« PreviousContinue »
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 coördinating 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
crave completeness of life, and then the imagination would begin to discern the priceless value of the statue which has survived the days when gods appeared on the earth. The turmoil of the struggle for existence in Greece has long since died into the all-devouring silence, but that broken figure remains to thrill and inspire a world which has forgotten the name of the man who breathed the breath of life into it. It is a visible symbol not only of the passion for perfection, but of the sublime inference of that passion—the immortality of the spirit which conceived, and of the race among which the perfect work was born.
This passion, which is always striving to realize its own imperishableness in the perfection of its work, and to continue unbroken the record of creative activity among men, possessed Poe in his best moments, and bore fruit in his imaginative work. He was far in advance of the civilization in which he lived, in his discernment of the value of beauty to men struggling for their lives in a world full of ugliness because full of all manner of imperfection; he is still in advance of any general development of the ability to feel as he felt the inward necessity of finding harmony, and giving it reality to the mind, the eye, and the ear. In older communities, looking at our life outside the circle of its immediate needs and tasks, he has found a recognition often denied him among his own people. If Poe has failed to touch us in certain places where we live most deeply and passionately, we have failed to meet him where he lived deeply and passionately. Matthew Arnold held that contemporary foreign opinion of a writer is probably the nearest approach which can be made to the judgment of posterity. The judgment of English, French, and German critics has been, as a whole, unanimous in accepting Poe at a much higher valuation than has been placed upon him at home, where Lowell's touch-and-go reference in the “ Fable for Critics" has too often been accepted as an authoritative and final opinion from the highest literary tribunal.
The men of Lowell's generation in New England could not have estimated adequately the quality of Poe's genius nor the value of his work. Their conception of their art was high and their practice of it fruitful, but their temper
of mind threw them out of sympathy with the view of art which Poe held, and which has been illustrated in much of the most enchanting poetry in the literature of the world. The masters of pure song, with whom Poe belongs, could hardly have drawn breath in the rarefied air of the New England of the first four decades. It was an atmosphere in which Emerson breathed freely, and the purity and insight of his work, like that of Hawthorne's, will remain an enduring evidence that intense moral conviction and deep moral feeling are consistent with a true and beautiful art. But Keats could not have lived in the air which Emerson found so full of inspiration; and Keats is one of the poets of the century. This is only saying that if you have one quality in a very high stage of development, you are likely to be defective in other qualities equally important.
A national literature must have many notes, and Poe struck some which in pure melodic quality had not been heard before. As literary interests broaden in this country, and the provincial point of view gives place to the national, the American estimate of Poe will approach more nearly the foreign estimate. That estimate was based mainly on a recognition of Poe's artistic quality and of the marked individuality of his work. Lowell and Longfellow continued the old literary traditions; Poe seemed to make a new tradition. The dæmonic element in him, the pure individual force, brought with it that sense of freshness and originality which men are always eager to feel, and to which they often respond with exaggerated cordiality. It is not surprising that those who are full of the passion to create, and rarely endowed with the power, sometimes go too far in rewarding the man who does what they long to do, but cannot. The artist always pushes back the boundaries a little, and opens a window here and there through which the imagination looks out upon the world of which it dreams so gloriously, but which it sees so rarely; and we are not prone to mete out with mathematical exactness our praise of those who set us free. If we lose our heads for a time when Kipling comes with his vital touch, his passionate interest in living things, the harm is not great. Poe may have been overvalued by some of his eager French and German disciples, but, after all deductions are made, their judgment was
nearer the mark than ours has been; and it was nearer the mark because their conception of literature was more inclusive and adequate.
The nature of Poe's material has had something to do not only with foreign appreciation of his genius, but with the impression of distinct individuality which his work produces. Sprung from a people of naturally optimistic temper, with unbounded confidence in their ability to deal with the problems of life, Poe stands solitary among men of his class in fastening, as by instinct, upon the sombre and tragical aspects of experience. In the highlight which rests upon the New World, the mysterious gloom which enshrouds "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Lady Ligeia," and "Ulalume" is thrown into more impressive relief. Against the wide content and peaceful domesticity of this fruitful continent, the story of “Berenice,” “The Assignation,” and “The Masque of the Red Death” are projected with telling effectiveness. The very limitations of Poe's interests and insight contribute to the definiteness and striking individuality of his work. One finds in it no trace of that vague generalizing tendency which an English critic has recently called the “ Alexandrine note" in American literature; on the contrary, every touch contributes to the sharp distinctness of the whole.
The severance between the writer and his surroundings, already noted, is constantly brought home to the reader by the subjects, the persons, and the landscapes which appear in Poe's work.
Tragedy in Shakespeare's historical plays is felt to be unusual and exceptional; it belongs to a few periods, it is wrought out in the careers of small groups of persons; but it is in no sense abnormal; it readily relates itself to English character and society. The tragic element in Scott and Dickens has the same natural setting, the same normal relationship to obvious social or political conditions. The tragic element in Poe's work, on the other hand, lies deep in the recesses of individual temperament, and seems remote, unreal, and fantastic, unless we approach it sympathetically. Some of it is unreal and phantasmal; but the potentialities of Poe's tragedy are in most men. They are, however, essentially subjective: for the action in Poe's stories is really sym
bolical; that which is significant and appalling lies behind it. At this point Poe and Hawthorne approach each other, and it is the pure subjectivity of the tragedy which gives its working out at the hands of both writers a touch of remoteness, and in some cases an element of unreality.
Poe, like Hawthorne, gives expression to the ideality of the American mind: an ideality disclosed in very different ways by Emerson and Lowell and Whittier; an ideality which has made our literature pure and high, but has robbed it so far of a certain robustness and power shared by all the great writers of our language beyond the sea. American literature, as contrasted with other literature, is touched throughout with aspiration, but lacks solidity and passion. These defects in Poe's works, which are often regarded as peculiar to it, are found in the work of his contemporaries. It would seem as if, so far, the imagination of the country had not been adequate to the task of penetrating and illuminating its immense practical energies; or as if its activities were too vast and varied to admit of imaginative coördination at this early day in our history. Poe reacted so radically from the practical ideals and work of his time that he took refuge in pure ideality.
The refuge of the artist is always to be found in his art; and to a nature so sensitive as Poe's, a mind so delicately adjusted to its tools and its task, and so easily thrown out of relation to them, there was perhaps no other resource. Between the art of the author of “Israfel” and the life about him there was a deep abyss, which the poet never attempted to cross. The material with which he constantly dealt becomes significant alike of the extraordinary susceptibility of his genius, and of the lack of the forms of life about him to satisfy and inspire him. He expresses the dissonance which has so far existed between the essentially ideal quality of the American mind and the intensely practical character of the task which has fallen to Americans. If he had been born a century later his verse and prose might have come closer to the heart of his people, without losing that exquisite fineness which reveals the rare and beautiful quality of his genius. It is hardly possible to miss the significance of the fact that two men of such temper and gifts as Hawthorne and Poe were driven