause for better or worse

And with my worldly goods & wit

And soul & body worship it.

But not to detain you with my nonsense it were as well to speak of “the poem.”

Its title is “Al Aaraaf” from the Al Aaraaf of the Arabians, a medium between Heaven and Hell where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil & even happiness which they suppose to be the characteristic of heavenly enjoyment

Un no rompido sueno [[sueño]]

Un dia puro, allegre, libre

Quiera —

Libre de amor, de zelo

De odio, de esperanza, de rezelo —

I have placed this “Al Aaraaf” in the celebrated star discovered by Tycho Brahe which appeared & dissapeared [sic] so suddenly — It is represented as a messenger star of the Deity, &, at the time of its discovery by Tycho, as on an embassy to our world. One of the peculiarities of Al Aaraaf is that, even after death, those who make choice of the star as their residence do not enjoy immortality — but, after a second life of high excitement, sink into forgetfulness & death — This idea is taken from Job — “I would not live always — let me alone.” I have imagined that some would not be pleased (excuse the bull) with an immortality even of bliss. The poem commences with a sonnet (illegitimate) a la mode de Byron in his prisoner of Chillon. But this is a digression — I have imagined some well known characters of the age of the star’s appearance, as transferred to Al Aaraaf — viz Michael Angelo — and others — of these Michael Angelo as yet, alone appears. I send you parts 1st 2nd & 3d. I have reasons for wishing not to publish [page 143:] the 4th at present — for its character depends in a measure upon the success or failure of the others —

As these 3 parts will be insufficient for a volume — I have wished to publish some minor poems with Al Aaraaf — But as the work would depend for character upon the principal poem it is needless, at present to speak of the rest.

If the poem is published, succeed or not, I am “irrecoverably a poet.” But to your opinion I leave it, and as I should be proud of the honor of your press, failing in that I will make no other application.

I should add a circumstance which, tho’ no justification of a failure, is yet a boast in success. The poem is by a minor & truly written under extraordinary disadvantages.

With great respect

Your obt. sevt.


I am staying at

I cannot refrain from adding that Mr. Wirt’s voice is in my favor.

Poe was staying at Heiskill’s Indian Queen Hotel, 15 South Fourth Street, which stood until about ten years ago. How long he remained in Philadelphia is not known. Judging from his expression “my nonsense,” the quatrain may be his own composition, but it certainly adds nothing to his fame.

The Spanish quotation is from “Vida Retirada” by the greatest mystical poet of Spain, Fray Luis de León. A literal translation is,

“An unbroken sleep

A day pure, joyful, free

I wish —

Free from love, from jealousy

From hatred, from hopes, from suspicion.”(3)

Poe compressed into his quotation two stanzas of the original, the sixth and the eighth, yet produced in their union a connected idea. [page 144:] This indicates that he had a fairly accurate knowledge of Spanish.(4)

Of great interest are the statements concerning the origin of “Al Aaraaf” and its meaning, which, to save repetition, I shall discuss in my later analysis of the poem. But even more important is the fact that Poe sends only parts first, second, and third, although he has part fourth written. Evidently we do not have all of “Al Aaraaf.” The boy of twenty was still confident, notwithstanding all his experiences. “Succeed or not, I am ‘irrecoverably a poet.” Though others doubted, he knew.

Poe’s letter of May 29, 1829, to Allan, tells of his hopes:

From such a man as Mr. Wirt — the flattering character he has given of the work, will surely be to you a recommendation in its favor.

In the conclusion of the letter you will see that he advises me to “get a personal introduction to Mr. Walsh” the editor of the American Quaterly [sic] Review & get his interest in my favor — that interest, and his highest encomiums on the poem are already obtained — as Editor of the Review he promises to notice it, (5) which will assure it, if not of popularity, of success —

Under these circumstances I have thought it my duty to write to you on the subject — Believing you to be free from prejudice, I [page 145:] think you will aid me, if you see cause; At my time of life there is much in being before the eye of the world — if once noticed I can easily cut out a path to reputation. It can certainly be of no disadvantage as it will not, even for a moment, interfere with other objects which I have in view.

I am aware of the difficulty of getting a poem published in this country — Mr. Wirt & Mr. Walsh have advised me of that — but the difficulty should be no object, with a proper aim in view.

If Messrs. Carey, Lea, & Carey, should decline publishing (as I have no reason to think they will not — they having invariably declined it with all our American poets) that is upon their own risk the request I have to make is this — that you will give me a letter to Messrs. Carey, Lea, & Carey saying that if in publishing the poem “Al Aaraaf” they shall incur any loss — you will make it good to them.

The cost of publishing the work, in a style equal to any of our American publications, will at the extent be $100 — This then, of course, must be the limit of any loss supposing not a single copy of the work to be sold — It is more than probable that the work will be profitable & that I may gain instead of lose, even in a pecuniary way.

I would remark, in conclusion that I have long given up Byron as a model — for which, I think, I deserve some credit — If you will help me in this matter I will be always grateful for your kindness.

If you conclude upon giving me a trial please enclose me the letter to Messrs. Carey, Lea, & Carey — I shall wait anxiously for your answer —.(6)

On this letter Allan has endorsed, “replied to Monday, 8th June 1829 strongly censuring his conduct — and refusing any aid.” The manuscript was at least received by the publishers, probably due to Poe’s reference in the opening paragraph to Mr. Walsh’s willingness to introduce him to the firm. When Poe writes to Allan on June 25th, the firm still has the poem. The same note reveals another piece of bad luck, which Poe tells Allan evidently because his foster-father had objected to his request for further funds:

I will explain the matter clearly — —— —— —— robbed me at Beltzhoover’s Hotel while I was asleep in the same room with him of all the money I had with me (about 46$) of which I recovered [page 146:] $10 — by searching his pockets the ensuing night, when he acknowledged the theft — I have been endeavouring in vain to obtain the balance from him — he says he has not got it & begs me not to expose him — & for his wife’s sake I will not. I have a letter from him referring to the subject, which I will show you on arriving in Richmond.

I have been moderate in my expences & $50 of the money which you sent me I applied in paying a debt contracted at Old Point for my substitute, for which I gave my note.(7)

The robber was his second cousin, James Mosher Poe,(8) son of Jacob Poe. Poe was evidently not living with his relatives as yet. In his letter of July 15th he states definitely: “I am very anxious to return home thro’ Washington when I have every hope of being appointed for Sepr. & besides by being detained at Baltimore I am incurring unnecessary expense as Grandmother is not in a situation to give me any accomodation.”(9)

We can judge the nature of Allan’s letters, from Poe’s reply on July 26th, which throws light on Allan’s growing coldness:

July 26, 1829

Dear Pa,

I received yours of the 19th on the 22d ulto & am truly thankful for the money which you sent me, notwithstanding the taunt with which it was given “that men of genius ought not to apply to your aid” — It is too often their necessity to want that little timely assistance which would prevent such applications —

I did not answer your letter by return of mail on account of my departure for Washington the next morning — but before I proceed to tell the event of my application I think it my duty to say something concerning the accusations & suspicions which are contained in your letter —

After giving his explanation of the matter of the substitute, already quoted, Poe continues: [page 147:]

If you will take into consideration the length of time I have been from home, which was occasioned by my not hearing from you (& I was unwilling to leave the city without your answer, expecting it every day) & other expenses, you will find that it has been impossible for me to enter into any extravagancies or improper expense — even supposing I had not lost the $46 — the time which intervened between my letter & your answer in the first instance was 22 days — in the latter one month & 4 days — as I had no reason to suppose you would not reply to my letter as I was unconscious of having offended, it would have been imprudent to leave without your answer — this expense was unavoidable — As regards the money which was stolen I have sent you the only proof in my possession a letter from Mosher — in which there is an acknowledgement of the theft — I have no other. On receiving your last letter, I went immediately to Washington, on foot, & have returned the same way, having paid away $40 for my bill & being unwilling to spend the balance when I might avoid it, until I could see what prospects were in view —(10)

Poe can certainly not be accused of extravagance, and the walk to Washington may be put to the credit of his determination to obtain the appointment. After a detailed account of his interview with Secretary Eaton, who told him there were still ten names ahead of him on the roll, Poe concludes:

Having now explained every circumstance that seemed to require an explanation & shown that I have spared no exertions in the pursuit of my object, I write to you for information as to what course I must pursue — I would have returned home immediately but for the words in your letter “I am not particularly anxious to see you” — I know not how to interpret them[[.]]

I could not help thinking that they amounted to a prohibition to return — if I had any means of support until I could obtain the appointment, I would not trouble you again — I am conscious of having offended you formerly — greatly — but I thought that had been forgiven, at least you told me so — I know that I have done nothing since to deserve your displeasure —

As regards the poem, I have offended only in asking your approbation — I can publish it upon the terms you mentioned — but will have no more to do with it without your entire approbation — I [page 148:] will wait with great anxiety for your answer. You must be aware how important it is that I should hear from you soon — as I do not know how to act.”(11)

Poe still thought of the Allan residence as “home,” and he was puzzled because Allan evidently was not anxious to have him return. If John Allan’s own statements in his will are to be credited, there were probably reasons, to be discussed later, why Allan was quite willing to have Poe out of Richmond. In the meantime, Poe was active in securing the publication of his new volume of poems, as the following letter indicates:

Baltimore, July 28, 1829.  
[Received July 30, answered August 3]

Messrs. Carey, Lea and Carey

Having made a better disposition of my poems, than I had any right to expect (inducing me to decline publication on my own account) I would thank you to return me the Mss. by a gentleman who will hand you this by mail.

I should have been proud of having your firm for my publishers and would have preferred publishing with your name even at a disadvantage, had my circumstances admitted of so doing.

. . . . Mr. Lea, during our short interview at your store, mentioned “The Atlantic Souvenir” and spoke of my attempting something for that work.

I know nothing which could give me greater pleasure than to see any of my productions in so becoming a dress . . . notwithstanding the assertions of Mr. Jno. Neal to the contrary, who now and then hitting, thro’ sheer impudence upon a correct judgment in matters of authorship, is most unenviably ridiculous whenever he touches the fine arts. As I am unacquainted with the method of proceeding in offering any piece for acceptance (having been some time absent from this country) would you, Gentlemen, have the kindness to set me in the right way?

Nothing could give me greater pleasure than any communication from Messrs. Carey, Lea and Carey. With the greatest respect and best wishes, I am, Gentlemen, your most obedient servant,

EDGAR A. POE(12) [page 149:]

The statement concerning his recent absence from the country is one of those deliberate attempts to conceal his term of service in the Army, which must always be considered in judging Poe’s credibility when he speaks of his own career. He did his best to conceal the Army period, because he was ashamed of it, and naturally he had to invent other episodes like the European trip to fill in the gap. The dates of the Valentine Letters and the letter to Mr. Lea prove, of course, that he had not recently been out of the United States.

Allan did not reply to Poe’s letter of July 26th, so Poe wrote again and evidently received some help. His acknowledgment of August 10th contains an interesting picture of his family relations:

August 10th 1829

Dear Pa,

I received yours this morning which relieved me from more trouble than you can well imagine — I was afraid that you were offended & although I knew that I had done nothing to deserve your anger, I was in a most uncomfortable situation — without one cent of money — in a strange place & so quickly engaged in difficulties after the serious misfortunes which I have just escaped — My grandmother is extremely poor & ill (paralytic) My aunt Maria if possible still worse & Henry entirely given up to drink & unable to help himself, much less me —

I am unwilling to appear obstinate as regards the substitute so will say nothing more concerning it — only remarking that they will no longer enlist men for the residue of another’s enlistment as formerly, consequently my substitute was enlisted for 5 years not 3 —

I stated in my last letter (to which I refer you) that Mr. Eaton gave me strong hopes for Sepr. at any rate that the appt. could be obtained for June next — I can obtain decent board lodging & washing with other expenses of mending &c for 5 & perhaps even for 4 1/2;$ per week —

If I obtain the appt. by the last of Sepr. the amt of expense would be at most $30 — If I should be unfortunate & not obtain it until June I will not desire you to allow as much as that per week because by engaging for a longer period at a cheap boarding house I can do with much less — say even 10 even 8$ pr month — anything with which you think it possible to exist — I am not so anxious of obtaining money from your good nature as of preserving your good will — [page 150:]

I am extremely anxious that you should believe that I have not attempted to impose upon you — I will in the meantime (if you wish it) write you often, but pledge myself to apply for no other assistance than what you shall think proper to allow —

I left behind me in Richmond a small trunk containing books & some letters — will you forward it on to Baltimore to the care of H. W. Bool Jr. & if you think I may ask so much perhaps you will put in it for me some few clothes as I am nearly without —

Give my love to Miss Valentine —

I remain

Dear Pa

Yours affectionately


There is something pitiful in the details of the plan by which Poe hopes to keep down his expenses. More important, however, is the picture of the family. Mrs. David Poe had a very small pension of $240 a year from the State of Maryland, which was making a belated return for the money her husband had paid for the privilege of serving his adopted country. Henry Poe was, as usual, a liability. Mrs. Clemm, who was to play such a large part in his life, is also mentioned as not being of any assistance to him.

Maria Clemm, about whom there are almost as many varying opinions as there are about Poe, was the daughter of David Poe, Senior. She was born March 17, 1790.(14) She had married on July 12, 1817(15) William Clemm, Jr., whose first wife, Harriet Poe, was the daughter of George Poe, and therefore her first cousin. There was, apparently, an objection on the part of the Clemm family to this marriage of William and Maria, but in any event she received no help from her husband’s people. It is not clear how she maintained her children after her husband’s death in 1826. Henry had been born in 1818; Virginia Maria, who was born August 22, 1820, had died and was buried November 5, 1822; Virginia Eliza, born August 15, 1822, and baptized November 5th, was to marry Edgar Poe.(16) [page 151:]

Mrs. Clemm is listed in Matchett’s Baltimore Directory for 1827 as the “preceptoress of school, Stiles Street, North Side near Foot Bridge.” She does not appear in the 1829 Directory, which, incidentally, contains no one of the name of Poe. There is no certain evidence that Poe was living with her in 1829; the reference on August 10th implies that he was not.(17) Allan sent him fifty dollars on August 19th, but that was the last help Poe received from him until November 18th, when Allan sent him eighty dollars. The letter which drew this amount from his foster-father is indeed pitiful:

Balto. Nov: 12th 1829

Dear Pa,

I wrote you about a fortnight ago and as I have not heard from you, I was afraid you had forgotten me —

I would not trouble you so often if I was not extremely pinched — I am almost without clothes — and, as I board by the month, the lady with whom I board is anxious for her money — I have not had any (you know) since the middle of August —

I hope the letter I wrote last was received in which you will see that I have cleared myself from any censure of neglect as regards W. P. —

Hoping that you will not forget to write as soon as you receive this

I am      Dear Pa

Yours affectionately


Poe was evidently boarding and was not yet with Mrs. Clemm, although the letter of November 18th shows that she was helping him with his wardrobe. He acted as her agent on December 10th in the assignment of a slave, named Edwin, to Henry Ridgway, for a term of nine years. Mrs. Clemm received forty dollars for the services of the slave.(19) How she obtained him is not explained in the legal document, recently discovered in the courthouse at Baltimore. [page 152:]

Poe’s letter of November 18th, in addition to the evidence that Mr. Allan had resumed his financial help, contained the important announcement:

“The Poems will be printed by Hatch & Dunning of this city upon terms advantageous to me they printing it & giving me 250 copies of the book: — I will send it on by Mr. Dunning who is going immediately to Richmond —”(20)

There is no evidence in the correspondence that Allan contributed to the publication of the poems. Yet Poe’s very mention of them indicates that he had cause to believe that Allan had changed his mind since his earlier censure. Perhaps Allan’s own abortive literary aspirations may have made him kinder, or the notice which John Neal printed in the September number of his magazine, The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette, may have made some impression upon him. John Neal had lived in Baltimore from 1815 to 1823, while he was writing his Byronic poems and novels. He had belonged to the Delphians, a literary coterie of Baltimore, and had edited their periodical, The Portico, for a brief period. By his invasion of England from 1823 to 1827 he had won some reputation, and his word as a critic was important. The first published criticism of a poet’s verses makes an impression upon him unlike any other that afterwards comes to him, and Neal’s comment was not unfriendly: “If E. A. P. of Baltimore — whose lines about ‘Heaven,’ though he professes to regard them as altogether superior to anything in the whole range of American poetry, save two or three trifles referred to, are, though nonsense, rather exquisite nonsense — would but do himself justice [he] might make a beautiful and perhaps a magnificent poem. There is a good deal here to justify such a hope.”(21) Neal then quoted from “Fairyland” which Poe had evidently called “Heaven” in sending the verses to Neal, and concluded: “He should have signed it Bah! We have no room for others.”

Apparently this was not Poe’s first connection with Neal. In a letter from the latter to Mary S. Gove, November 30, 1846,(22) Neal states that Poe would have dedicated his first volume of poems to Neal if he had [page 153:] not assured the young poet that “such a dedication would be a positive injury to him and his book.” It is possible that Neal is referring to Tamerlane of 1827, since he returned to this country in the summer of 1827. In the original edition of 1827, there is no dedication to Neal, but in the 1829 edition the reprint of “Tamerlane” is “respectfully dedicated” to him. Neal may, of course, have been ignorant of the 1827 volume. To him, Poe’s “first volume” may have meant Al Aaraaf, and the dedication of “Tamerlane” may have been without Neal’s consent.

Poe evidently sent advance sheets of the new volume to editors, and Neal responded by printing Poe’s letter, which contains his poetical creed and some specific interpretation of “Al Aaraaf.” Under the heading of “Unpublished Poetry” Neal prefaced this letter with some good advice:

The following passages are from the manuscript-works of a young author, about to be published in Baltimore. He is entirely a stranger to us, but with all their faults, if the remainder of “Al Aaraaf” and “Tamerlane” are as good as the body of the extracts here given — to say nothing of the more extraordinary parts, he will deserve to stand high — very high — in the estimation of the shining brotherhood. Whether he will do so, however, must depend, not so much upon his worth now in mere poetry, as upon his worth hereafter in something yet loftier and more generous — we allude to the stronger properties of the mind, to the magnanimous determination that enables a youth to endure the present, whatever the present may be, in the hope, or rather in the belief, the fixed, unwavering belief, that in the future he will find his reward. “I am young” he says in a letter to one who has laid it on our table for a good purpose, “I am young — not yet twenty — am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the more common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination. (By the way, do you remember — or did you ever read the exclamation of Shelley about Shakespeare? — ‘What a number of ideas must have been afloat before such an author could arise!’) I appeal to you as a man that loves the same beauty which I adore — the beauty of the natural blue sky and the sunshiny earth — there can be no tie more strong than that of brother for brother — it is not so much that they love one another, as that they both love the same parent — their affections are always running in the same direction — the same channel — and cannot help mingling.

“I am and have been, from my childhood, an idler. It cannot therefore be said that [page 154:]

“ ‘I left a calling for this idle trade,

A duty broke — a father disobeyed’ —

for I have no father — nor mother.

“I am about to publish a volume of ‘Poems,’ the greater part written before I was fifteen. Speaking about ‘Heaven,’ the editor of the ‘Yankee’ says, ‘He might write a beautiful, if not a magnificent poem’ — (the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard.) I am very certain that as yet I have not written either — but that I can, I will take oath — if they will give me time.

“The poems to be published are ‘Al Aaraaf’ — ‘Tamerlane’ — one about four, and the other about three hundred lines, with smaller pieces. ‘Al Aaraaf’ has some good poetry, and much extravagance, which I have not had time to throw away.

“Al Aaraaf’ is a tale of another world — the star discovered by Tycho Brahe, which appeared and disappeared so suddenly — or rather, it is no tale at all. I will insert an extract about the palace of its presiding Deity, in which you will see that I have supposed many of the lost sculptures of our world to have flown (in spirit) to the star ‘Al Aaraaf’ — a delicate place, more suited to their divinity.

“ ‘Uprear’d upon such height arose a pile

Of gorgeous columns on th’unburthened air —

Flashing, from Parian marble, that twin-smile

Far down upon the wave that sparkled there.’ ”

Poe then quoted two passages from “Al Aaraaf,” totalling forty-one lines, two passages from “Tamerlane,” one of forty-three, and the final passage of twenty-two lines; and fourteen lines from “To — —,” now called “A Dream Within A Dream.” Neal concluded:

“Having allowed our youthful writer to be heard in his own behalf, — what more can we do for the lovers of genuine poetry? Nothing. They who are judges will not need more; and they who are not — why waste words upon them? We shall not.”(23)


Title page of Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems [thumbnail]

[Illustration on page 155]
Title page of “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems”

Among the editors to whom Poe had sent “Fairyland,” Nathaniel Parker Willis included in his “Editor’s Table” a rather contemputous [page 156:] treatment of the verses beginning, “They use that moon no more.”(24) One sentence especially must have galled Poe: “The flame creeps steadily along the edge of the first leaf, taking in its way a compliment to some bygone nonsense verses of our own, inserted in brackets by the author to conciliate our good will.” But Willis was to make up for this unsympathetic greeting in the years to come.

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was published in December, 1829. It is an octavo of seventy-two pages, and is a more attractive volume than Tamerlane and Other Poems. The title poem has usually been avoided by critics of Poe as unintelligible, but while it requires more than one reading, it possesses qualities which make it important in the development of Poe’s poetic power. It was prompted, as Poe says, by the star discovered in Cassiopeia in 1572, by the Swedish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who foretold disaster in consequence. Outside of the general tone of punishment for the breaking of God’s laws, there is little carried over to the poem from this origin. Poe probably was acquainted with the Koran, although he changes the spelling of the star from Al Orf, or in the plural, Al Arâf, to Al Aaraaf. Al Arâf is derived from the word arafa, “to distinguish between things, or to part them.”(25) There are differences of opinion among Mohammedan writers concerning the beings who inhabit Al Arâf, into which we fortunately do not have to go. In Poe’s own words (26) it is “a medium between Heaven and Hell where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil or even happiness which they suppose to be characteristic of heavenly enjoyment.” In other words, it was similar to the conception of Purgatory. He locates this place not in a region, however, but in a Star.

The note struck at once in the poem is the preëminence of beauty. Nothing earthly is found on the star but that which is reflected from flowers, gems, or music, the handmaidens of beauty. Just so far as the dross of earth is shaken off may beauty be approached. Nesace, the Spirit of Beauty, is also the messenger of God. With that dextrous use of phrases that translate color into sound, Poe painted the beauty that is only visible as a cloud which does not impede the view of other beauties:

“Now happiest, loveliest in yon lovely Earth,

Whence sprang the ‘Idea of Beauty’ into birth [page 157:]

(Falling in wreaths thro’ many a startled star,

Like woman’s hair ‘mid pearls, until, afar,

It lit on hills Achaian,(27) and there dwelt),

She look’d into Infinity — and knelt.

Rich clouds, for canopies, about her curled —

Fit emblems of the model of her world —

Seen but in beauty — not impeding sight

Of other beauty glittering thro’ the light —

A wreath that twined each starry form around,

And all the opal’d air in color bound.”

Nesace kneels amid the loveliness of flowers whose scent at times brings on the madness of ecstasy, and her song “is borne in odors up to Heaven.” Her prayer is pure lyric:

“Spirit! that dwellest where,

In the deep sky,

The terrible and fair,

In beauty vie!

Beyond the line of blue —

The boundary of the star

Which turneth at the view

Of thy barrier and thy bar —

Of the barrier overgone

By the comets who were cast

From their pride, and from their throne

To be drudges till the last —

To be carriers of fire

(The red fire of their heart)

With speed that may not tire

And with pain that shall not part —

Who livest — that we know —

In Eternity — we feel —

But the shadow of whose brow

What spirit shall reveal?

Tho’ the beings whom thy Nesace,

Thy messenger hath known,

Have dream’d for thy Infinity

A model of their own — [page 158:]

Thy will is done, oh, God!

The star hath ridden high

Thro’ many a tempest, but she rode

Beneath thy burning eye;

And here, in thought, to thee —

In thought that can alone

Ascend thy empire and so be

A partner of thy throne —

By winged Fantasy,

My embassy is given,

Till secrecy shall knowledge be

In the environs of Heaven.”

The symbolism here deals with the pride of the fallen angels, “comets” they are called, who have dared the unforgivable sin of creating a God in their own likeness, “a model of their own.” Here Poe may have in mind the command of the Koran, “not to associate with God that concerning which he hath sent you down no authority, or to speak of God that which you know not.”(28)

Perhaps, too, the answer to Nesace’s prayer

“When thus in realms on high,

The eternal voice of God is passing by

And the red winds are withering in the sky,”

reflects the final stage of the Mohammedan day of judgment — “a wind which shall sweep away the souls of all who have but a grain of faith in their hearts.”(29) In any event, Nesace is sent to

“Worlds which sightless cycles run,

Link’d to a little system and one sun —”

with its suggestion of Eureka, long after. The mission of Nesace is to prevent the other stars from harboring the guilt of man. This may mean that as we love the sense of Beauty, we sin by losing the sense of Truth at the same time.

In the second part of the poem, Nesace returns from her mission to the palace on Al Aaraaf, amid the gorgeous sculptures which Poe mentioned [page 159:] in his letter to Neal as having “flown (in spirit)” to the star. She wakes the attendant spirits with her charm:

“ ‘Neath blue-bell or streamer —

Or tufted wild spray

That keeps, from the dreamer

The moonbeam away —

Bright beings! that ponder,

With half closing eyes,

On the stars which your wonder

Hath drawn from the skies,

Till they glance thro’ the shade, and

Come down to your brow

Like — eyes of the maiden

Who calls on you now

Arise! from your dreaming

In violet bowers,

To duty beseeming

These star-litten hours —

And shake from your tresses

Encumber’d with dew

The breath of those kisses

That cumber them too —

(O, how, without you, Love

Could angels be blest?)

Those kisses of true love

That lull’d ye to rest!

Up! — shake from your wing

Each hindering thing:

The dew of the night —

It would weigh down your flight;

And true love caresses —

O! leave them apart:

They are light on the tresses,

But hang on the heart.”

A thousand seraphs obey this summons, but two lovers, Ianthe, the maiden angel, and Angelo,(30) her seraph-lover, prefer to continue their [page 160:] love. Angelo tells of his last night on Earth, which was “hurled into chaos.” He and Ianthe, who had always lived on Al Aaraaf, make a choice which is given clearly enough in Poe’s own note: “Sorrow is not excluded from ‘Al Aaraaf,’ but it is that sorrow which the living love to cherish for the dead, and which, in some minds, resembles the delirium of opium. The passionate excitement of Love and the buoyancy of spirit attendant upon intoxication are its less holy pleasures — the price of which, to those souls who make choice of ‘Al Aaraaf’ as their residence after life, is final death and annihilation.” It will be remembered that in his letter to Isaac Lea, he attributed the origin of this idea to Job.

It is an easy matter to see the general resemblances between “Al Aaraaf” and Moore’s Lalla Rookh, and his Loves of the Angels. Poe was attracted to the oriental imagery of the former and the idea of union between mortals and immortals in the latter. In the story of the First Angel, the earth maiden is transported to a star instead of her angel lover, who has lost his power to return to Heaven because of his love for her. In the Third Angel’s story, the seraph is nearest the throne because of his intense love for “Alla” — “so much doth love transcend all knowledge, ev’n in heaven!” This idea of the superiority of Love to Knowledge is carried over to “Al Aaraaf.” The influence of Paradise Lost also appears in the use of proper names and most definitely at the beginning of Part II.(31) The metrical form of the Songs resembles that of the song of the Fourth Spirit in Byron’s Manfred and the Songs in the Deformed Transformed.

But as usual with Poe, after all the similarities are noted, it must be recognized that he took his models only as a starting point. The poetry of exalted passion was not the exclusive possession of Tom Moore, and it came naturally from Edgar Poe. The difficulty with “Al Aaraaf” lies in the fact that, to use his own words, written much later, there is a difference between the expression of obscurity and the obscurity of expression. It is the long passages whose links are not at once apparent, the too-abrupt transitions that puzzle readers still. Here Poe, if we are to judge him by his failure to present clear and connected images, is at fault. But that is not what Poe is trying to do in “Al Aaraaf.” [page 161:]

The poem is an experiment in the translation of feeling into the harmony of sound. The words have a definite meaning. They are not merely words, however; they become symbols of that fusing of thought and feeling which a musical symphony produces. Just as great music creates in the listeners emotions that are often inarticulate, but which struggle for expression, so poetry like the songs of Nesace, is intended to invert the process. The reader who sees the words but does not hear the music can, if he knows what poetry really is, read the songs so that the phrases create an effect that is neither words nor music alone, but a blending of both, by which something new is created. That it remains inarticulate is not Poe’s fault. Just as there are sounds with so many or so few vibrations that the average human ear can not hear them, so there are overtones of verbal harmony that are beyond the immediate grasp of the mind, even if the emotions are profoundly stirred. Such poetry, it is true, does not meet the definition given by William Watson, in speaking of the poetry of Burns,

“Right from the heart, right to the

heart it sprang.”

But if the exquisite lyrics of Nesace are not poetry, there is no such thing as poetry.

In any discussion of “Al Aaraaf,” however, it must be remembered that it is not complete. Poe definitely states(32) that he is sending only three parts out of four to Carey, Lea and Carey, and in the letter to John Neal, he speaks of “Al Aaraaf” as being about four hundred lines. In the edition of 1829 it includes four hundred and twenty-two lines, and is divided into two parts, not three. At least the fourth part and possibly the third, are therefore missing. In view of what he said of other characters yet to be transferred to Al Aaraaf, it is reasonable to suppose that there would have been other episodes, as in the Lives of the Angels. The criticisms of “Al Aaraaf” as being inconclusive, while justified so far as the present form is concerned, must be modified in the light of Poe’s intentions.

“Al Aaraaf” was the last effort of Poe at a poem of any length. His later and well known theory of poetry, while it ruled out of consideration anything but a brief poem, probably grew out of his realization that the pure lyrics of “Al Aaraaf” are clearly the outstanding portions of the poem. As a preface to “Al Aaraaf,” Poe published his first sonnet, without a title. It is an attack upon Science: [page 162:]

“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?”(33)

Here again the later poetic credo of Poe is anticipated.

Poe thus early takes his place among the many men of letters of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries who were or are impatient of the dogmatism of Science, and vary from Emerson’s calm criticism, through Mark Twain’s delightful parody of the methods of geology in Life on the Mississippi, to O’Neill’s satiric comment in Strange Interlude. It is a different attitude from that taken by Keats, whose Lamia contains, in its first lines, an undoubted suggestion to Poe. Poe already was a reader of scientific works, and was to show all his life a keen interest in them. But in this early sonnet he carried the war into Africa. Science, he believes, does not reveal things as they really are. Science “alters” all things, and the true reality lies in the poet’s heart. He sees man and Nature as a whole, not in isolated sections. Or to put it as O’Neill did when Nina speaks of the physician — “He believes if you pick a lie to pieces, the pieces are the truth.” With Keats it was one form of romance, “the Faery Broods,” who had driven out another, the Dryads and the Fauns. But Poe’s attack looked forward rather than backward, and as usual, the important element in the poem was his own. This first sonnet was written in the English form rather than the Italian, but it has the rise to the climax at the end of the octave.(34)

Of the other poems in this volume, “Tamerlane” in its revised form [page 163:] has already been treated. “To — —” (“I saw thee on thy bridal day”), “A Dream,” “The Lake,” were reprinted with minor alterations. “Visit of the Dead” became “Spirits of the Dead,” greatly improved at the end by the lines

‘The breeze — the breath of God — is still —

And the mist upon the hill

Shadowy — shadowy — yet unbroken,

Is a symbol and a token —

How it hangs upon the trees,

A mystery of mysteries!”

“To — —” (“A Dream Within A Dream”) is still far from its final form.

Of the new poems, “To — —” (“The bowers whereat in dreams, I see”), has one good stanza, the second, but neither this poem, nor the others, “To the River,” and “To M —” (“I heed not that my earthly lot”) need detain us. But it is far otherwise with “Romance” and “Fairyland.”

“Romance,” simply called “Preface” in 1829, contains another element of Poe’s poetical creed. After expressing his devotion to Romance, and speaking of the “cares” that have kept him from poetry, he concludes:

“And when an hour with calmer wings,

Its down upon my spirit flings —

That little tune with lyre and rhyme

To while away — forbidden things!

My heart would feel to be a crime

Did it not tremble with the strings!”

Here Poe repudiates the Wordsworthian poetic ideal, of “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” and gives his first expression of his belief that the poet must be in the grip of strong emotion. This belief becomes the keynote of “Israfel.” Poe added a number of lines to “Romance” in the 1831 volume, but it is significant that he returned to the 1829 form in his final revision.

“Fairyland” is a strange mixture of fancy and imagination. In 1829 it begins without preamble:

“Dim vales — and shadowy floods —

And cloudy-looking woods,

Whose forms we can’t discover

For the tears that drip all over — [page 164:]

Huge moons there wax and wane —

Again — again — again —

Every moment of the night —

Forever changing places —

And they put out the star-light

With the breath from their pale faces.”

The weird sense of eternal restlessness, of the moons, breaking all natural laws, of the descent of the one moon upon the mountain top,

“While its wide circumference

In easy drapery falls

Over hamlets and rich halls,

Wherever they may be —

O’er the strange woods — o’er the sea —

Over spirits on the wing —

Over every drowsy thing —

And buries them up quite

In a labyrinth of light —

And then, how deep! — O, deep,

Is the passion of their sleep!”

This is imagination, and this is what attracted John Neal. The remainder of the poem is an almost impish fancy of Poe’s, pretending to criticize the very imaginative conception he has just established. He solemnly calls attention to the “moony covering” which

“Is soaring in the skies,

With the tempests as they toss,

Like — almost anything —

Or a yellow Albatross.”

as a “Plagiarism — see the works of Thomas Moore — passim.” He may refer to a passage in the Fire Worshippers in which the albatross is represented as sleeping in the air, but the connection is so remote that I suspect Poe sought, by acknowledging here a faint resemblance to Moore, to cover more definite borrowings. As with “Tamerlane” and “Romance” Poe returned to the 1829 form of “Fairyland” after prefacing it by forty lines in 1831. The 1831 version introduces a maiden Isabel, who disappears again in later versions, very much to the advantage of the poem. For in such a scene as “Fairyland,” a human being is an impertinence.

Al Aaraaf did not excite much comment. Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, [page 165:] editor of the Ladies Magazine, briefly reviewed it in January, 1830:(35) “It is very difficult to speak of these poems as they deserve. A part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry; but then we have parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelly [sic]. The author, who appears to be very young, is evidently a fine genius, but he wants judgment, experience, tact.” Poe, if he saw this review, must have been consoled by the reference to Shelley!

John H. Hewitt, who was editing Minerva, a weekly paper in Baltimore, with Rufus Dawes, published a long and so far as “Al Aaraaf” is concerned, a contemptuous review, in which the measure of the poem is described as a “pile of brick bats.” Hewitt was more appreciative of “Tamerlane.” “Its faults are so few and so trifling,” he said, “that they may easily be passed over.” He quoted extensively from the minor poems, but his comments are not valuable, since he did not take any of the poems seriously. The review,(36) which Poe believed to be by Dawes, accounts probably for his later attacks on that poet.

The publication of Al Aaraaf had, however, improved Poe’s standing with his relatives in Baltimore. Neilson Poe in a letter to his cousin Josephine Clemm, whom he afterwards married, wrote on January 26, 1830, “Edgar Poe has published a volume of Poems one of which is dedicated to John Neal the great autocrat of critics — Neal has accordingly published Edgar as a Poet of great genius etc. — Our name will be a great one yet.”(37)


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 138:]

(1)  Valentine Letters, p. 131.

(2)  I am indebted to the courtesy of Dr. Marie H. Law, Librarian of the Drexel Institute of Philadelphia, and to the President and Trustees, for permission to publish this letter.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 143:]

(3)  Poe quotes this passage in his notes to “Al Aaraaf,” attributing it correctly to Luis Ponce de León.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 144:]

(4)  The two stanzas he combined are:

“Un no rompido sueño,

un dia puro, alegre, libre quiero;

no quiero ver el ceño

vanamente severo

de quien la sangre ensalza o el dinero. . . .


  Vivir quiero conmigo,

gozar quiero del bien que debo al cielo,

a solas sin testigo,

libre de amor, de celo,

de odio, de esperanzas, de recelo.”

My colleague, Dr. M. Romera-Navarro, to whom I owe the information concerning Fray Luis de León, calls attention to the misspelling of “alegre.” “Zelo” for “celo” is a possible sixteenth-century spelling. For further discussion of Fray Luis de León, see M. Romera-Navarro, Historia de la Literatura Española (New York, 1928), pp. 147-158.

(5)  I have not been able to find any notice in the American Quarterly Review for 1829 or 1830. Mr. Walsh had an opportunity to say a word for Poe in his review of Kettell’s Specimens of American Poetry in the Review for September, 1829, for the article is a general discussion of American poetry. But he did not say it.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 145:]

(6)  Valentine Letters, pp. 137-139.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 146:]

(7)  Valentine Letters, pp. 150-151.

(8)  While the name is rubbed out in the letter of June 25th, Poe speaks of “Mosher” in the letter of July 26th. See the facsimile of the original letter in the Valentine Letters, p. 164. In the printed version of the July letter, p. 158, curiously enough, the name is still omitted.

(9)  Valentine Letters, p. 155.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 147:]

(10)  Valentine Letters, pp. 163-164.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 148:]

(11)  Valentine Letters, pp. 165-166.

(12)  Original Autograph Ms., Young Collection, New York Public Library.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 150:]

(13)  Valentine Letters, pp. 185-187.

(14)  Records of the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore.

(15)  Records of St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church of Baltimore.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 150, running to the bottom of page 151:]

(16)  These dates are from copies of the Records of St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, sent me by the courtesy of Mr. Louis H. Dielman, Executive Secretary of the Peabody Institute. A custom, not unusual in those days, of naming a child after one who had just died, accounts for the two Virginias. The first Virginia, incidentally, is called Virginia Maria when she is baptized, [page 151: and Virginia Sarah when she is buried. Note that she is buried on the same day as Virginia Eliza was baptized.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 151:]

(17)  In the statements of Mrs. Maria Clemm taken in shorthand by E. L. Didier, and now in the Harvard College Library, Mrs. Clemm makes no mention of Poe’s living with her until after he left West Point. This statement, like all those made by her, cannot be accepted as final evidence, but the omission may be significant.

(18)    Valentine Letters, p. 205.

(19)  May G. Evans, “When Edgar Allan Poe Sold a Slave,” Baltimore Evening Sun, April 6, 1940.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 152:]

(20)  Valentine Letters, p. 215.

(21)  The Yankee, New Series, No. 3 (September, 1829), 168. Passages from “Al Aaraaf” had appeared in the Baltimore Gazette, of May 18, 1829, in the advertising columns, headed “Extract from Al Aaraaf, an unpublished Poem,” and signed “Marlow.” See Kenneth Rede, American Literature, V (March, 1933), 52-53.

(22)  Griswold Collection, Boston Public Library.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 154:]

(23)  The Yankee, New Series, No. 6 (December, 1829), 295-298. Neal reprinted in The Portland Advertiser of April 26, 1850, a letter from Poe to him, of December 29, 1829, in which the latter said, “You will notice that I have made the alterations you suggest — ‘ventured out’ in place of ‘peer-ed.’ ” The original Ms. of this letter is (in part) in the Koester Collection.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 156:]

(24)  American Monthly Magazine, I (November, 1829), 587.

(25)  George Sale, Preliminary Discourse on the Koran, Section IV.

(26)  Letter to Isaac Lea, May 27, 1829.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 157:]

(27)  Poe used Archaian for Achaian in 1829. It may be a misprint, but it is twice so spelled.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 158:]

(28)  Section VII of the Koran dealing with “Al Arâf.” Poe, however, in his “Notes” to “Al Aaraaf” gives a lengthy discussion of the doctrine that God was supposed by certain heresies to have a human form, quoting commentaries on Milton, and Milton himself.

(29)  Sale, Preliminary Discourse, IV, “The 17th sign.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 159:]

(30)  Angelo was drawn from Michael Angelo, and Poe evidently expected to transfer “other well known characters” to “Al Aaraaf.” See his letter to Isaac Lea, p. 140.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 160:]

(31)  For specific passages in which these influences are reflected, see most conveniently the notes to Killis Campbell’s edition of Poe’s poems. The astronomical “machinery” of the poem is briefly discussed in T. O. Mabbott’s Select Poems of Poe (1928), p. 125. My quotations are from his facsimile reprint of the 1829 edition of the poem (1933).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 161:]

(32)  Letter to Isaac Lea, p. 140.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 162:]

(33)  Text is that of 1845.

(34)  Poe referred to it as “illegitimate” in his letter to Lea, “a la mode de Byron in his prisoner of Chillon.” This remark of Poe reveals his habit of making references without care, for Byron’s “Sonnet on Chillon” is in the strict Italian form!

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 165:]

(35)  Vol. III, No. 1, p. 47. Under “Literary Notices.”

(36)  The review is quoted by Hewitt in a long article on Poe, contributed in June, 1885, to an unnamed paper. I read it in a manuscript found in the William H. Koester Collection. Hewitt does not furnish the date of the review in Minerva. He gives a rambling account of a fight with Poe on the streets in Baltimore after the award of the Visiter in 1833, and other gossip, which is not worth verification.

(37)  Ms. copy in the handwriting of Amelia F. Poe, [[Enoch]] Pratt Library, Baltimore.



In the original, there is an error by which the marker for footnote 31 appears twice, once in the location provided above, and again at the end of the sentence immediatley preceding it. This error has not been repeated here, with the footnote being given only at what seems the more appropriate of the two locations.


[S:1 - EAP:ACB, 1941] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: A Critical Biography (A. H. Quinn) (Chapter 07)