Edgar Allan Poe and the Mask of the 20th Century
BUT for the cruel aspersions upon the character and life of America’s poetic genius, EDGAR ALLAN POE, this volume would have remained unwritten. EDGAR ALLAN POE has been more misunderstood than any other poet of the recent past. While his life was beautiful and inspired, yet aspersed, his last moments had more of sublimity than those of any of his contemporaries. The author of gems so delicate as “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and “Lenore,” while no less human and frail than others of his day, had a soul and heart that stamped him an offshoot of Divinity.
-A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Character and Dying Declarations of the Poet, Dr. John J. Moran, attendant physician to Poe in his final hours.
The name Edgar Allan Poe conjures images of the macabre, murder, insanity and self-destruction, but is this the real Edgar Allan Poe? Despite countless documentaries on Poe’s life, each with its “spooky” music to accompany the narrative of a soul obsessed with morbidity, the sublime nature of Poe’s works is seldom presented. This essay is meant to address the question of Poe’s mind, his artistic vision, his heretofore unfinished literary project, The Stylus, and the counter-cultural currents which attempted to bury the aesthetic principles he dedicated his life to defending.
Despite commendable work by Poe’s own friends to expose the fraudulent accounts of his life circulated by Rufus W. Griswald, the slanderous image of Poe as a perennial Halloween-like figure, the cartoonish hero of all things “dark,” remains the popular culture’s favorite image of Poe. His genius as a leading intellectual and stalwart literary warrior who fought to create a high culture in the newly minted American Republic, remains largely reduced to the status of a Stephen King-like “horror” writer. It is believed that many of his fiction pieces were simply the product of his own sick mind, something renowned French writer and Poe translator Charles Baudelaire was convinced of. If the popular image is any indication, the world has yet to shed the vestiges of the false Poe mythology.
In this light, revisiting Poe’s works and the project of his final years should be seen as a question of historical justice – not merely a literary matter. The investigation will demonstrate Edgar Allan Poe to be one of the leading literary and intellectual figures of the newly minted republic, a figure whose dream it was of establishing a new classical culture that could preserve and nourish the intellectual fruits of the young American republic.
A Republic: Independence, Truth and Originality
“The decline of literature signals the decline of a nation.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Living in a young nation which was still in the process of forging its identity as a sovereign nation, Poe recognized the revolution was not over: America still needed its own classical culture, as that of every great civilization. To help situate the auspicious time in which America found itself, it is worth noting a poem by the great Weimar Classical German poet Goethe:
America, You Have it Better
America, you have it better Than our old wearied continent. You have no decaying castles And no stores of basalt. Your heart is not plagued by Tired and ancient strife, By vain memories of time long past.
So use the present day with luck! And when your children write poetry, May they be skilled enough to guard
From tales of knights, robbers and wraiths.
Translation © David Gosselin
Goethe, along with his fellow German poet Friedrich Schiller – both of whom are responsible for establishing Weimar Classicism in Germany – was closely watching the great American experiment. And Poe, like the great literary figures of the past, understood that literature and art in general were the sacred fount of inspiration and creativity of a nation. From Aeschylus’ Promethean dramas performed before the Athenian citizenry, to the reading of Dante’s Comedy in the churches of Florence before the Golden Renaissance to Lincoln’s recitation of Shakespeare to his staff and generals in the midst of the Civil War, the awesome power of poetry has always been its ability to make individuals conscious of that higher creative faculty residing within them, defining a person’s identity at its most fundamental level. On this subject, another contemporary of Poe’s, the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul.
- A Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poe understood the importance of having a culture capable of expressing the concept of the Beautiful and True; he knew that if a population was not in a disposition to receive beautiful and impassioned conceptions in the realms of the arts, they could never pursue them in the real world.
The Poetic Principle
That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away—forbidden things!
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.
- “Romance,” Edgar Allan Poe
One of Poe’s greatest dreams was the establishment of a national literary journal which would uphold the necessary standards for creating a truly literate sovereign nation. Poe sought to establish his own publication, The Stylus. He wrote:
How dreadful is the present condition of our Literature! To what are things heading? We want... a well-founded Monthly Journal, of sufficient ability, circulation and character, to control, and to give tone to, our Letters. It should be, externally, a specimen of high, but not too refined Taste:-I mean, it should be boldly printed, on excellent paper, in single column, and be illustrated, not merely embellished, by spirited wood designs in the style of Grandville. Its chief aims should be Independence, Truth, Originality. It should be a journal of some 120 pp. and furnished at $5. It should have nothing to do with Agents or Agencies. Such a Magazine might be made to exercise a prodigious influence, and would be a source of wealth to its proprietors.
In August 1846, Poe wrote of the importance of such an enterprise calling it "the one great purpose of my literary life." In the last year of his life, in 1849, he finally embarked on a lecture tour to raise funds necessary to launch his project. He delivered lectures in New York and Virginia, which would later appear in print as his essay “The Poetic Principle” and his prose poem “Eureka.”
Of interest for our present purpose are his remarks about the Poetic Principle:
An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments, amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.
Given the Modern and Contemporary times in which we live, it is important to recognize that Poe was not referring to the poetic principle of the nineteenth century or of the thirteenth century or of the sixth century BC for that matter, but simply the poetic principle. The Stylus was to become the leading outlet dedicated to nurturing and developing the “immortal instinct” in the citizens of the young republic. It was to build on the progress of the past, but within the new ripe soil of the American Revolution, which had just won over the most arbitrary of all systems, empire.
To realize his goal, Poe planned on enlisting the help of the leading authors of his time, including Washington Irving, James Fennimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Indicative of the kind of minds Poe was looking to enlist for his project, Washington Irving, in his essay “On the Mutability of Literature,” wrote:
There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks of a stream; which, by their vast and deep roots, penetrating through the mere surface, and laying hold on the very foundations of the earth, preserve the soil around them from being swept away by the ever-flowing current, and hold up many a neighboring plant, and perhaps worthless weed, to perpetuity. Such is the case with Shakespeare, whom we behold defying the encroachments of time, retaining in modern use the language and literature of his day, and giving duration to many an indifferent author, merely from having flourished in his vicinity.”
Irving is describing the essential quality of a timeless work, what might be properly called a “classic” or work of “classical art.” The classical, from the time of the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance, to the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, Keats and Shelley, is characterized by its rooting in “the unchanging principles of human nature” – it is the essential difference between a mere “modern” or “contemporary” work and something of timeless beauty. On the other hand, Modernism rejects the idea of the human mind’s ability to grasp universal Truth or to know the “unchanging principles of human nature.” The result is what author Joseph Pearce describes in his piece “What Is Modernism?” as an obsession with the “new” and “up to date.” For a Modernist, The Poetic Principle always remains relative to the tastes and opinions of a given time. In a word: it is arbitrary.
Classical poetry as expressed by Poe’s Poetic Principle recognizes a higher truth, “a thirst for immortality” which all human beings are inherently born with. It is the poet’s purpose to awaken this thirst and to cultivate it.
In his essay “On the Philosophy of Composition,” Poe even went so far as to demonstrate step by step how he composed one of his greatest works, “The Raven.” He rigorously defines his creative process as something intelligible. He begins by recognizing the universal sentiment, the “immortal instinct” found in each individual. From that universal, he then details what themes, subjects and images he thought would be most conductive to affect the desired outcome on a reader:
I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
Contrary to the accusations of morbidity, Poe’s method was consciously informed by a sense of the sublime, by subjects which are most likely to excite the soul and kindle what he describes as “the desire of the moth for the star.” Demonstrating these principles in "The Raven," Poe ultimately defines the pre-conscious process every poet goes through when composing a classical poem, regardless of whether the process ever becomes as self-conscious and articulated as in Poe’s case.
The Poetic Principle is not confined to poetry. In his essay, Poe defines the Poetic Principle as something that can be universally expressed in all artistic media:
The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes—in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance—very especially in Music,—and very peculiarly and with a wide field, in the composition of the Landscape Garden.
It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles—the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.
This “shivering delight,” Poe very consciously sought to create. The great German poet Friedrich Schiller, identifies precisely the same quality of “shivering delight” in his essay On the Sublime:
The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a combination of woefulness, which expresses itself in its highest degree as a shudder, and of joyfulness, which can rise up to enrapture, and, although it is not properly pleasure, is yet widely preferred to every pleasure by fine souls. This union of two contradictory sentiments in a single feeling proves our moral independence in an irrefutable manner. For as it is absolutely impossible that the same object stand in two opposite relations to us, so does it follow therefrom, that we ourselves stand in two different relations to the object, so that consequently two opposite natures must be united in us, which are interested in the conception of the same in completely opposite ways. We therefore experience through the feeling of the sublime, that the state of our mind does not necessarily conform to the state of the senses, that the laws of nature are not necessarily also those of ours, and that we have in us an independent principle, which is independent of all sensuous emotions.
That this should be the goal of great poetry and art, to lead citizens towards the sublime, the “immortal instinct,” Modernism whole-heartedly rejected.
A Modern Tragedy
“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”
-Theodore Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society (1951)
After the death of Keats and Shelley, Poe was the only surviving poet capable of defending the classical tradition. However, with the advent of his untimely death, The Stylus never became a reality and the prospect of a high culture in the literature of the United States ultimately never came to fruition. Instead, rather than Poe’s legacy continuing and the progress of the past being built upon, the quality of English poetry precipitously declined. New artists grew preoccupied with the ugly and the dissonant. And this trend only accelerated in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Among those who best exemplified and articulated the thinking of Modernism was Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. Writing on the nature of the new music, he wrote:
"What radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man.... The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes, at the same time, the technical structural law of music. It forbids continuity and development. Musical language is polarized according to its extreme; towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks.... Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked."
- The Philosophy of Modern Music, Theodore W. Adorno
In contrast to Poe’s description of the poetic principle, and its most exalted expression in music, Adorno described “new” music’s purpose:
"It is not that schizophrenia is directly expressed therein; but the music imprints upon itself an attitude similar to that of the mentally ill. The individual brings about his own disintegration.... He imagines the fulfillment of the promise through magic, but nonetheless within the realm of immediate actuality.... Its concern is to dominate schizophrenic traits through the aesthetic consciousness. In so doing, it would hope to vindicate insanity as true health."
- The Philosophy of Modern Music, Theodore W. Adorno
The image of Poe as a tormented mad man, a poet obsessed with death and the dead, was now validated under the Modern aesthetic; his genius was simply a symptom of his insanity! Thus, the more morbid a work was or the more despairing, the better. Art’s great purpose was now to capture and mirror the worst human beings were capable of. The uglier the world was, the uglier art would be.
Poems like Eliot’s “The Wasteland” defined the quintessential modernist outlook, the “surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.” Both Hart Crane’s and Eliot’s works typified the intellectual dalliance and idleness that come with a denial of truth or higher purpose for one’s work.
Moreover, after the horrors of the Holocaust, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the classical idea of Beauty and Truth as an efficient principle was considered part of the problem. These ideas became associated with the kinds of dogmatism in which something like the Holocaust could occur. In fact, many abstract impressionist artists explicitly identified their work as a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust. For how could someone paint another Mona Lisa after the Holocaust, or who could compose another 9th symphony after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If artists wanted to make sure the horrors of the 20th century would never happen again, objective standards of beauty, truth – all universals – had to be eliminated. There had to be a clean break with the past, lest artists become complicit in perpetuating the kinds of dogmatism and authoritarian personalities that lead to the horrors of WWII.
Just as the Jacobins of the French Terror proclaimed a “new” calendar with “new” days, weeks and months – guaranteeing no one would know when Sunday was – so too did the Modernist create a “new” standard for literature and art.
In all regards, poetry shunned the use of classical irony and metaphor, which express the beauty and creative nature of the human mind. Instead, the invention of infinitely new ways of creating arbitrary effects was encouraged. From atonal music, to cubism in both visual and literary forms, to abstract forms of art in which a simple combination of colors/sounds/textures was enough to qualify as artistic expression, art became arbitrary and lost any higher commitment to the idea of the Beautiful, the True. Poetry became increasingly bleak, arbitrary, obscure, cynical and self-referential, indicative of the narcissistic motivation of many new artists. In a word: the ugly in art became the new beauty, or as Adorno would say, it vindicated “insanity as true health.”
Were Poe to have lived a century later, he undoubtedly would have been on the front lines lambasting Modernist art. This is not a groundless assertion: Poe was a leading force against the literary establishment of his day, and of all times, fighting for the principles which are not defined by the arbitrary tastes or opinions of man, but defined by the higher faculties of reason, which each individual has been given the power to discover and develop in his own unique way. Poe attacked the notorious “Blackwood’s Magazine in satires like “How to Write a Blackwood’s Article.” This was the same “Blackwood’s” which famously excoriated Keats and sought to make sure he would never be allowed to publish again because he dared to challenge the contemporary critics of his day. The standard Poe defended was the same demonstrated by the long line of immortal bards whose voices still echo across all time.
To this day, the English-speaking world has yet to see a journal capable of carrying out Poe’s vision. The leading literary journals to emerge in the 20th century, under the banner of “Modernism” would define the basis of their existence as that of a sharp rejection of the idea of the poetic principle and the “unchanging principles of human nature.” If readers throughout the world were to revisit Poe’s artistic vision and discover this “thirst for immortality,” then perhaps The Stylus is not a lost hope.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9.
Adorno, Theodor W. (2003) The Philosophy of Modern Music. Translated into English by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN: 0826414907
 Griswald, Poe’s first biographer was shown to have even forged many letters in Poe’s name to advance his false narrative of a tormented soul.
 See Edgar Poe’s poem “Alone” for Poe’s own account of his poetic calling.
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