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the movement of the time, his work was not, in theme or sympathy, representative of the forces behind it. The group of gifted men, with whom he had for the most part only casual connections, reflected the age behind them or the time in which they lived; Poe shared with them the creative impulse without sharing the specific interests and devotions of the period. He was primarily and distinctively the artist of his time; the man who cared for his art, not for what he could say through it, but for what it had to say through him. Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Bryant, Irving, and, in certain aspects of his genius, Hawthorne might have been predicted; reading our early history in the light of our later development, their coming seems to have been foreordained by the conditions of life on the new continent; and, later, Whitman and Lanier stand for and are bound up in the fortunes of the New World, and its new order of political and social life. Poe alone, among men of his eminence, could not have been foreseen.
This fact suggests his limitations, but it also brings into clear view the unique individuality of his genius and the originality of his work. His contemporaries are explicable; Poe is inexplicable. He remains the most sharply defined personality in our literary history. His verse and his imaginative prose stand out in bold relief against a background which neither suggests nor interprets them. One may go further, and affirm that both verse and prose have a place by themselves in the literature of the world. There are, it is true, evidences of Poe's sensitiveness to the English landscape, and to certain English philosophical and literary influences. The five years spent in the Manor House school in the suburbs of the London of the early part of the century gave the future writer of "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" a store of reminiscences and impressions of landscape and architecture which touched some of his later work with atmospheric effects of the most striking kind, and gave that work a sombre and significant background of immense artistic value. It is not difficult to find in his earlier verse, as Mr. Stedman has suggested, the influence of Byron and Moore, whose songs were in the heart of that romantic generation. It is easy also to lay bare Poe.'s indebtedness to Coleridge. This is only saying, however, that no man of imagination ever grows up in isolation; every sensitive spirit shares in the impulses of its time, and receives its education for its own work at the hands of older teachers. When all is said, however, Poe remains a man of singularly individual genius, owing little to his immediate or even to his remoter environment; an artist who felt keenly the spirit of his art as it has found refuge in beautiful forms, but who detached himself with consistent insistence from the influence of other artists.
Until Poe began his brief and pathetic career, the genius of Virginia and of the South had found expression chiefly in the molding of national institutions and the shaping of national affairs; and it may be said without exaggeration that rarely in the history of the world has public life been enriched by so many men of commanding intellect and natural aptitude for great affairs. The high intelligence, the wide grasp of principles, and the keen practical sense of the earlier Southern statesmen gave the stirring and formative periods of our early history epic dignity. In such a society Bacon might have found food for those organ-toned essays on the greatness of states and the splendor of national fortunes and responsibilities. It was due largely to the Virginians that the earlier public discussions and the later public papers so often partook of the quality of literature. In Poe, however, the genius of the South seemed to pass abruptly from great affairs of state into the regions of pure imagination. In "The City in the Sea," "Israfel," and the verses "To Helen"—to recall three of Poe's earliest and most representative poems —there is complete detachment from the earlier interests and occupations, and complete escape into the world of ideality. It is part of the charm of these perfect creations that they are free from all trace of time and toil. Out of the new world of work and strife magical doors were flung wide into the fairyland of pure song; out of the soil tilled with heroic labor and courage a fountain suddenly gushed from unsuspected springs.
In this disclosure of the unforeseen in our literary development, in the possession of the daemonic element in art, Poe stands alone in our literature, unrelated to his environment and detached from his time; the most distinctive and individual writer who has yet appeared in this country.
Among the elements which go to the making of the true work of art, the daemonic holds a first place. It is the essential and peculiar quality of genius—the quality which lies beyond the reach of the most exacting and intelligent work, as it lies beyond the search of analysis. A trained man may learn the secrets of form; he may become an adept in the skill of his craft; but the final felicity of touch, the ultimate grace of effortless power, elude and baffle him. Shakespeare is never so wonderful as in those perfect lines, those exquisite images and similes, those fragrant sentences akin with the flowers in their freshness, and in their purity with waters which carry the stars in their depths, which light comedy and tragedy and history as with a light beyond the sun. Other aspects of his work may be explained; but the careless rapture of such phrases as—
"And those eyes, the break of day, Lights that do mislead the morn";
That come before the swallow dares, and take
leaves us wondering and baffled. We have no key to them. This natural magic, this divine ease in doing the most difficult things, is the exclusive property of the man of genius, and is his only in his most fortunate hours. No man can command this consummate bloom on human speech; it lies on his work as it lies on the fields, because the creative spirit has passed that way. It came again and again to Wordsworth during fifteen marvelous years; and when it passed it left him cold and mechanical. It is the pure spirit of art moving like the wind where it listeth, and, like the wind, dying into silence again. This magic was in Poe, and its record remains, and will remain, one of our most precious literary possessions. The bulk of the work upon which it rests is not great; its ethical significance is not always evident; it is not representative after the manner of the great masters of poetry; but its quality is perfect. The importance of half a dozen perfect poems is not to be discovered in their mass; it lies in the revelation of the imagination which shines in and from them. Among a practical people, dealing with the external relations of men, and largely absorbed in the work of the hands, the sudden flashing of the "light that never was on sea or land" was a spiritual event of high significance. That men do not live by bread alone is the common message of religion and of art. That message was delivered by Poe with marvelous distinctness of speech. That he knew what he wanted to say, and that he deliberately and patiently sought the best way of saying it, is clear enough; it neither adds to nor detracts from the artistic value of what he did that he knew what he wanted to do. The essential fact about him and his work is, that he was possessed by the passion for beauty for its own sake, and that at his best he had access to the region of pure ideality.
The spiritual value of art lies not only in its power to impart ideas, but also in its power to clear the vision, to broaden the range of human interests, and to liberate the imagination. Poe's work attests again the presence of an element in the life of man and in the work of his hand which cannot be foreseen, calculated, or controlled; a quality not dissociated in its perfect expression from historic or material conditions, but in its origin independent of them. It is the witness, in other words, of something divine and imperishable in the mind of man—something which allies him with the creative energy, and permits him to share it. The fact that he is sometimes unworthy of this high disclosure of the ultimate beauty, and sometimes recreant to his faith and his gift, diminishes the significance and value of his work no .more than a kindred infidelity nullifies the word of prophets of another order. In the mysterious spiritual economy of the universe there are coordinations of gift and character, relations of spirit and environment, which elude all efforts to formulate them; not because they lie outside the realm of law, but because the mind of man has not yet been able to explore that realm. And in this very incompleteness of the philosophy of art lies that inexhaustible spiritual suggestiveness which is at once the inspiration of art and its burden. Poe is distinctively and in a unique sense the artist in our literature—the man to whom beauty was a constant and sufficient justification of itself.
Such a faith is not without its perils; but in a new and working world, whose idealism had run mainly along lines of action, it was essential and it was of high importance. This single-mindedness of Poe in the pursuit of perfection in phrase and form was not a matter of mere workmanship; it was the passion to match the word with the thought, the melody with the feeling, so vitally and completely that the ultimate harmony, in which all men believe and for which all men crave, might become once more a reality amid the dissonances of a struggling and imperfect society. It is the function of the prophet to declare the inexorable will of righteousness amid a moral disorder which makes that will, at times, almost incredible; it is the office of the artist to discern and reveal the ultimate beauty in a time when all things are in the making/and the dust and uproar of the workshop conceal even the faint prophecies of perfection.
In the vast workshop of the new society, noisily and turbulently coordinating itself, Poe's work has been often misunderstood and undervalued. Its lack of strenuousness, its detachment from workaday interests, its severance from ethical agitations, its remoteness from the common toils and experiences, have given it to many an unreal and spectral aspect; there has seemed to be in it a lack of seriousness which has robbed it of spiritual significance. Its limitations in several directions are evident enough; but all our poetry has disclosed marked limitations. The difficulty in estimating Poe's work at its true value has lain in the fact that his seriousness was expressed in devotion to objects not yet included in our range of keen and quick sympathies and interests. Poe was a pioneer in a region not yet adequately represented on our spiritual charts. To men engrossed in the work of making homes for themselves the creation of a Venus of Melos might seem a very unimportant affair; its perfection of pose and molding might not wholly escape them, but the emotion which swept Heine out of himself when he first stood before it would seem to such men hysterical and unreal. When the homes were built, however, and men were housed in them, they would begin to