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Poe as a Poet

It must be remembered that prose had never been Poe’s first or deepest love. That place in his heart would always be reserved for poetry. His first three books were collections of his own poems: Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829) and Poems (1831). None of these managed to achieve the sort of attention, popular or critical, he had hoped would be his. Clearly, to continue a career as a writer meant that Poe would need to find another creative outlet. His brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, had found some minor success in publishing a few stories in the Baltimore North American. Beginning some time in 1831, Edgar tried his hand at writing fiction, and found that he had an unusual talent for it. Although one could hardly say that his tale writing provided a decent income, he did make more money from his stories than his poems. Even when writing prose, Poe managed to incorporate poetry. In some cases, he used a full poem in the middle of a tale, in other cases, he took the principles of poetry and applied them to his prose style.

Poe’s early poetry is understandably imitative. He found inspiration in the works of such famous poets as Shakespeare, Milton, Alexander Pope, Thomas Moore, and especially Byron — and such relatively obscure ones as Edward Coote Pinkney. (There appear to be minor influences from Shelley, Coleridge, Keats and even Robert Burns. Poe also read the works of Vergil, Horace and Dante, probably mostly in translations.) By 1829, he had begun to find his own voice, claiming, for example, that he had “long given up Byron as a model” (Poe to John Allan, May 29, 1829).

Generally the most critically recognized poem from Poe’s first collection is “The Lake” (1827), but it is not widely known by the public. Oddly, the most popular of Poe’s early poems is one which was not intended for publication. It was written about 1829 in the album of a young female acquaintance. In manuscript, Poe gave the poem the simple designation of “Original,” but it is now universally known as “Alone,” beginning with lines which enshrine a personal sense of isolation, “From childhood’s hour I have not been . . .” It was first printed in 1876 in a slightly altered facsimile in Scribner’s Magazine. After a certain amount of discussion about its authenticity, “Alone” has long been accepted — and is perhaps one of Poe’s most revealing poems.

Poe’s two attempts at “big” poems, namely “Tamerlane” (1827) and “Al Aaraaf” (1829), failed to please contemporary or modern critics, although both offer much of interest. In “Al Aaraff,” for example, Poe makes his initial statement that the purpose of poetry is the pursuit of beauty, an ideal he would hold until his death. While the collections of 1827 and 1829 may not be especially memorable, this is not the case for the Poems of 1831. This slender volume contains at least three gems. “To Helen” (1831), beginning “Helen, thy beauty is to me . . .” and including two of Poe’s finest lines: “To the glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome.” “Israfel” and “The City in the Sea” (as “The Doomed City”) also made their first appearances in the 1831 collection.

From his middle period, there are “The Haunted Palace” (1839), “The Conqueror Worm” (1843) and “Lenore” (1843), all first published in magazines. The first two of these were originally printed as separate items, but quickly incorporated into tales; the last is a greatly revised form of “A Paean” (1831). Another well-remembered poem from this period, “Dream-land” (1844) includes Poe’s famous phrase “Out of Space — out of Time.”

Poe’s own comments on his poetry may be instructive. “I have been so negligent as not to preserve copies of any of my volumes of poems — nor was either worthy preservation. The best passages were culled in Hirst's article [From the Saturday Museum, February 25, 1843, reprinted in the March 4, 1843 issue]. I think my best poems, ‘The Sleeper’, ‘The Conqueror Worm’, ‘The Haunted Palace’, ‘Lenore’, ‘Dreamland’ & ‘The Coliseum’ -- but all have been hurried & unconsidered” (Poe to James R. Lowell, July 2, 1844. In the draft of this letter, Poe included “A Paean,” between “The Haunted Palace” and “Lenore,” but crossed it out.) More than two years later, Poe repeated his fondness for one of these poems. “Your appreciation of ‘The Sleeper’ delights me. In the higher qualities of poetry, it is better than ‘The Raven’ — but there is not one man in a million who could be brought to agree with me in this opinion. The Raven, of course, is far the better as a work of art — but in the true basis of all art The Sleeper is the superior” (Poe to George W. Eveleth, December 15, 1846).

In 1845, Poe’s dearest dreams came true with the publication of “The Raven” in the American Review for February 1845. (Technically, the first publication is in the New York Evening Mirror for January 29, 1845, but that argument is irrelevant for my purpose here.) The response was almost instant recognition and acceptance. As a poet, Poe had finally arrived. The publication of The Raven and Other Poems later in 1845, and an English reprint in 1846, brought many of his better poems before the eyes of the public, and literally carried his name around the world. In the preface, Poe commented, “Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice. With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not — they cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.”

Poe was now free to return to his first love, and return to it he did. Beginning towards the end of 1847, he produced no fewer than seven of his most important poems: “Ulalume” (late 1847), “To Helen” (“I saw thee once . . .”) (1848), “The Bells” (1848/1849), “For Annie” (1849), “A Dream Within a Dream” (1849, a substantial revision of “To — —” of 1829, beginning “Should my early life seem . . .” and “Imitation” of 1827), “Eldorado” (1849) and the perennial favorite “Annabel Lee” (1849). Who can say what Poe would yet have written if not for the intervening hand of death.

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