« PreviousContinue »
of feeling and set free the torpid imagination. For the first time in the New World it became easy and natural for men to sing. Hitherto the imagination had been invoked to give wings and fire to high argument for the rights of men; now the imagination began to speak, by virtue of its own inward impulse, of the things of its own life. In religion, in the social consciousness, in public life, there were stirrings of conscience which revealed a deepening life of the spirit among the new people. The age of provincialism, of submission to the judgment and acceptance of the taste of older and more cultivated communities, was coming to an end. Dr. Holmes called the address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in August, 1837, “our declaration of intellectual independence.” That independence was already partially achieved when Emerson spoke those memorable words:—
“Perhaps the time is already come . . . when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fulfill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions, arise that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the contellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?”
This striving of the spirit, breaking away from the old forms and feeling after new ways of speech, was shared by all the New England writers. Beneath his apparent detachment from the agitations of his time, Dr. Holmes was as much a breaker of old images as Lowell or Whittier; and Hawthorne, artist that he was to the last touch of his pen, is still the product of Puritanism. The breath of the new time was soft and fecundating on the old soil, and the flowers that were soon afield had the hue of the sky and the shy and delicate fragrance of the New England climate in them.
Poe stood alone among his contemporaries by reason of the fact that, while his imagination was fertilized by 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,
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 coördinations 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