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    Life of Poe

    by Edgar Allan Poe
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    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.


    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

    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.
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