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Life of Poe

Life of Poe, by James Russell Lowell


THE situation of American literature is anomalous. It has no centre,
or, if it have, it is like that of the sphere of Hermes. It is,
divided into many systems, each revolving round its several suns, and
often presenting to the rest only the faint glimmer of a
milk-and-water way. Our capital city, unlike London or Paris, is not
a great central heart from which life and vigor radiate to the
extremities, but resembles more an isolated umbilicus stuck down as
near a's may be to the centre of the land, and seeming rather to tell
a legend of former usefulness than to serve any present need. Boston,
New York, Philadelphia, each has its literature almost more distinct
than those of the different dialects of Germany; and the Young Queen
of the West has also one of her own, of which some articulate rumor
barely has reached us dwellers by the Atlantic.

Perhaps there is no task more difficult than the just criticism of
contemporary literature. It is even more grateful to give praise
where it is needed than where it is deserved, and friendship so often
seduces the iron stylus of justice into a vague flourish, that she
writes what seems rather like an epitaph than a criticism. Yet if
praise be given as an alms, we could not drop so poisonous a one into
any man's hat. The critic's ink may suffer equally from too large an
infusion of nutgalls or of sugar. But it is easier to be generous
than to be just, and we might readily put faith in that fabulous
direction to the hiding place of truth, did we judge from the amount
of water which we usually find mixed with it.

Remarkable experiences are usually confined to the inner life of
imaginative men, but Mr. Poe's biography displays a vicissitude and
peculiarity of interest such as is rarely met with. The offspring of
a romantic marriage, and left an orphan at an early age, he was
adopted by Mr. Allan, a wealthy Virginian, whose barren marriage-bed
seemed the warranty of a large estate to the young poet.

Having received a classical education in England, he returned home
and entered the University of Virginia, where, after an extravagant
course, followed by reformation at the last extremity, he was
graduated with the highest honors of his class. Then came a boyish
attempt to join the fortunes of the insurgent Greeks, which ended at
St. Petersburg, where he got into difficulties through want of a
passport, from which he was rescued by the American consul and sent
home. He now entered the military academy at West Point, from which
he obtained a dismissal on hearing of the birth of a son to his
adopted father, by a second marriage, an event which cut off his
expectations as an heir. The death of Mr. Allan, in whose will his
name was not mentioned, soon after relieved him of all doubt in this
regard, and he committed himself at once to authorship for a support.
Previously to this, however, he had published (in 1827) a small
volume of poems, which soon ran through three editions, and excited
high expectations of its author's future distinction in the minds of
many competent judges.

That no certain augury can be drawn from a poet's earliest lispings
there are instances enough to prove. Shakespeare's first poems,
though brimful of vigor and youth and picturesqueness, give but a
very faint promise of the directness, condensation and overflowing
moral of his maturer works. Perhaps, however, Shakespeare is hardly a
case in point, his "Venus and Adonis" having been published, we
believe, in his twenty-sixth year. Milton's Latin verses show
tenderness, a fine eye for nature, and a delicate appreciation of
classic models, but give no hint of the author of a new style in
poetry. Pope's youthful pieces have all the sing-song, wholly
unrelieved by the glittering malignity and eloquent irreligion of his
later productions. Collins' callow namby-pamby died and gave no sign
of the vigorous and original genius which he afterward displayed. We
have never thought that the world lost more in the "marvellous boy,"
Chatterton, than a very ingenious imitator of obscure and antiquated
dulness. Where he becomes original (as it is called), the interest of
ingenuity ceases and he becomes stupid. Kirke White's promises were
indorsed by the respectable name of Mr. Southey, but surely with no
authority from Apollo. They have the merit of a traditional piety,
which to our mind, if uttered at all, had been less objectionable in
the retired closet of a diary, and in the sober raiment of prose.
They do not clutch hold of the memory with the drowning pertinacity of
Watts; neither have they the interest of his occasional simple, lucky
beauty. Burns having fortunately been rescued by his humble station
from the contaminating society of the "Best models," wrote well and
naturally from the first. Had he been unfortunate enough to have had
an educated taste, we should have had a series of poems from which, as
from his letters, we could sift here and there a kernel from the mass
of chaff. Coleridge's youthful efforts give no promise whatever of
that poetical genius which produced at once the wildest, tenderest,
most original and most purely imaginative poems of modem times.
Byron's "Hours of Idleness" would never find a reader except from an
intrepid and indefatigable curiosity. In Wordsworth's first preludings
there is but a dim foreboding of the creator of an era. From Southey's
early poems, a safer augury might have been drawn. They show the
patient investigator, the close student of history, and the unwearied
explorer of the beauties of predecessors, but they give no assurances
of a man who should add aught to stock of household words, or to the
rarer and more sacred delights of the fireside or the arbor. The
earliest specimens of Shelley's poetic mind already, also, give tokens
of that ethereal sublimation in which the spirit seems to soar above
the regions of words, but leaves its body, the verse, to be entombed,
without hope of resurrection, in a mass of them. Cowley is generally
instanced as a wonder of precocity. But his early insipidities show
only a capacity for rhyming and for the metrical arrangement of
certain conventional combinations of words, a capacity wholly
dependent on a delicate physical organization, and an unhappy memory.
An early poem is only remarkable when it displays an effort of
_reason, _and the rudest verses in which we can trace some conception
of the ends of poetry, are worth all the miracles of smooth juvenile
versification. A school-boy, one would say, might acquire the regular
see-saw of Pope merely by an association with the motion of the
play-ground tilt.

Mr. Poe's early productions show that he could see through the verse
to the spirit beneath, and that he already had a feeling that all the
life and grace of the one must depend on and be modulated by the will
of the other. We call them the most remarkable boyish poems that we
have ever read. We know of none that can compare with them for
maturity of purpose, and a nice understanding of the effects of
language and metre. Such pieces are only valuable when they display
what we can only express by the contradictory phrase of _innate
experience. _We copy one of the shorter poems, written when the
author was only fourteen. There is a little dimness in the filling
up, but the grace and symmetry of the outline are such as few poets
ever attain. There is a smack of ambrosia about it.

TO HELEN

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The agate lamp within thy hand,
Ah! Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy Land!


It is the tendency of the young poet that impresses us. Here is no
"withering scorn," no heart "blighted" ere it has safely got into its
teens, none of the drawing-room sansculottism which Byron had brought
into vogue. All is limpid and serene, with a pleasant dash of the
Greek Helicon in it. The melody of the whole, too, is remarkable. It
is not of that kind which can be demonstrated arithmetically upon the
tips of the fingers. It is of that finer sort which the inner ear
alone _can _estimate. It seems simple, like a Greek column, because
of its perfection. In a poem named "Ligeia," under which title he
intended to personify the music of nature, our boy-poet gives us the
following exquisite picture:

Ligeia! Ligeia!
My beautiful one,
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
Say, is it thy will,
On the breezes to toss,
Or, capriciously still,
Like the lone albatross,
Incumbent on night,
As she on the air,
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?


John Neal, himself a man of genius, and whose lyre has been too
long capriciously silent, appreciated the high merit of these and
similar passages, and drew a proud horoscope for their author.

Mr. Poe had that indescribable something which men have agreed to
call _genius_. No man could ever tell us precisely what it is, and
yet there is none who is not inevitably aware of its presence and its
power. Let talent writhe and contort itself as it may, it has no such
magnetism. Larger of bone and sinew it may be, but the wings are
wanting. Talent sticks fast to earth, and its most perfect works have
still one- foot of clay. Genius claims kindred with the very workings
of Nature herself, so that a sunset shall seem like a quotation from
Dante, and if Shakespeare be read in the very presence of the sea
itself, his verses shall but seem nobler for the sublime criticism of
ocean. Talent may make friends for itself, but only genius can give
to its creations the divine power of winning love and veneration.
Enthusiasm cannot cling to what itself is unenthusiastic, nor will he
ever have disciples who has not himself impulsive zeal enough to be a
disciple. Great wits are allied to madness only inasmuch as they are
possessed and carried away by their demon, While talent keeps him, as
Paracelsus did, securely prisoned in the pommel of his sword. To the
eye of genius, the veil of the spiritual world is ever rent asunder
that it may perceive the ministers of good and evil who throng
continually around it. No man of mere talent ever flung his inkstand
at the devil.

When we say that Mr. Poe had genius, we do not mean to say that he
has produced evidence of the highest. But to say that he possesses it
at all is to say that he needs only zeal, industry, and a reverence
for the trust reposed in him, to achieve the proudest triumphs and
the greenest laurels. If we may believe the Longinuses; and
Aristotles of our newspapers, we have quite too many geniuses of the
loftiest order to render a place among them at all desirable, whether
for its hardness of attainment or its seclusion. The highest peak of
our Parnassus is, according to these gentlemen, by far the most
thickly settled portion of the country, a circumstance which must
make it an uncomfortable residence for individuals of a poetical
temperament, if love of solitude be, as immemorial tradition asserts,
a necessary part of their idiosyncrasy.

Mr. Poe has two of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of
vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of
imagination. The first of these faculties is as needful to the artist
in words, as a knowledge of anatomy is to the artist in colors or in
stone. This enables him to conceive truly, to maintain a proper
relation of parts, and to draw a correct outline, while the second
groups, fills up and colors. Both of these Mr. Poe has displayed with
singular distinctness in his prose works, the last predominating in
his earlier tales, and the first in his later ones. In judging of the
merit of an author, and assigning him his niche among our household
gods, we have a right to regard him from our own point of view, and
to measure him by our own standard. But, in estimating the amount of
power displayed in his works, we must be governed by his own design,
and placing them by the side of his own ideal, find how much is
wanting. We differ from Mr. Poe in his opinions of the objects of
art. He esteems that object to be the creation of Beauty, and perhaps
it is only in the definition of that word that we disagree with him.
But in what we shall say of his writings, we shall take his own
standard as our guide. The temple of the god of song is equally.
accessible from every side, and there is room enough in it for all
who bring offerings, or seek in oracle.

In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in that
dim region which stretches from the very utmost limits of the
probable into the weird confines of superstition and unreality. He
combines in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom
found united; a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the
impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does
not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the
natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we
have before alluded, analysis. It is this which distinguishes the
artist. His mind at once reaches forward to the effect to be
produced. Having resolved to bring about certain emotions in the
reader, he makes all subordinate parts tend strictly to the common
centre. Even his mystery is mathematical to his own mind. To him X is
a known quantity all along. In any picture that he paints he
understands the chemical properties of all his colors. However vague
some of his figures may seem, however formless the shadows, to him
the outline is as clear and distinct as that of a geometrical
diagram. For this reason Mr. Poe has no sympathy with Mysticism. The
Mystic dwells in the mystery, is enveloped with it; it colors all his
thoughts; it affects his optic nerve especially, and the commonest
things get a rainbow edging from it. Mr. Poe, on the other hand, is a
spectator _ab extra_. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches

"with an eye serene,
The very pulse of the machine,"


for such it practically is to him, with wheels and cogs and
piston-rods, all working to produce a certain end.

This analyzing tendency of his mind balances the poetical, and by
giving him the patience to be minute, enables him to throw a
wonderful reality into his most unreal fancies. A monomania he paints
with great power. He loves to dissect one of these cancers of the
mind, and to trace all the subtle ramifications of its roots. In
raising images of horror, also, he has strange success, conveying to
us sometimes by a dusky hint some terrible _doubt _which is the
secret of all horror. He leaves to imagination the task of finishing
the picture, a task to which only she is competent.

"For much imaginary work was there;
Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,
That for Achilles' image stood his spear
Grasped in an armed hand; himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind."

Besides the merit of conception, Mr. Poe's writings have also that of
form.

His style is highly finished, graceful and truly classical. It would
be hard to find a living author who had displayed such varied powers.
As an example of his style we would refer to one of his tales, "The
House of Usher," in the first volume of his "Tales of the Grotesque
and Arabesque." It has a singular charm for us, and we think that no
one could read it without being strongly moved by its serene and
sombre beauty. Had its author written nothing else, it would alone
have been enough to stamp him as a man of genius, and the master of a
classic style. In this tale occurs, perhaps, the most beautiful of
his poems.

The great masters of imagination have seldom resorted to the vague
and the unreal as sources of effect. They have not used dread and
horror alone, but only in combination with other qualities, as means
of subjugating the fancies of their readers. The loftiest muse has
ever a household and fireside charm about her. Mr. Poe's secret lies
mainly in the skill with which he has employed the strange
fascination of mystery and terror. In this his success is so great
and striking as to deserve the name of art, not artifice. We cannot
call his materials the noblest or purest, but we must concede to him
the highest merit of construction.

As a critic, Mr. Poe was aesthetically deficient. Unerring in his
analysis of dictions, metres and plots, he seemed wanting in the
faculty of perceiving the profounder ethics of art. His criticisms
are, however, distinguished for scientific precision and coherence of
logic. They have the exactness, and at the same time, the coldness of
mathematical demonstrations. Yet they stand in strikingly refreshing
contrast with the vague generalisms and sharp personalities of the
day. If deficient in warmth, they are also without the heat of
partisanship. They are especially valuable as illustrating the great
truth, too generally overlooked, that analytic power is a subordinate
quality of the critic.

On the whole, it may be considered certain that Mr. Poe has attained
an individual eminence in our literature which he will keep. He has
given proof of power and originality. He has done that which could
only be done once with success or safety, and the imitation or
repetition of which would produce weariness.

Edgar Allan Poe