Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Introduction to the Poems,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. xxiii-xxx (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page xxiii:]

INTRODUCTION TO THE POEMS

Poe was by choice a poet. He began to be one in boyhood, and continued to write verse to the end of his life. His actual product is small, but the proportion of excellence is surprisingly high, and, as is not always true of lyric poets, his powers never waned; they increased. His first book, published at eighteen, contained at least one very fine poem, “The Lake.” When he was twenty-two he gave us “Israfel,” even in its unrevised version a masterpiece, and in his last year he composed “Annabel Lee.”

Recognition came early from those close to him, and the world was to know him as “Mr. Poe the poet” from 1845, when “The Raven” appeared. There has never been even a temporary decline of his popularity among general readers. Among critics there was disagreement from the start.

In the American Review of March 1850, George W. Peck replied to early unfavorable criticism. To those who complained of Poe’s “lack of moral and religious principle . . . elevated and generous sentiment,” he answered: “It is not Poe’s province to deal in sentiment, but he could give expression to elevated emotion . . . he did not undertake to write sermons. His poetry and prose are full of pure beauties; he could . . . express those affections . . . which only gentle hearts can feel.”

Little need be added to that, save that Poe tended to overstate his antididactic attitude. He really opposed only the bald insertion of a moral in a work of art, not its subtle introduction. We have the noble instance of “Eldorado.”

That Poe valued pure beauty of sound and image is indisputable, but this is the business of a lyric poet. Where his poems are obscure it is usually because he sought for a vague effect. How deliberately he did this can be seen by comparing “The Valley Nis” of 1831 with the final version, called “The Valley of Unrest,” of 1845. ­[page xxiv:]

THE CANON OF THE POEMS

For a complete edition of Poe’s works it seems better to disregard his famous aesthetic definition of poetry as “the rhythmical creation of beauty” and to adopt one that is purely arbitrary: every formally versified composition is regarded here as a poem. Each is treated as a separate entity. I give them in chronological order, with appropriate introductions and bibliographical and explanatory notes. In an appendix I have collected Poe’s known collaborations.

A great many poems have been ascribed to Poe without complete authentication, by good, bad, and indifferent “authorities.” A few items which can not yet be positively accepted, although a good case can be made out for their authenticity, I have placed in the main body of the work, with a caveat. The rest are listed under the heading “Apocrypha.” More than one hundred of these are certainly not Poe’s. But there are a few cases where my reasons for rejection are not wholly decisive; I give full texts for such “doubtfully rejected” items.

POETIC STYLE

The vocabulary of the poems is not large — it is said to comprise about eighteen hundred words, relatively few of them unusual. Neologisms are very rare, and, of the few words Poe is now thought to have coined or used in a novel sense, almost all are proper nouns such as Nesace, Ulalume, and Yaanek.(1)

Most of Poe’s later poetry is written in the ordinary speech of ordinary men, even to its word order. He consciously sought to reproduce the rhythms of conversation. What is elaborate is the metrical form; that grew more complex with the years, while Poe’s prose tended to be increasingly simple, straightforward, and less ornamented. Early in his career, he experimented with the refrain, alliteration, cross-alliteration, and the partial repetition of whole lines. ­[page xxv:]

SCANSION

Poe was greatly interested in scansion. In a letter of October 8, 1835, he mentions having made a careful study of the later works of Alexander Pope. He published his views first in “Notes Upon English Verse” in 1843, and in 1846 he wrote the highly technical “Rationale of Verse.” We have in addition an unpublished leaf of notes made in 1849 for revising the latter. His views changed somewhat over the years. But he finally held that English verse was quantitative, accent making for quantity, and that we had, besides long and short syllables, some which are very short and some which are very long.(2)

It has been debated whether Poe wrote his poems and then theorized about them, or vice versa. The dates of the documents make me accept the former view. Poe composed “Ulalume” after the “Rationale,” and the late notes indicate that the poem led him to modify his classification of English metrical feet.

RHYME

Poe sought for perfect rhyme, as some of his comments on Elizabeth Barrett’s work reveal.(3) But he composed for his own pronunciation; we can reconstruct to a degree what it would have been. He lived chiefly in Richmond and Baltimore until he was twenty-eight, thereafter in Philadelphia and New York. He spoke with a slight Southern drawl. Hence he rhymed sister and vista, ha’nted and enchanted. A joke in “The Gold-Bug” suggests that he said tin for ten. One of his very rare misspellings, in a letter of 1847, is lenth for length, but his comment on rhymes shows that Poe did not drop the final letter of words like hunting. ­[page xxvi:]

INFLUENCES ON POE

Lyric poetry is perhaps the most timeless of all arts; its themes are happiness and sorrow, which are alike the world over. Yet the commonplace that Poe’s poetry is “out of space, out of time” is an overstatement. He applied this phrase himself only to the land of dreams, and no artist lives altogether in an imaginary world, nor can he be wholly oblivious of his background and immediate surroundings. Poe lived in the first half and worked in the second quarter of the nineteenth century — a time far more different from the hundred years succeeding than is often remembered. A new era followed the Civil War.

Poe was classically educated, and knew about Greek literature in general, but showed no deep interest in much of it save Homer and perhaps the Anacreontea. He was not enthusiastic about Greek tragedy and probably read little in the original, although that is all uncertain. In Latin he certainly read much of Vergil, and he shows familiarity with Horace, whom he probably preferred. He read little Italian, though the poem “To One in Paradise” is, as he revealed, a free adaptation of some lines of Politian. Poe knew Dante’s Inferno in Cary’s translation, which he quoted.(4) He read a good deal in French, but it had little influence on his poetry, much on his prose.

Poe knew the English Bible well and quoted it often.(5) He shows much familiarity with the giants of English literature, Shakespeare and Milton. Indeed, he made a careful study of both, and two leaves of brief handwritten extracts, from the former’s tragedies and comedies and the latter’s minor poems, survive.(6) They show chiefly a concern for verbal felicity. Poe constantly alludes to both these greatest authors, and his play Politian is ­[page xxvii:] “Shakespearean,” but in later years he disapproved of modern imitations of Shakespeare.(7) Poe disliked epics and says little of Spenser, but I suspect he read more of him than may be often supposed. Poe’s acquaintance with other English poets who wrote before 1700 was sketchy, and he shows no interest in Chaucer at all.

Poe was naturally under the influence of eighteenth-century poetry. Admiration of Alexander Pope was fashionable when Poe was growing up, and he did not cease from it when it became unfashionable. Both poets had a passion for correct use of meter and language. A satire in Pope’s manner is Poe’s earliest work of any bulk, and his first volume carries a motto from Cowper. Poe did not worship Robert Burns, but he named “Tam O’Shanter” in a list of about a dozen “examples of entire poems of the purest ideality.”(8)

The Lyrical Ballads (1798) of Wordsworth and Coleridge were reprinted in America in 1802. Although they included the “Ancient Mariner,” which Poe later praised, it is uncertain how much interest he took in the poems until after 1830. He rejected Wordsworth’s didacticism but admired some of his work. The extent of Coleridge’s influence on Poe is much disputed. I simply cannot regard Poe as in any way or at any time a disciple of Coleridge.(9)

Poe as a very young man was an imitator of Byron, but he wrote on May 29, 1829, “I have long given up Byron as a model.” Obviously he had become a disciple of Thomas Moore; after “Al ­[page xxviii:] Aaraaf” his affection waned but never completely disappeared — the last book he read was Moore’s Irish Melodies.

Poe did not show much interest in Thomas Campbell, though he certainly knew his work, nor in Robert Southey, although he did not dislike his. Poe says little of Henry Kirke White, the youthful poet whom Southey edited, but no bibliographer can suppose that our author completely escaped the influence of this mild religious poet, who enjoyed incredible popularity in America and inspired “Thanatopsis” — the only poem by Bryant with which Poe showed early familiarity.

There was one earlier American poet whose work he certainly knew. Edward Coote Pinkney’s little volume, Poems, was published in Baltimore in 1825. The author was acquainted with Poe’s brother Henry, and it is at least possible that he met Edgar Poe. Pinkney’s melody is distinctive,(10) but the close kinship of his lyrics to Poe’s is not fortuitous. In his “Poetic Principle” Poe revealed that he thought Pinkney should have been recognized as “the first” of American lyrists.

The Galignani edition (Paris, 1829) of Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley reached America in due time, and Poe was obviously familiar with those poets before he finished his own Poems (1831), a collection in which “Israfel” and perhaps some other poems are in Shelley’s manner.(11)

Poe expressed unbounded enthusiasm for Tennyson, but does not seem to have mentioned him before 1840. For some time before that, Poe was nobody’s disciple in a general way. But part of his creative method was to write poems, as well as stories, “in the manner” of other authors. Sometimes he replied to a work with which he disagreed. Sometimes he seized on a rhythmical form ­[page xxix:] that interested him. Occasionally he actually reworked a piece that he thought he could greatly improve.

This practice might be termed “plagiarism” by some critics, and Poe used that word so much himself that something must be said about his attitude.(12) He seems to have regarded imitation as reprehensible only if the copyist failed to make something better than his model. Like Shakespeare and Molière, Poe took his own where he found it, and unfailingly improved upon his sources. In a few cases, perhaps, he was not conscious of his debts, but he acknowledged that possibility to Mrs. Browning. How greatly he could excel may be readily seen by comparing “The Haunted Palace” with its source in a trifle by John Wolcot (quoted in my notes on Poe’s poem, below). Some of his sources are in the works of even lesser poets.

In such matters Poe depended to some extent on the literary climate in which he lived, the school (he disliked the term, but it is familiar) to which he belonged. It is well to remember that he was not really a Romantic, or a Victorian, but of “the curious group . . . sometimes called the ‘Intermediates,’ who in a manner bridge the gap of the twenty-forties and to whom ‘E. B. B.’ certainly does belong with Darley, Beddoes, Miss Landon (‘L. E. L.’) . . . and others,”(13) among whom Mrs. Hemans and Thomas Hood may be named.(14)

So much has been said of literary influences that we must not forget that Poe, like all real poets, was at last his own best teacher, as personal experience deepened his feelings and heightened his art. It is a far cry from “Imitation” of 1827 to “A Dream within a Dream,” into which he turned it two decades later. Since we ­[page xxx:] know much of his life, we cannot wholly neglect that personal element, but we should not unduly emphasize it. “For Annie” is autobiographical, but it would be hard to find a less personal poem than “The City in the Sea.” Poe surely wanted posterity to read his poetry as closely akin to music, the purpose chiefly to arouse our best emotions by contemplation of beauty and power. This the poems have accomplished during more than a century for his countless admirers. One can suppose with reason that of his “voice in echoing hearts the sound will long remain.”

 


[[Footnotes]]

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

1  See Bradford A. Booth and Claude E. Jones, A Concordance of the Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore, 1941). As a name of a sea creature, sidrophel may be new; use of scoriac prior to Poe’s will, I think, be found in time.

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

2  Poe pronounced Latin in the English fashion, for he thought “qualis” and “quail is” a good pun. His ignorance of the Romans’ pronunciation led him to write incorrectly about their meter. But this error does not invalidate his ideas about English. His theories about accent in our language can be (to some extent) confirmed in the laboratory today.

3  The list of “bad rhymes” in his review in the Broadway Journal of January 11, 1845, is very important. The rhyme of abjure and nevermore in early versions of “The Raven” Poe soon emended. He expressed, in the Broadway Journal of July 19, 1845, his disapproval of conscious imitation by Americans of British speech.

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

4  Poe’s friend Stella — Sarah Anna Lewis — in her sonnet “Beneath the Elms” says Poe at Fordham discussed with her Homer, Vergil, and Dante’s “Hell.” Her verses, originally printed in the New York Home Journal of February 11, 1880, are reprinted in “Appendix D” in all issues of John H. Ingram’s Edgar Allan Poe (1880).

5  See William Mentzel Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe (New York, 1928), an exhaustive study.

6  The Milton extracts were published by Thomas P. Haviland, “How Well Did Poe Know Milton?” PMLA (September 1954). The Shakespeare material has not yet been printed. I am inclined to date the manuscript pages about 1829.

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

7  Lambert A. Wilmer, in his “Recollections” (reprinted by me with his Merlin in 1941), p. 31, says that Poe held “Milton [and] Shakspeare . . . in great contempt,” but Edward M. Alfriend, in the Literary Era for August 1901, says that Poe thought Shakespeare the greatest dramatist of all time. I think Poe’s contempt was for the use of the great poets as models.

8  Review of Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck in the Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836. Poe’s reference to Burns in the Broadway Journal of September 6, 1845, occurs in a review of a book by a Scottish author whose adulation of Burns was excessive. Poe admired James Macpherson’s “translations” of Ossian, but their influence is seen rather in Poe’s prose poems like “Shadow” than in his formal verse.

9  Poe listed among the ideal poems referred to just above “The Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” and “Kubla Khan.” He wrote to J. R. Lowell on July 2, 1844, “I am profoundly excited by . . . Coleridge (occasionally).” In a review in the Broadway Journal, August 30, 1845, he scoffed at Leigh Hunt’s “absurd eulogies on Coleridge’s ‘Pains of Sleep.’ ”

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

10  See his Life and Works (New York, 1926) edited by myself and Frank Lester Pleadwell. The book includes all of Pinkney’s poetry, well worth reading for itself and essential for a real understanding of Poe as a part of his own time and surroundings.

11  A few selections from Shelley had appeared in Richmond newspapers earlier. One of them, in the Examiner of April 2, 1824, was from “The Sensitive Plant.” Poe’s appreciative later references to that poem may be nostalgic. See Agnes M. Bondurant, Poe’s Richmond (1942), p. 108. A notion that Poe knew of Keats before 1830 rests only on evidence now unacceptable.

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

12  He especially used the term in speaking of Longfellow, but he discusses the subject in a more moderate tone in the “Literati” article on the obscure James Aldrich, pointing out that “plagiarism” is often all unconscious result of great appreciation, and that it is common among truly poetic authors.

13  George Edward Saintsbury in The Dial, May 1929, in a review of my Selected Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1929). In his essay, Saintsbury approved my emphasis on Poe’s position in the group mentioned.

14  Poe took an interest in all of them save perhaps in Beddoes. The Irish poet James Clarence Mangan might be added, for his work is much like Poe’s and has been thought to have been an inspiration to him, but it is unlikely that Poe saw the Dublin magazines in which Mangan’s work appeared.

 


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Notes:

The extracts from Shakespeare were first published by Burton R. Pollin in “Shakespeare in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe,” Studies in the American Renaissance 1985, Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 157-186. Specifically, the excerpts are reprinted on pp. 182-186. Pollin retains the original order except for entry 16, which he moves so that all of the excerpts from The Tempest are together.

In his own copy of TOM’s edition of the Poems, Burton R. Pollin writes four comments that should be mentioned. In the section on “Rhyme,” in the margin near the statement about “lenth for length” being one of Poe’s “very rare misspellings,” BRP writes “no,” without further explanation. (A similar note appears in the margins of the “Preface,” BRP, so it may be surmised that BRP is objecting again to the claim that Poe was a reliable speller.) In the section on “Influences on Poe,” in the margin near the comment that TOM “cannot regard Poe as in any way or at any time a disciple of Coleridge,” BRP writes “despite Stovall,” presumably in reference to the article by Floyd Stovall “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge” (University of Texas Studies in English, no. 10, 1930, pp. 70-127, reprinted in Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, pp. 126-174. In the margin of p. xxviii, next to the statement about Robert Southey, BRP writes “See refs.! Not so,” indicating 10:224 of the Harrision edition (to Poe’s review of Lucretia Maria Davidson, from Graham’s Magazine, December 1841), and “Pollin #57,” a reference to BRP’s article on “Southey’s Curse of Kehama in Poe’s ‘City in the Sea’,” Wordsworth Circle, 7 (Spring 1976), pp. 101-106. Further down the same page, in the margin near the comment about Poe’ “unbounded enthusiasm for Tennyson,” BRP writes “But 8.309 & 9.304,” both references to the Harrison edition, respectively to Poe’s review of Drake and Halleck (from the Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836), and his review of William Cullen Bryant (from the Southern Literary Messenger, January 1837).

Errata:

- p. xxv, second sentence: In a letter of December 1, 1835 . . . / In a letter of October 8, 1835 (This error is noted by Burton R. Pollin in his copy of TOM’s edition of the Poems. The October 1, 1835 letter mentioned by TOM is from Poe to R. M. Bird, but does not mention Pope. The letter correctly noted by BRP is from Poe to Judge Beverly Tucker, and in that letter Poe does indeed make the claim about studying the works of Pope, as noted.)

- p. xxix, footnote 12: James Aldrich / George Hill [Poe’s “Literati” series makes no mention of George Hill or his writings at all. The only reference to Hill is in an entry from “Marginalia,” first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in April 1849, and repeated by Griswold in his 1850 edition of Poe’s works (p. 518). In this brief item, Poe points out a similarity in some lines from one of Hill’s poems and “A Health” by E. C. Pinckney. He does not, as Mabbott implies, exonerate Hill on a matter of unconscious admiration. Instead, he asks “Is this plagiarism or is it not? — I merely ask for information.” An earlier notice from Graham’s Magazine for February 1842, identifies Hill’s poem as “Leila” and describes much of the volume as “trite” and “imitative,” but also acknowledges that it contains “many passages of the truest poetry.” (This review appears only on the rarely preserved paper wrappers of the magazine and has never been officially collected. It is mentioned by W. D. Hull in his unpublished doctoral dissertation A Canon of the Critical Works of Edgar Allan Poe, With a Study of Poe as Editor and Reviewer, University of Virginia, 1941.) Almost certainly, TOM intended to refer to the “Literati” entry on James Aldrich, which includes the statement that “The poetic sentiment presupposes a keen appreciation of the beautiful . . .” (Godey’s, July 1846, 33:16-17).]


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Introduction to the Poems)