Text: John H. Ingram, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Early Poems,” Gentleman’s Magazine (London), May 1874, pp. 580-588


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[page 580:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S EARLY POEMS.

BY JOHN H. INGRAM.

I HAVE often thought,” says Edgar Poe, in his essay on “The Philosophy of Composition,” “how interesting a magazine paper might be written by an author who would detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion”; and he suggests autorial vanity as the reason why such a paper has never been executed. “Most writers, poets in especial,” he continues, “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes.” The author of “The Raven “has, for his own part, he assures us, no sympathy with this repugnance, and he describes in curious detail how his best known poetical work “proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Having his own words for justification, I will not hesitate to lay before the public what cannot fail to be deeply interesting: the boyish poems of Poe, as they originally appeared.

Many of his biographers speak of a volume of verse published as early as 1827 — and I believe the poet countenanced that date — hut if this is correct, the volume disappeared without leaving any trace, unless the delicate little poem “To Helen,” and the lines from “Al Aaraaf,” quoted by Lowell, may be accepted as genuine remains of the booklet. In 1829,* according to Dr. Duyckinck, another little volume was published, but it does not appear possible now to obtain a copy. In 1831, whilst Poe was a cadet at West Point Military Academy, the third collection (accepting the publication of the 1827 edition as proven), appeared under this description: “Poems by Edgar A. Poe. ‘Tout le monde a Raison.’ Rochefoucauld. Second edition.” This volume, which, like its predecessors, was for private circulation only, is the one which I propose to analyse. It is dedicated to “The United States Corps of Cadets,” and the dedication, [page 581:] it appears, drew upon its author the ridicule of his fellow students. An unfortunate, a ludicrous passage was picked out for jest, and although this little book contained some of his most exquisite fancies, and poems which have won the warmest commendations of the critics of both continents, it could only excite mirth in the minds of the dedicatees. Says General George W. Cullum, a brother cadet, “These verses were the source of great merriment with us boys, who considered the author cracked, and the verses ridiculous doggerel.” “Even after the lapse of forty years,” continues the veteran, “I can now recall these absurd lines from Isabel’

“And this ray is a fairy ray —

Did you not say so, Isabel?

How fantastically it fell,

With a spiral twist and a swell,

And over the wet grass rippled away

With a tinkling like a bell!”

Detached from the remainder of the poem, it must be candidly confessed that these lines do not show much promise, but when it is found that this boyish book contained many poems since reprinted almost verbatim amongst the poet’s matured works, and as such deemed by the finest critics worthy of the greatest lyrists, the judgment of “us boys” does not count for much. That they deemed “the author cracked” is not so unreasonable: as long ago as the days of Horace, poet and madman were considered synonymous terms — aut insanit homo, aut versus facit — and we have pretty positive proof that there was a vein of insanity in Poe.

Dated West Point, 1831, these tentative verses were introduced by a prefatory letter of seventeen pages, addressed to a certain mystical B——. General Cullum supposes “B——” to have been intended for Bulwer, but the tone of the letter seems to negative this supposition, although undoubtedly Poe had a boyish admiration for the subsequent Lord Lytton, and a few years later we find him publishing a eulogistic review of one of the recently printed works of the author of “Pelham.” Be this as it may, this introductory epistle contains some paragraphs not unnoteworthy, especially as coming from so young an author as Poe then was. He will not admit the fact that “a good critique on a poem may be written by one who is no poet himself.” This, he remarks to the unknown B——, “according to your idea and mine of poetry, I feel to be false — the less poetical the critic, the less just the critique, and the converse.” He then proceeds to combat the belief that popularity is any evidence of a book’s intrinsic value; and remarks: “You are aware of the great barrier in the path [page 582:] of an American writer. He is read, if at all, in preference to the combined and established wit of the world. I say established; for it is with literature as with law or empire — an established name is an estate in tenure, or a throne in possession. Besides, one might suppose that books, like their authors, improve by travel, — their having crossed the sea is, with us, so great a distinction.” Especially, it might be added, when there is no copyright to pay.

Poe also avers that it is a vulgar error to suppose that a poet cannot form a correct estimate of his own writings. “Whatever should be deducted on the score of self-love,” he suggests, “might be replaced on account of his intimate acquaintance with the subject; in short, we have more instances of false criticism than of just, where one’s own writings are the test, simply because we have more bad poets than good.” Referring to traditional evidence contradictory to his proposition, he remarks: “By what trivial circumstances men are often led to assert what they do not really believe I Perhaps an inadvertent word has descended to posterity.” And, alluding to Milton’s averred preference for his later work, Poe asserts that “Paradise Regained” is little, if at all, inferior to the “Paradise Lost,” and is only supposed so to be because men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary, and reading those of Milton in their natural order, are too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second. “I dare say Milton preferred Comus’ to either — if so, justly,” he adds, and probably not without sympathisers.

He next directs the arrows of his sarcasm against “the heresy of the Lake school,” and with all the petulance of a boy declares: “Some years ago I might have been induced, by an occasion like the present, to attempt a formal refutation of their doctrine.” He proceeds to demonstrate that the end of our existence is happiness, not instruction: “Ceteris paribus, he who pleases is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness, and pleasure is the end already obtained which instruction is merely the means of obtaining.”

“Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study — not a passion,” pursues the fiery-hearted lad, “it becomes the metaphysician to reason — but the poet to protest”; and protest he does, “that learning has little to do with the imagination — intellect with the passions — or age with poetry.” Reverting to the Lake school: “As to Wordsworth,” says Poe, “I have no faith in him. That he had in youth the feelings of a poet, I believe — for there are glimpses of extreme delicacy in his writings — (and delicacy is the poet’s own kingdom — his El Dorado) — but they have the appearance of a [page 583:] better day recollected.” “He was to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation,” is the shrewd comment of this boy critic.. He cannot speak of Coleridge, however, “but with reverence,” although he deems “it is, lamentable to think that such a mind should be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyotanthes, waste its perfume upon the night alone.” “In reading his poetry, I tremble like one who stands upon a volcano,” says our, cadet, “conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and light that are weltering below.”

“What is poetry?” exclaims Poe. “Poetry! that Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations as the nine-titled Corcyra! ‘Give me,’ I demanded of a scholar some time ago — ‘give me a definition of poetry.’ ‘Tres volontiers;’ and he proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr. Johnson, and overwhelmed me with a definition. Shade of the immortal Shakespeare! I imagine to myself the scowl of your spiritual eye upon the profanity of that scurrilous Ursa Major: Think of poetry, dear B, think of poetry; and then think of Dr. Samuel Johnson! Think of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all that is hideous and unwieldy; think of his huge bunt, the Elephant! and then — and then think of the Tempest’ — the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ — Prospero — Oberon — and Titania!”

The most remarkable paragraph of this precocious critic’s longwinded Introduction is, probably, the next, wherein he proclaims what a poem, in his opinion, is; and it must be confessed, in nothing that he afterwards said or did, is there aught that belies his boyish ideal. “A poem,” he says, “is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure — being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite poetry, with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea, without the music, is prose, from its very definiteness.” Our paradoxical young poet sums up the confession of his poetic faith, and with it, his prose introduction, by remarking that “I have, dear B——, what you, no doubt, perceive, for the metaphysical poets, as poets, the most sovereign contempt. That they have followers,” he concludes, “proves nothing”:

“No Indian Prince has to his palace

More followers than a thief to the gallows.”

Having concluded his prose, Poe favours his readers, if he had any, [page 584:] with a poetical introduction of sixty-six lines: a portion of this is included in the general collection of poems written in youth under the title of “Romance.” The following lines are a portion of the cancelled version:

For, being an idle boy lang syne,

Who read Anacreon, and drank wine,

I early found Anacreon rhymes

Were almost passionate sometimes —

And by strange alchemy of brain

His pleasures always turned to pain —

His na├»veté to wild desire —

His wit to love — his wine to fire —

And so being young and dipt in folly

I fell in love with melancholy,

And used to throw my earthly rest

And quiet all away in jest —

I could not love except where Death

Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath —

Or Hymen, Time, and Destiny

Were stalking between her and me.

To the few who have a knowledge of the true story of Edgar Poe’s life — not the many who know him merely from the slanderous stories set afloat by his implacable enemy, Griswold — these, and other omitted portions, have a strange biographical interest: they hint at something more than mere rhymes. In all these early verses, too, the student of his poems may detect the same idiosyncrasies of rhythm, punctuation, rhyme, and everything which distinguished the work of his maturity, save the refrain, which is a prominent trait of his latest compositions.

“Israfel” — the melodious — next attracts our attention, in this little book: it has received several finishing touches — each an improvement — has been expanded by seven additional lines, and is now included amongst the later poems. Increased strength has been given to several lines by altering the position of the words, but the modifications are scarcely sufficient to warrant the quotation of the poem as it originally stood. The piece now called “The City in the Sea” next appears in the book, and under the title of “The Doomed City.” Many and many felicitous changes have taken place in this fine poem; enough, Poe deemed, to abstract it from its place amongst the juvenile poems; as it now reads it is five lines shorter than formerly, and its conclusion has gained considerably by the suppression of these two concluding lines: —

And Death to some more happy clime

Shall give his undivided time. [page 585:]

We now arrive at “Fairy Land”; the verse which so excited the merriment of Poe’s fellow cadets, and which they considered “ridiculous doggerel.” As this poem now stands it is replete with imagination — the soul of poesy; but, it must be confessed, the cancelled portions are weak, very weak for so delicately, so morbidly particular a poet as was Edgar Poe, and, although containing some really poetic fantasies, it is only worthy preservation as a relic, and as such I quote a portion: —

Sit down beside me, Isabel,

Here, dearest, where the moonbeams fell

Just now so fairy-like and well.

Now thou art dress’d for Paradise!

I am star-stricken with thine eyes!

* * * *

In my own country all the way

We can discover a moon ray

Which through some tatter’ curtain pries

Into the darkness of a room,

Is by (the very source of gloom)

The motes, and dust, and flies,

On which it trembles and lies,

Like joy upon sorrow!

“Irene,” the next poem, having been altered and abridged front seventy-four to sixty-one lines, under the title of “The Sleeper,” was relegated to the poems of manhood. The changes are many and various, and all testify to the taste and discernment of their maker. For those desirous of collating the lines with the present version I quote those that have undergone the greatest change: —

I stand beneath thy soaring moon

At midnight in the month of June.

An influence dewy, drowsy, dim,

Is dripping from yon golden rim.

Grey towers are mouldering into rest,

Wrapping the fog around their breast.

Looking like Lethe, see! the lake

A conscious slumber seems to take,

And would not for the world awake.

The rosemary sleeps upon the grave,

The lily lolls upon the wave,

And million cedars to and fro

Are rocking lullabies as they go

To the lone oak that nodding hangs

Above yon cataract of Serangs.

All Beauty sleeps! — And lo! where lies

With casement open to the skies

Irene, with her destinies! [page 586:]

And hark the sounds, so low yet clear

(Like music of another sphere),

Which steal within the slumberer’s ear,

Or so appear — or so appear!

Oh, lady sweet, how camest thou here?

Strange are thine eyelids! strange thy dress!

And strange thy glorious length of tress!

Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas

A wanderer to our desert trees!

Some gentle wind hath thought it right

To ope thy window to the night,

And wanton airs from the tree top

Laughing through the lattice drop,

And wave this crimson canopy,

So fitfully, so fearfully,

As a banner o’er thy dreaming eye

That o’er the floor and down the wall,

Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall —

Then, for thine own all radiant sake,

Lady, awake! awake! awake! ....

“A Paean “follows next: as “Lenore” it subsequently reappeared in the later collections, but greatly improved in form and rhythm. The name of “Lenore” was undoubtedly an afterthought of the poet, but it gives a richer and more melodious tone to the flowing verse. This solemn dirge was, I have good authority for declaring, like so much of Poe’s poetry, autobiographical: two or three persons, perchance, know, or rather guess at, the event to which it refers, but the full secret is, doubtless, a mystery, and, like the “Hortulus Animm” of Grünniger, es lasst sich nicht lesen. The verses were divided in the following manner originally: —

How shall the burial rite be read —

The solemn song be sung! —

A paean for the loveliest dead

That ever died so young.

Her friends are gazing on her,

And on her gaudy bier,

And weep! — Oh! to dishonour

Dead beauty with a tear!

* * * * *

Thus on her coffin loud and long

I strike — the murmur sent

Through the gray chambers to my song

Shall be the accompaniment.

Thou died’st — in thy life’s June —

But thou didst not die too fair:

Thou didst not die too soon,

Nor with too calm an air. [page 587:]

From more than friends on earth

Thy life and love are riven.

To join the untainted mirth

Of more than thrones in heaven.

Therefore, to thee this night

I will no requiem raise,

But waft thee on thy flight,

With a paean of old days.

This is followed by’” The Valley Nis,” subsequently reduced to half its original length, and then re-christened “The Valley of Unrest.” The excisions are so many, and so important, that I feel justified in quoting the whole poem as it read formerly: —

Far away — far away —

Far away — as far at least

Lies that valley as the day

Down within the golden East —

All things lovely are they,

One and all, too far away?

It is called the Valley Nis;

And a Syriac tale there is

Thereabout which Time path said

Shall not be interpreted:

Something about Satan’s dart —

Something about angel wings —

Much about a broken heart —

All about unhappy things.

But the Valley Nis at best

Means the Valley of Unrest.

Once it smiled a silent dell

Where the people did not dwell,

Having gone unto the wars;

And the sly, mysterious stars,

With a visage full of meaning,

O’er th’ unguarded flowers were leaning,

Or the sun ray dripp’d all red

Through tall tulips overhead,

Then grew paler as it fell

On the quiet Asphodel.

Now each visitor shall confess

Nothing there is motionless —

Nothing save the airs that brood

O’er the enchanted solitude:

Save the airs with pinions furled,

That slumber o’er that valley world.

No wind in Heaven, and lo! the trees

Do roll like seas in northern breeze

Around the stormy Hebrides — [page 588:]

No wind in Heaven, and clouds do fly,

Rustling everlastingly,

Through the terror-stricken sky,

Rolling like a waterfall

O’er th’ horizon’s fiery wall —

And Helen, like thy human eye,

Low crouched on Earth some violets lie,

And nearer Heaven some lilies wave,

All banner like, above a grave.

And one by one from out their tops

Eternal dews come down in drops,

And one by one from off their stems

Eternal dews come down in gems!

Introduced by the sonnet now styled “To Science,” follows “Al Aaraaf” — it has been denuded of about one hundred lines. “Tamerlane “also, which appears in the volume, has been shortened.

Such, then, is the little collection of Poe’s earliest efforts. Valuable as an index to the precocity of his genius, and the care with which he elaborated to their ultimate perfection the poems he has left us, they also prove how his genius grew with his years, and cause us to lament that “events not to be controlled “prevented America’s greatest and most original poet from continuing his efforts “in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of his choice.” Unfettered by sordid cares and domestic wants, Edgar Allan Poe might have left the world a volume unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, by that of any lyric poet that ever lived. But, alas! “the paltry compensations,” if not “the more paltry commendations of mankind,” are necessary for subsistence, even to the author of “The Raven,” and we have to rest and be thankful for the half dozen or so poems which were all that the res augusta domi permitted his riper manhood to produce.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 580:]

*Poems — Hatch and Dunning, Baltimore, 1829 — 81 pp.

Elam Bliss, New York, 1831 — 124 pp.


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Notes:

The other collection of poems which was not obtainable in 1874 was almost certainly the 1827 Tamerlane and Other Poems. Perhaps ironically, Ingram would discover a copy of that collection in the library of the British Museum just a few years after this article was printed.

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[S:0 - GML, 1874] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe's Early Poems (J. H. Ingram, 1874)