Text: Alphonso G. Newcomer, “Notes,” Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Chicago and New York: Scott, Foresman and Co, 1898, pp. 299-316


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[page 299:]

NOTES

TO HELEN

This little poem, which Poe may have written, as has been asserted, at the age of fourteen, though that is a matter beyond verification, is interesting as one of his earliest and purest lyrics. The charm of it is not to be analyzed. The form is peculiar, in that the rhyme arrangement varies with each stanza and that the last lines of the stanzas are of varying length. Poe was not given to absolute regularity of form, The Raven being almost unique among his poems in this respect.

What the allusion in “Nicæan barks “may be, is doubtful. Professor W. P. Trent, editor of a volume of selections from Poe, conjectures that Poe may have been thinking of the Phæacian barks by which Odysseus was taken to his Ithacan home (Odyssey, XIII). This, however, leaves the phrase “perfumed seas a mere fancy, without special meaning.

The last two lines of the second stanza are, perhaps, more frequently quoted apart from their context than any other lines in Poe. To illustrate the kind of revision to which Poe, like Tennyson, constantly subjected his poems, the last two stanzas may here be given in their original form (1831): —

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs, have brought me home

To the beauty of fair Greece

And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo! in that little window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The folded scroll within thy hand!

A Psyche from the regions which

Are Holy Land! [page 300:]

ISRAFEL

This is another of Poe’s juvenile poems — “of all these lyrics,” Mr. Stelman is disposed to think, “the most lyrical.” “For once, and in his freest hour of youth, Poe got above the sepulchres and mists, even beyond the pale-faced moon, and visited the empyrean.” With the last stanza, compare the final stanza of Shelley’s To a Skylark.

The motto of the poem comes, through Moore’s Lalla Rookh, from Sale’s Introduction to the Koran. Poe, however, has added to the motto a line from his own poem. “whose heart-strings are a lute” — with which compare the lines prefixed to The Fall of the House of Usher and attributed to Béranger. Poe’s methods of quotation were, to say the least, devious.

THE CITY IN THE SEA

This poem also is of the poet’s juvenile period, having been published in 1831. It is a pure fancy, to which it is perhaps idle to attempt to attach any definite meaning, though the original title of The City of Sin affords some help. In the description of the House of Usher will be found certain particulars not unlike those already used in the description of this City of Sin or Death. The epithets here are striking in their originality and imaginative power, and the entire picture will readily suggest, as Mr. Stedman remarks, some of the weird conceptions of Turner, the English landscape painter.

With the ninth line compare this passage in N. P. Willis’s Absalom (1827): —

The willow leaves,

With a soft cheek upon the lulling tide,

Forgot the lifting winds.

That Poe was one of the most original of poets, few will have the hardiness to deny. That, in small matters, he was not superior to occasional imitation, consciously or unconsciously, is equally beyond dispute. The only pity is that he should have found it so difficult to exercise common courtesy toward others who sometimes availed themselves of a like privilege. [page 301:]

THE RAVEN

This poem dates from the year 1845, and, with the poems that follow, shows Poe’s powers at their maturest. In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe gives an account of the manner in which he constructed The Raven, saying that he did. it as he would work out a mathematical problem, by reasoning beforehand upon the nature of poetry, determining that beauty should be the essence of a poem, that sadness is the tone of the highest manifestation of beauty, that the refrain is the most effective of artistic devices, and that the refrain should be composed of sonorous and protractible sounds. The account may be taken for what it is worth. The present editor is inclined to regard it merely as part of a defence which Poe had been moved to make against an insinuation that in The Raven he had imitated the repetitions of phrases in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Poe urged that the use of the refrain is almost universal (see Stedman and Woodberry’s Poe, VI. 163). The Philosophy of Composition may have been in part suggested by this defence, and may well have been written to sustain it. At any rate, against. his peculiar explanation of the composition of The Raven. should be set a sentence from his own preface to the 1845 edition of his poems: “With me poetry has been not a. purpose, but a passion, and the passions should be held in reverence.”

The form of The Raven does very distinctly suggest Mrs.. Browning’s Lady Geraldine’s Courtship (1844), in the conclusion of which, for example, are stanzas like the following: —

With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain

Swelleth in and swelleth out around her motionless pale brows;

While the gliding of the river sends a rippling noise for ever

Through the open casement whitened by the moonlight’s slant repose.

Said he — “Vision of a lady! stand there silent, stand there steady!

Now I see it plainly, plainly; now I cannot hope or doubt —

There, the brows of mild repression-there, the lips of silent passion,

Curv’d like an archer’s bow to send the bitter arrows out.” [page 302:]

Ever, evermore the while in a slow silence she kept smiling,

And approached him slowly, slowly, in a gliding measured pace;

With her two white hands extended, as it praying one offended,

And a look of supplication, gazing earnest in his face.

Poe, in frank admiration, and accustomed to look to woman for appreciation and sympathy, dedicated the 1845 edition of his poems to Mrs. Browning (then Miss Barrett) — “the noblest of her sex.” The long trochaic lines of both poems in question were doubtless in some measure determined by Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, published in 1842. As to the repetends, which are so marked a feature of The Raven, they clearly bear, notwithstanding Poe’s disclaimer, the impress of the repetends of The Ancient Mariner.

The Raven does not represent the highest reach of Poe’s imagination. There is in it a shade of the melodramatic and the declamatory, and there is some excess of artificial devices. Yet it well deserves to be, as it is, not only the most popular of his poems, but one of the most widely known poems in the English language. It has been translated into the principal modern languages of Europe. Its construction is almost flawless, the tone is thoroughly sustained (a slight prosaic lapse may possibly be detected in the third line of stanza nine), and the musical and imaginative qualities are in perfect balance. Finally, there is the suggested allegory, revealed only at the climax. “It will be observed,” wrote Poe, “that the words ‘from out my heart involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,’ dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical-but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Neverending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen.”

ULALUME

This fantasy is perhaps the supreme test of one’s power to enjoy the strange music and imagery of Poe’s verse without demanding any intellectual basis for the enjoyment. It is about as idle to search for a meaning in Ulalume as it [page 303:] would be to search in an atlas for the geographical names, and criticism will most safely keep silence. N. P. Willis, when the poem was first published, described it as an exquisitely piquant and skillful exercise of variety and niceness of language” and a “delicious curiosity in philologic flavor” — which the student may readily verify if he so choose; but if he feel nothing more in the poem than that, his reading of Poe will have been in vain.

ANNABEL LEE

Dr. J. J. Moran, the physician who attended Poe at his death, published in 1885 (A Defence of Edgar Allan Poe) the statement that Annabel Lee was a “love of Poe’s childhood, Miss Royster, now Mrs. Shelton, of Richmond,” and that Richmond was the “kingdom by the sea.” Without doubting that Poe’s boyish passions may sometimes have found expression in verse, one must still refuse to credit this statement which is so little in accord with the facts of the poem. Remote, however, and etherealized as the poem is. it beats with a very human pulse.

THE BELLS

This poem was published the month after Poe’s death, and derives from that fact a melancholy interest. As first offered to “Sartain’s Union Magazine,” a year earlier, it contained but eighteen lines. It was twice expanded and altered before being left in the form in which it was published. There is another account which says that Poe wrote the poem in a state of sheer exhaustion. This may be so, for the intellectual content of the stanzas is very slight — they are rather in the nature of

The sad mechanic exercise,

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

However, one of the changes that Poe made is interesting as showing that his critical taste remained active and discerning [page 304:] to the last. It is in the eighteenth line of the fourth stanza. The first draft had run:

They are neither man nor woman,

They are neither brute nor human,

But are pestilential carcasses departed from their souls.

This last line Poe cancelled, substituting simply, in pencil, “They are Ghouls.”

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that The Bells has made all other onomatopoetic poems in our literature seem cheap in comparison.

ELDORADO

Nothing, apparently, is known of the history of this posthumously published lyric of “The Golden Land.” Is it certainly Poe’s? There is a light-hearted lilt in it that might almost warrant the doubt. Yet the diction is his, and the half sardonic close,

“Ride, boldly ride,”

The shade replied,

“If you seek for Eldorado;”

is not out of keeping with much that we can imagine of his tormented soul.

THE ASSIGNATION

The motto of this tale, taken from a poem by Bishop King, recalls an interesting bit of literary history. The tale was published in 1835. In 1838 Longfellow wrote his Psalm of Life. In 1845, Poe, who had become involved in a public controversy over the question of Longfellow’s imitative. ness, pointed out that the simile of the “muffled drums” in the Psalm of Life is the same as a simile in Bishop King’s Exequy. Longfellow, according to the Life by Samuel Longfellow (I., 284), denied having had King’s poem in mind. It seems fair to assume that Longfellow had read the Exequy and unconsciously remembered the simile. If that be true, it is possible that it was precisely this tale of Poe’s, with its motto, which caused Longfellow to read the poem of so [page 305:] obscure a poet as Bishop King. Certainly the lines here quoted by Poe are impressive enough to attract any poet’s attention,

Page 63: line 19. His cloak. This spectacular scene is quite in accord with old romance methods, but the reader schooled in modern realistic methods is likely to smile at the improbability of a man’s plunging into the water without throwing aside a cloak that could be so readily unfastened. It may be remarked here that Poe was himself a swimmer of exceptional power. having once, we are told, swum a distance of six miles in James River.

63: 25. No word spoke the deliverer. These two paragraphs are very much in the manner of De Quincey.

67: 16. In the architecture and embellishments. The description that follows is a good example of Poe’s extravagantly “romantic” use of luxury and splendor. It is the opposite of the classic ideal, which makes for clearness and unity of impression. Even Poe seems to feel the oppressiveness of such luxury, though it is clear, too, that he takes much delight in it, and certainly the last sentence of the paragraph, with its light, color, and verbal music, is a triumph of description. Somewhat similar effects are found in the rich and sensuous poetry of Keats, notably in The Eve of St. Agnes.

68: 12. Proprietor. The word jars a little, like the word “people” in the third paragraph of The Fall of the House of Usher. The taste of employing italicized and foreign words may also well be questioned. Of the latter, Poe in this paragraph grows pedantically ostentatious.

70: 14. Perspicacity of the Academies. Perhaps the irony of this remark will be better appreciated by recalling that, in the assembly-room of the French Academy, beneath the bust of Molière, who was never elected to membership, are these words: “Rien ne manque à sa gloire, il manquait à la nôtre.” (Naught is lacking to his honor, he is lacking to ours.)

73: 1. Thou wast all that. This poem was published in varying forms at various times, first with this tale (the tale was then called The Visionary) in “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” January, 1834. The first four stanzas were published as a separate poem, with the title To One in Paradise, in 1843. [page 306:]

None of the stanzas has been left unchanged; the fourth, for example, originally read: —

And all my hours are trances,

And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy dark eye glances,

And where thy footstep gleams-

In what ethereal dances

By far Italian streams.

The change of “dark eye” to “gray eye” and several other changes follow marginal notes written, in Poe’s own hand, in a copy of the 1845 edition, and were first printed by Messrs. Stedman and Woodberry, 1895. In this 1895 edition the poem, as published separately, ends with the fourth stanza, and the last line reads (as usual), “By what eternal streams.”

75: 10. Melancholy ... inseparable. Such was one of the cardinal principles of Poe’s æsthetic creed.

75: 12. Her right arm. This imitates pretty closely the attitude of the Verus of Medici.

76: 21. The chastity of Ionid. The movement of this sentence is interesting, approaching as it does the measured movement of verse, yet defying scansion.

What propriety was there in the original title of this tale, The Visionary? Is the present title better?

LIGEIA

“Ligeia” is a Greek word, signifying “clear-voiced.” The name was doubtless selected for its musical quality. One of the best things in Poe’s 1829 volume was a song in Al Aaraaf containing lines apostrophizing Ligeia as the ‘ personified harmony of nature”:

Ligeia! Ligeia!

My beautiful one!

Whose harshest idea

Will to melody run.

And again:

Ligeial wherever

Thy image may be,

No magic shall sever

Thy music from thee. [page 307:]

The motto of this tale, ascribed to Joseph Glanvill, has not been found in Glanvill’s writings. The motto, of course, bears directly upon such interpretation as the tale admits of Further help in interpretation may be obtained from Morella, an earlier and cruder tale with much the same theme, in which the hero discusses the nature of personal identity, and remarks: “The principium individuationis, — the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost forever — was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest.”

80: 5. “There is no exquisite beauty.” Poe misquotes here, and later dwells upon the very word he has misquoted. Bacon wrote “excellent,” not “exquisite.”

81: 22. Gazelle eyes. This is a common figure in that species of Oriental-English poetry of which Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh is the most conspicuous example. Poe doubtless owed to Moore many suggestions for his Israfel, Aidenn, houris, seraphim, censers, etc. Just what valley of the far east Nourjahad may be, it is impossible to determine; Poe may have invented the name.

88: 3. Lo! ‘tis a gala night. This was published among Poe’s poems under the title of The Conqueror Worm.

92: 12. Bridal couch ... of solid ebony. The morbidness of Poe’s temper could find no more striking illustration than this fancy.

Discuss the following phrases (and others that may be selected) in respect to their musical or unmusical quality, originality or triteness, and imaginative power or weakness: “thrilling and enthralling eloquence,” “steadily and stealthily progressive,” “recollection flashes upon me,’ “institute no inquiries,” “misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt,” “marble hand,” “daughters of Delos,” classical labors of the heathen,” “luxuriant and naturallycurling tresses,” “the thing that was enshrouded.”

Compare the “interior” described in this tale with that in The Assignation. How does the theme of this tale come. pare with the former in interest? in power? Is it in any degree repulsive? Compare it also with the tale that follows. [page 308:]

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER

The lines of the French motto are apparently not to be found in Béranger’s collected works. It is commonly assumed that Poe was reckless to the point of dishonesty in his frequent allusions and quotations, though the question of honesty is scarcely one to be raised in the case of a professed romancer, who naturally feels free to use all means that will serve his artistic purpose. Poe was certainly indifferent about entire accuracy, yet as one after another of his obscure allusions yields its source and meaning to persistent research, the conviction grows that the charge of deliberate falsification must not thoughtlessly be brought against him. For instance, in the present tale, the books in the rather pedantic list given as Usher’s favorite reading have nearly all been traced, and reflect Poe’s genuine interest in the lore of demonology and mysticism. Possibly the “Mad Trist” of “Sir Launcelot Canning” is, along with he citations from it, a pure invention. But if so, the value of the supposed citations as a preparation for the crisis of the tale which Poe is telling is suficient warrant for the invention. On the other hand, if Poe has attributed to Béranger something that Béranger did not write (the editor is by no means certain) the case cannot be so lightly passed by.

The Fall of the House of Usher, as being probably, Poe’s most perfect tale, lends itself well to the study of his method. In the very first line, the three impressively conjoined adjectives strike precisely the note of solemn mystery to which every part of the tale vibrates. Science might question the accuracy of the characterization in “soundless,” yet it is a sufficiently common experience to imagine that at times of impending natural catastrophe a hush, as of awed expectancy, comes over the animal and vegetable world. The word is poetically true; and the whole phrase has in it something of what Matthew Arnold (On the Study of Celtic Literature) has called “Celtic magic,” — that is, truthful handling of nature, with charm and magic added.

Observe, moreover, the firm and easy movement of this opening sentence, its rhythm and cadence, qualities which [page 309:] can come only from a writer who is perfect master of the form in which he works. It affords an admirable example of the legitimate rhythm of prose, which is something quite different from the rhythm of poetry, for Poe, like most poets who have written prose, recognized here a fundamental distinction between the two arts. The same distinction may be seen in some of his striking shorter phrases — “vacant eye-like windows,” “bitter! lapse into everyday life,” “tarn that lay in unruffled lustre, “kingdom of inorganization,” ponderous and ebony jaws “ — none of which would fit readily into actual poetry, but which, in their perfection of form’ as well as in their imaginative qualities, reveal unmistakably the author’s poetic power. A more properly poetic, almost lyrical device may be found in certain refrain-like repetitions of phrase which Poe has occasionally allowed himself. This may be seen here in the first paragraph, where the reflection of the House of Usher in the tarn gives the writer an opportunity to repeat the elements of his description. But even in this device, it will be seen that Poe has taken the advantage offered by prose — has followed a law, one is tempted to say, enjoined by prose — to vary the phrasing, and has even refrained, as if instinctively, from a too mechanical enumeration of the elements in an exactly inverse order. The employment of prose repetends of this kind and their effect may be studied further in the tale of Eleonora.

109: 1. Low cunning. The reason for this observed character of the physician appears later, though nowhere is there more than a hint of its exact and unpleasant significance.

112: 4. Morbid acuteness of the senses. The medical term is hypercesthesia. Later, Usher is called a hypochondriac.

112: 12. Anomalous terror. Few but Poe could so refine upon ordinary emotions as to imagine the fear of fear. A base emotion is thus in a measure exalted.

113: 25. Without having noticed my presence. This is a little peculiar, considering that Usher was speaking to him at the time.

115: 5. Radiation of gloom. This, like the fear of fear, is [page 310:] another startling conception, involving, indeed, a paradox. The two following paragraphs are good examples of what may be done, by vague suggestion, toward describing things essentially indescribable.

117: 16. The Haunted Palace. The poem had been separately published in the Baltimore Museum [[American Museum]] for April, 1839. The allegorical significance of it is plainly hinted at, and can be traced through nearly every line, though not all who have liked to dwell in imagination upon this palace and its “banners yellow, glorious, golden” will be pleased to learn just what is signified. The slight irregularity of the metre is doubtless intended to heighten the weirdness of the effect. Professor William P. Trent has noted the resemblance between the lines of the fourth stanza and some lines in Lovelace’s To Althea from Prison:

When, like committed linnets, I

With shriller throat shall sing

The sweetness, mercy, majesty,

And glories of my King.

125: 16. “And you have not seen it?” Conversation, it may be noted, plays a very slight part in the development of the tale.

132: 2. It was the work of the rushing gust. Perhaps this is the finest touch in the tale. The reader is fully prepared for the apparition of the lady Madeline. Then, for the briefest possible moment, with the natural explanation of the opening of the doors, his expectation is disappointed, to the great intensifying of the thrill that follows when, after all, the apparition is revealed.

What is the application of the motto prefixed to the tale? (See the Glossary for a translation of it.) [[The Glossary, p. 322, translates the motto as “His heart is a suspended lute, the moment it is touched, it resounds.’]]

Should the word House in the title be interpreted literally or figuratively? It is worth remarking how easily, in Poe’s hands, the line between the concrete and the abstract, between the actual and the visionary, vanishes.

Make a list of the words in the tale probably coined by Poe for the occasion (a word may be felt to be a coinage even though it is not absolutely new); also a list of unusual words which Poe employs with evident relish. Find examples [page 311:] of effective combinations of adjectives in threes, like “dull, dark, and soundless.”

Examine the tale with reference to its adherence to the following principles, which Poe laid down in a review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preëstablished design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at (length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed.”

A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTRÖM

The Maelström, or Mosköström (“whirlpool”), really exists on the west coast of Norway and may be found on any good map. There was never any such actual vortex as Poe has described, but there is a strong tidal current, at times sufficiently dangerous to give rise to the tradition upon which Poe has founded his tale. See the article “Whirlpool “ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in which, by the way Poe is given a credit for learning which he does not deserve, since his own knowledge and even his quotation from Ramus were, as Mr. Woodberry has discovered, taken from an earlier edition of this same Encyclopaedia. Poe was at all times interested in physics and physical geography. The geography in this tale is fairly correct, as may be seen by consulting the Century Atlas, where Vurrgh will be found as Værö, Moskoe as Mosken, and the island from whose mountain-top (“Helseggen ”) the scene is supposed to be viewed, as the ger Lofoten island of Moskenesö. The [page 312:] names of the smaller rocks, in paragraph eight, may be fanciful, though it is more than probable that Poe found them in some old chart. The nautical terms which he uses are introduced with considerable skill and accuracy. The physical theory, that cylindrical bodies are drawn into a vortex more slowly than others, was derived, as Poe’s no shows, from Archimedes. The motto prefixed to the tale has been corrected according to the original text of Glanvill, which Mr. Woodberry has discovered.

Show just how the first three paragraphs contribute toward the “unique or single effect” of this tale. What are the most effective touches in the description of the desolation that follows?

Can the attempt, at the end of the tale, to forestall the reader’s incredulity be regarded as a really artistic touch?

155: 4. Magnificent rainbow. Poe probably never saw a lunar rainbow, or he would not have described it as magnificent. It is very faint.

ELEONORA

The motto from Lully means, “With the preservation of a specific form, the soul is secure.” With the thought of the first paragraph, compare the fourth paragraph of Ligeia; indeed, considerable likeness may be traced in the elements of these two tales, though the colors of the one are as bright as those of the other are sombre.

“In this alone of all Poe’s tales,” says Mr. Woodberry, “is there any sign of the warmth, the vital sense, of human love.” For this quality, and no less for the watered recesses and flowered lawns and “manifold golden and gorgeous glories” of the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, Eleonora deserves a place among the highest creations of the poetic fancy.

THE OVAL PORTRAIT

Mr. Stedman calls the manner of the legend in this tale “Germanesque,” likening it to the manner of a legend in Longfellow’s Hyperion (1839). For the motive, an interesting [page 315:] comparison may be made with Hawthorne’s The Birthmark in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). The opening of the tale is, in its abruptness, like that of A Descent into the Maelström, The Cask of Amontillado, The Pit and the Pendulum, and others.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

In this tale are to be found again all those properties of ultra-Gothic romance of which Poe was the final master. As a work of art it stands quite apart from the more or less famous realistic descriptions of actual pestilence by Boccaccio, Manzoni, Defoe, and Charles Brockden Brown, though at the outset it is not a little like Boccaccio’s account (see the Decameron, Introduction). For the slight allegorical significance of the tale, see the Introduction to the present volume, p. 20.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

The Inquisition, or Holy Office, of the Roman Catholic Church was a papal tribunal for the detection and trial of heretics. In Spain, in the fifteenth century, the Inquisition became a state tribunal, acting with a rigor and barbarity which even papal authority was powerless to restrain. It was suppressed in 1808, at the time of Napoleon’s invasion, and was finally abolished in 1835. Poe has taken advantage of the stories that are told of the horrors of the early Inquisition to construct a tale of ingenious cruelty, at the same time taking the liberty of transferring the action to the nineteenth century. The motto of the tale is taken from Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature, but the market erected on the site mentioned has never had, says Baudelaire, either gates or inscription.

THE GOLD-BUG

For The Gold-Bug, which was first published in a newspaper, Poe received a prize of one hundred dollars. The tale has two sources of interest — the interest of romantic adventure which is found elsewhere in his work chiefly in his sea-tales, and the interest of an analytical problem like [page 314:] that which enters into his various detective stories. Moreover, it is quite without those elements of horror which he was prone to introduce even into stories of this type. Poe’s want of humor, for one thing, stood seriously in his way when he attempted to construct stories of a light character. Perhaps only in the instance where he makes Hans Pfaall undertake a trip to the moon. to escape from his creditors, has he successfully employed a humorous conception. There is no attempt to make humor any part of the plot of The Gold-Bug, but there are some weak attempts to introduce it with one of the characters. In dialogue, too. Poe had little skill — a fact which may be readily noticed even in The Fall of the House of Usher. In the present tale, the matter is complicated by the use of dialect, a distinct departure from romantic methods. Familiar as Poe must have been with negro dialect, his reproduction of it will seem to the reader of later fiction very crude, for the realist’s art as we now know it, was then quite unknown. Yet negro dialect had been used in American literature at least as early as 1821, when Cooper, hardly more expert in such matters than Poe, introduced it into The Spy.

As for other matters, we must not, of course, in the tale of a search for Captain Kidd’s treasure, expect faithful realism, even if Poe had been able or willing to observe it. Poe knew something of Sullivan’s Island; he served in the United States Army at Fort Moultrie in the year 1828. Yet Professor Gildersleeve, of the Johns Hopkins University, writes (New Glimpses of Poe, by James A. Harrison, 1901): “I am old enough to remember what an excitement his Gold-Bug created in Charleston when it first appeared, and how severely we boys criticised the inaccuracies in the description of Sullivan’s Island.” In another matter — verisimilitude, or the calculation of probabilities, the time allowed, for instance, for the task described, the measurement of distances, and the like — we have some right to demand of Poe exactness, since he boasted of being able to imagine his situations accurately in all their details. A striking instance of his success in such matters may be seen in the Descent into the Maelström, where, after the smack has been sucked into the funnel-shaped abyss, owing to [page 315:] centrifugal force the fisherman is made to find little difficulty in still keeping his footing. Even there, however, Poe has failed to note further that the fact as imagined would tend to confuse somewhat the fisherman’s notions of “up” and “down.” In the present tale also there are some interesting discrepancies, which will be left to the ingenuity of those who are disposed to ferret them out. In cryptograms (or cryptographs, as he prefers to write it), Poe was really an expert, and an interesting essay on the subject of cryptography may be found in his collected works.

There are various “gold-beetles,” but the “gold-bug” of this story, with its skull-like markings, is clearly an invention; Poe is careful to state that it was unknown to science. It is interesting to inquire just how far this beetle, which gives a name to the story, is necessary to the construction of the plot, and what part it plays. The motto of the tale has not been traced, though Professor W. P. Trent has examined carefully the comedy, All in the Wrong, of the English dramatist, Arthur Murphy (1727-1805), which was revived in New York in 1836. The motto would have a somewhat more pertinent bearing on the story if the treasure were not discovered in the end.

It may be remarked here that of all the tales that have been woven about the lost treasure of Captain Kidd, this one has been the most widely read, unless Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker in Tales of a Traveller be a fair rival, As for Kidd himself, the notorious Scotch pirate who was hanged at London in 1701, see Irving’s account in the above-named volume, or consult the Dictionary of National Biography.

THE PURLOINED LETTER

Poe has made his “M. Dupin” the hero of two other detective stories, both somewhat inferior to this one and more gruesome in their details — The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. The method of playing the acumen of the detectives off against the stupidity of the ordinary police, which is hinted at in the motto of “Nothing more hateful to wisdom than over-acuteness,” [page 316:] has been followed by later writers, notably by Dr. Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes is only another and almost as widely known M. Dupin. A comparison of Dr. Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia (Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) with the present tale will be of interest. It will be seen that for real imaginative grasp of the problem presented and for sustaining dramatic interest without straining probability Poe easily carries off the palm. The detective story at best is not a high form of literature — at worst, indeed, it is a very low form. Yet Poe’s argument that a great reasoner, which of course a detective should be, must be a poet as well as a mathematician, is well worth considering. Moreover, this same ratiocinative faculty of Poe’s, which could descend to cryptograms and police puzzles, made also, as Mr. Stedman has intimated, heroic attempts to rise to the highest mysteries of the human soul.


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Notes:

Alphonso Gerald Newcomer (1864-1913) was an Associate Professor of English at Leland Stanford Junior University in Stanford, CA. In addition to being an educator, Newcomer was also a poet. His collection Memorial Ode and Other Poems was published in 1913.

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[S:0 - NPATEAP, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Notes (A. G. Newcomer, 1899)