Essay on Edgar Allan Poe

The poems of Edgar Allan Poe are the work of a poet who thought persistently about poetry as an art, and would have reduced inspiration to a method. At their best they are perfectly defined by Baudelaire, when he says of Poe’s poetry that it is a thing ‘deep and shimmering as dreams, mysterious and perfect as crystal.’ Not all the poems, few as they are, are flawless. In a few unequal poems we have the only essential poetry which has yet come from America, Walt Whitman’s vast poetical nature having remained a nature only, not come to be an art. Because Poe was fantastically inhuman, a conscious artist doing strange things with strange materials, not every one has realised how fine, how rare, was that beauty which this artist brought into the world. It is true that there was in the genius of Poe something meretricious; it is the flaw in his genius; but then he had genius, and Whittier and Bryant and Longfellow and Lowell had only varying degrees of talent. Let us admit, by all means, that a diamond is flawed; but need we compare it with this and that fine specimen of quartz?

Poetry Poe defined as ‘the rhythmical creation of beauty’; and the first element of poetry he found in ‘the thirst for supernal beauty.’ ‘It is not,’ he repeats, ‘the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above…. Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of time, to anticipate some portions of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to eternity.’ The poet, then, ‘should limit his endeavours to the creation of novel moods of beauty, in form, in colour, in sound, in sentiment.’ Note the emphasis upon novel: to Poe there was no beauty without strangeness. He makes his favourite quotation: ‘”But,” says Lord Bacon (how justly!) “there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportions.” Take away this element of strangeness—of unexpectedness—of novelty—of originality—call it what we will—and all that is ethereal in loveliness is lost at once…. We lose, in short, all that assimilates the beauty of earth with what we dream of the beauty of heaven!’ And, as another of the elements of this creation of beauty, there must be indefiniteness. ‘I know,’ he says, ‘that indefiniteness is an element of the true music—I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision—imbue it with any very determinate tone—and you deprive it at once of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character.’ Do we not seem to find here an anticipation of Verlaine’s ‘Art Poétique’: ‘Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance‘? And is not the essential part of the poetical theory of Mallarmé and of the French Symbolists enunciated in this definition and commendation of ‘that class of composition in which there lies beneath the transparent upper current of meaning an under or suggestive one’? To this ‘mystic or secondary impression’ he attributes ‘the vast force of an accompaniment in music…. With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august soul-exalting echo.’ Has anything that has been said since on that conception of poetry without which no writer of verse would, I suppose, venture to write verse, been said more subtly or more precisely?

And Poe does not end here, with what may seem generalities. ‘Beyond the limits of beauty,’ he says of poetry, ‘its province does not extend. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. It has no dependence, unless incidentally, upon either Duty or Truth.’ And of the poet who said, not meaning anything very different from what Poe meant, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ he says: ‘He is the sole British poet who has never erred in his themes.’ And, as if still thinking of Keats, he says: ‘It is chiefly amid forms of physical loveliness (we use the word forms in its widest sense as embracing modifications of sound and colour) that the soul seeks the realisation of its dreams of Beauty.’ And, with more earnest insistence on those limits which he knew to be so much more necessary to guard in poetry than its so-called freedom (‘the true artist will avail himself of no “license” whatever’), he states, with categorical precision: ‘A poem, in my opinion, 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 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.’

And he would set these careful limits, not only to the province of poetic pleasure, but to the form and length of actual poetry. ‘A long poem,’ he says, with more truth than most people are quite willing to see, ‘is a paradox.’ ‘I hold,’ he says elsewhere, ‘that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.’ And, after defining his ideal, ‘a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour,’ he says, very justly, that ‘within this limit alone can the highest order of true poetry exist.’ In another essay he narrows the duration to ‘half an hour, at the very utmost’; and wisely. In yet another essay he suggests ‘a length of about one hundred lines’ as the length most likely to convey that unity of impression, with that intensity of true poetical effect, in which he found the highest merit of poetry. Remember, that of true poetry we have already had his definition; and concede, that a loftier conception of poetry as poetry, poetry as lyric essence, cannot easily be imagined. We are too ready to accept, under the general name of poetry, whatever is written eloquently in metre; to call even Wordsworth’s Excursion a poem, and to accept Paradise Lost as throughout a poem. But there are not thirty consecutive lines of essential poetry in the whole of The Excursion, and, while Paradise Lost is crammed with essential poetry, that poetry is not consecutive; but the splendid workmanship comes in to fill up the gaps, and to hold our attention until the poetry returns. Essential poetry is an essence too strong for the general sense; diluted, it can be endured; and, for the most part, the poets dilute it. Poe could conceive of it only in the absolute; and his is the counsel of perfection, if of a perfection almost beyond mortal powers. He sought for it in the verse of all poets; he sought, as few have ever sought, to concentrate it in his own verse; and he has left us at least a few poems, ‘ciascun distinto e di fulgore e d’arte,’ in which he has found, within his own limits, the absolute.

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