Text: Donald Barlow Stauffer, “The Whole of Poe,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:24-25


[page 24, column 2:]

The Whole of Poe

Roger Forclaz, Le Monde d’Edgar Poe. Berne: Herbert Lang/ Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1974. (European University Papers, Series XIV: Anglo-Saxon language and literature, Vol. 17). 611 pp. Fr. 60.

In the century and a quarter since his death, Poe’s reputation and standing have never been higher than they are now. He has in recent years been the subject of several important scholarly and critical studies; the first volumes of the long-awaited Mabbott edition of the Collected Works are beginning to appear; he now has both a journal and a society devoted to him; and with the appearance of Dameron and Cauthen’s bibliography of criticism we can begin to see where the criticism and scholarship have been and where they still need to go. One piece of stock-taking has already been done by the Swiss scholar Roger Forclaz in a comprehensive thesis which studies the influences, the intellectual and cultural contexts, the biography, and the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe.

This is a study of the whole of Poe: 420 closely printed pages of text, over 150 pages of notes, and a 30page bibliography. Forclaz leaves few subjects untouched; the book is a compendium of scholarship and a survey of critical and scholarly problems addressed with a thoroughness unmatched by anything published in this country. His thoroughness is at the same time one of the chief delights and a principal drawback. On the one hand, he cites just about every known source and piece of criticism for each tale or poem he discusses. Some of this occasionally excessive thoroughness as well as the sometimes methodical citations reveal the work’s origin as a doctoral thesis, but it is still a pleasure to flip through the pages of footnotes, recognizing old acquaintances and discovering new ones. The one serious drawback is that the book is not indexed, making it virtually impossible to hunt down all the references to a particular work.

The book is divided into three main sections: “The Writer,” “The Writer and His Universe,” and “The World.” The first covers Poe’s journalism, his aesthetics, and his biography. The second section begins with Poe’s relations with European Romanticism, the Gothic novel, his American contemporaries, and American social and political history, then goes on to his artistic theories and their application in his work. The third deals with a number of critical problems, such as the Poe narrator, the Poe hero, the world of the tales and poems, intuition and dream, reason and analysis, terror, and, finally, beauty, death, and truth.

Forclaz is foursquare in the camp of those rationalist critics who have no use for nebulous theories of readers ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the facts of Poe’s life and career. He dismisses out of hand those critics and biographers who would make Poe a dipsomaniac, an opium addict, an erotomaniac, a necrophiliac, a sado-masochist, an epileptic, a neurotic, a degenerate, a meglomaniac, or even a syphilitic (as did one Lorine Pruette in 1920 on the basis of rumors in Baltimore clubs), and he reserves his strongest attacks for the “scientific approach” of Emile Lauvriere on the one hand and the psychoanalytic [page 25:] approach of Princess Bonaparte on the other. Forclaz’ contempt for the “crazy collection of insanities and obscenities” of Bonaparte in particular has already been expressed in detail in his attack on her in the Revue des Langues Vivantes in 1970, and in this study he groups her with those “scientists,” such as Lauvriere, who would explain Poe’s writings through his alleged weaknesses and illnesses.

An underlying assumption of this study is the unity of Poe’s work; the author quotes with approval Floyd Stovall’s remark in Eight American writers that “We shall understand Poe best by a direct and earnest analysis of his total work.” But in this connection he also notes T. S. Eliot’s observation on Poe: “If, instead of regarding his work analytically, we take a distant view of it as a whole, we see a mass of unique shape and impressive size to which the eye instantly returns.” In fairness one must say, however, that the poems are slighted somewhat, and Forclaz deliberately concentrates on the tales, which he considers the most authentic and original of Poe’s creations.

If Forclaz’ approach is in terms of unity, his central thesis is contained in this remark by Leon Howard: “If any single author epitomizes the American literary experience of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, he is Edgar Allan Poe.” Forclaz sees Poe as a central figure not only of American but of Continental Romanticism, and as a representative writer in the literary, intellectual, and political atmosphere of the Jacksonian era. American literature is compounded of equal parts of pragmatism and idealism, he points out, and Poe’s work embraces both of them. He is a pragmatist in his tendency to test the effectiveness of his writing and the writing of others by the criterion of how well it works, and because of his interest in science, mathematics, and inventions Poe is part of the same race that produced its Franklins and Edisons. On the other hand, his Romantic idealism, which he shares with Emerson and the Transcendentalists, is just as much a part of the American experience as the invention of the light bulb. Thus, rather than seeing Poe as a tortured genius split by opposing sides of his personality, Forclaz finds in Poe a synthesis of both the pragmatist and the idealist: a union of the journalist with the poet.

But Forclaz finds other typically American traits in Poe. One is his desire for originality which leads him to turn his back on European traditions in the kind of pioneering search for America that led William Carlos Williams to compare him to Daniel Boone. Another is the way in which his writings reflect both the dark Romanticism of Hawthorne and Melville and the cosmic optimism of Emerson and Whitman. The latter he finds especially pronounced in Eureka, of which he says, “By its aspiration to reconcile science and religion, determinism and spiritualism, by its tendency to interpret the universe with the aid of psychological and moral principles, Eureka is a typical work of America of that period.”

It is in Eureka that Forclaz also sees the culmination of Poe’s lifelong search for both truth and unity. He points out that Poe would not have attached so much importance to the unity of the work of art if unity had not been for him the fundamental reality, even to the point of obsession, and in Eureka he joins the Romantics and [column 2:] the Transcendentalists in affirming the unity of everything. Poe can be viewed as a mystic, both in his roles as poet and in his vision of cosmic unity; his description in Eureka of mystical union is the ideal toward which the poet-soul aspires (the desire of the moth for the star) . Thus, for Poe, poetry, rather than love, is the absolute reality because it is the only relief possible from the anguish of the creature trapped in temporal existence.

This is a lucid and convincing discussion of Eureka, which accepts Poe’s assertions of the seriousness of the work at face value. Forclaz relates it in important ways to “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” “The Col. Ioquy of Monos and Una,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Power of Words,” showing how each of these colloquies raised problems concerning the duality of spirit and matter which Poe ultimately resolved in his most ambitious “poem.” But unfortunately he does not attempt to deal with some of the questions of complexity and ambiguity of tone, as well as possible satiric elements, in Eureka which have been raised by a growing number of critics, notably G. R. Thompson and Harriet Holman: a problem which must be faced directly by all those claiming the centrality of this work to Poe’s vision.

When he turns to assessing the importance of the death of Elizabeth Poe as an influence on Poe’s work, Forclaz predictably minimizes its effect. He also argues, I believe correctly, against the tendency of those who, after finding no overt acknowledgment of the existence of sexual love in his work, conclude that Poe was impotent. But his commonsense approach to the biographical sources on this subject is mingled with an uncharacteristic mysticism on the subject of the role of women in Poe’s work. Women, he says, are not the Mother of the psychoanalysts, nor even the mistress, but rather the inspiration, the consoler or the angel: these, he says, are the roles the woman plays in the life of the artist. I find it curious for a writer so concerned with the rational, everyday facts of Poe’s life to come so close to disembodying Virginia altogether.

Some of the strong points are a close study of Poe’s revisions, a study of the use of sound effects in the style of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and an examination of the beginnings and endings of tales, such as those in “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Gold-Bug.” He is also good on the Poe hero, and throughout the book one admires his emphasis on the need to be aware of the sources and of Poe’s revisions as keys to understanding his work.

Altogether, this is an excellent book, even though it is too insistently rationalistic in its approach. Forclaz avowed contempt for psychoanalytic criticism and his heavy emphasis on Poe as a man of his times remove some of the magic and mystery from a writer who even he admits is enigmatic. He is seldom willing to take any real speculative flyers: the book is not seminal or provocative in the way that, say, Richard Wilbur’s work has been (and Forclaz takes little note of the work of this important American critic), but it is valuable as a work of synthesis and a survey of existing scholarship.

Donald Barlow Stauffer, State University of New York at Albany





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[S:0 - PS, 1975]