Edgar Allan Poe - a centenary tribute/The Unique Genius of Poe's Poetry
THE UNIQUE GENIUS OF POE'S POETRY
OLIVER HUCKEL, S.T.D.
It is not my part to tell the story of Poe's life or to discuss its problems. Nor is it my duty to defend the fame of Poe. In spite of all detractors, his fame is secure among the immortals. But my pleasant task is merely to sound forth another note of appreciation among the many tributes that are being made to his memory and especially to speak a few words concerning the distinctive genius of his poetry. The exquisite notes of witchery in the poems of Poe, and their pure song-quality, lift him to a place in the choir of the world's great singers,—not among the stately epic poets, such as Homer, Milton, or Dante; nor with the masters of the poetic drama, such as Sophocles, Shakespeare or Schiller; but rather among those wonderful skylarks of song who have poured forth their souls in rapturous lyrics, as perchance Sappho of the immortal fragments and traditions; as Herrick, fresh as the morning dew of his seventeenth century; as Shelley, an echo of far ethereal melodies; or, as Keats, the soul of supernal beauty, or Robert Burns, voice of the heart and of all human tenderness and nobility.
We have had some worthy names to conjure with in our American literature,—Emerson, poet oracular and prophet of another sphere; Longfellow, the exquisite idealizer of common life; Bryant, the majestic bard of Nature; Whittier, the plaintive psalmist of the new world. But Poe has a rapturous music and a haunting mystery—a ghostly supernatural enchantment that is unique among them all. He is the first absolute artist in our literature—with the rarest rapture of pure music and absolute devotion to pure beauty.
Poe belongs most naturally to that noble group of impassioned Southern singers—Francis Scott Key, the fervid chanter of our national anthem; Father Ryan, the tender mystic of the valley of silence; Henry Timrod, high priest at Nature's altar; Paul Hamilton Hayne, interpreter of the subtle beauty of the South; James R. Randall, the passionate singer of Maryland, My Maryland; Sidney Lanier, prophet of the holiness of beauty, and the beauty of holiness. Poe has distinct place among them all. He is the nightingale of our Southern poets—singing at night, singing on nocturnal themes, but with all the passionate tenderness and infinite pathos of his own angel Israfel "whose heart-strings are a lute."
We do not forget tonight the genius of Poe in the inimitable prose-tales. Such masterly productions as "The Gold Bug," "The Manuscript Found in a Bottle," and the spiritual allegory in "William Wilson," have scarcely been excelled in literature. Neither do we forget the genius of his critical work, keen as a rapier, perhaps a trifle too severe, but marvelously true in the majority of his judgments. But others will speak of these things in some detail. In this brief address, I would merely have you recall something of the genius of his marvelous poetry—such a poem as Israfel just mentioned that came gushing forth out of his early youth, a careless glory of beauty and music, in those days before he was touched with infinite sorrow and inconsolable memories; such as the poem of Annabel Lee, a miracle of melody, with a universal heart-appeal, pure music, magical in its exquisite sweetness and haunting refrains; such a poem as those wonderful and startling verses called For Annie,—"When this fever called living is over;" such a poem as that weird and awful conception of The City in the Sea, "The mystical kingdom of death;" such a poem as The Haunted Palace, terribly splendid in its portrayal of the ruin of the palace of a soul; such a poem as Ulalume, that weird legend of temptation by ignoble passion, and the power of a holy memory to save,—"a dream of the dark tarn of Auber, and the mystic mid woodland of Wier,"—a symphony in tone color,—as primitive as "an Icelandic saga with the surge of the sea in it" or a faint weird echo of "murmuring gurgling waters in the depths of a gloomy canyon of the Sierras." Or see his genius in such a poem as The Bells, that rare piece of fantasy, ringing alternately with light and with majestic music,—its words and rhymes, its rhythm and cadences, and repetends most perfectly fitted to its themes upon which it rings the wonderful changes, like one of the majestic fugues of John Sebastian Bach. Or see his genius again in those several poems of the mystic idealization of great sorrow and bereavement. The first lines To Helen, one of the most exquisite of his poems, serenely exultant, crystalline perfect, containing those two superb lines,
The glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome,—
compressing, as one says into their brief space, "all the rich and high magnificence of dead centuries." The poem, The Sleeper, a picture "drenched with the mystery, the ethereal beauty of a summer night; " the poem Lenore, of which Thomas Wentworth Higginson once said: "Never in American literature was such a fountain of melody flung into the air as when Lenore first appeared." You remember it,—full of feeling, of scorn, of hot indignation, of exultant defiance, of the triumph of deathless love bursting forth "like martial trumpets." And then, his genius in the poem of The Raven, mayhap not his greatest poem, but surely his most famous, and certainly symbolic of his own mysterious life. A stroke of genius created that poem. Its royal borrowings were minted into new gold. It was fused in the alembic of his own soul. It cried out from his own heart and life. It is the fervor and passion of his own weird and majestic melancholy. It is the superb portrayal of tragic mystery, of shadowed beauty, of awful sorrow. It is a marvelous mingling of fire and music, of passion and despair. It is a work of genius, absolutely unforgetable by the world. It stands secure in its magic spell among the most remarkable poems of the ages. It has gone into many languages and become a part of the priceless heritage for all time. "It is," as one says, "the final threnody in memory of his lost Lenore, once the queenliest dead, but now elected to live immortally young in his somber palaces of song. The Raven is a requiem of imperial affection, a poem that takes rank with the unworded and unearthly harmonies of The Dead March in Saul."No one s life and work were ever so intimately conjoined
EDGAR ALLAN POE as Poe's. His poetry was himself—mysterious, weird, melancholy, passionate. His poems cannot escape from him without his very life. Every one of his great poems,—and there are only about a dozen of these,—were wrung from the great crises of his life, and are full of the same spirit-varying phases of "the great enigma of death and the majestic musings of an inconsolable soul."
Poe was, as all the South is, a worshipper of the beautiful. His supreme love for the beautiful was his consecrating and his consuming passion. He loved it with a marvelous awe and a sublime devotion; his unutterable conceptions were full of gloom and glory. His only religion and his only sacrifice on earth were his unceasing fidelity to love and beauty, and his unconquerable longings for the unattainable. His mystical cadences seem to bring us into the very shadow of the supernatural. They are an enchanted treasure, more precious than silver or gold.
The French poet and critic, Baudelaire, who translated him marvelously well into the French speech, saw Poe as "a new-world minstrel strayed from some proper habitat to this rude and dissonant America, which was for Poe only a vast prison through which he ran hither and thither, with the feverish agitation of a being created to breathe in another world and where his interior life, spiritual as a poet, was but one perpetual effort to escape the influence of this mundane atmosphere. Clasp the sensitive hand of this troubled singer dreeing thus his weird, and enter into the night with him and share his dreams, and lament with him the charm of evanescence, and the supreme beauty and the unattainable." So Poe lures us into his unforgetable "night of memories and sighs."
But could we have had the poems of Poe without the tragic life of Poe,—without the suffering, poverty, passionate love, awful losses, infinite tragedy and sorrow? They are the tear drops of his life, yea, the blood drops. They are the distillation of his awful agonies. He paid a great price for his poems,—precious may the world esteem them. And yet, if as he believed and so often contended, sorrow and beauty were the poet's truest themes, and love and death the great sanctifiers and transfigurers, and if, as he so often said, the poetic feeling was the greatest of earthly pleasures,—then even in his awful pain and agony, in his tragedies and sorrows, was not the great artist made, the great poet born,—were there not constant compensations and was not his heritage of woe, after all, his most precious possession?
But friends, was there not another side? Many of us of this generation love Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many points of "kinship between Poe and Stevenson. Both loved the sea and its adventures, and things romantic and occult. "The Manuscript in a Bottle " perchance suggested The Bottle Imp of Stevenson. Certainly "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is exactly in the vein of Poe. Both writers were victims of untimely disease. Poe we call the greater genius; Stevenson the greater heart. We love Stevenson for his intense humanness and his heroic spirit. Have we been blind to these things in Poe?
His poems and other writings only represent a part of the man. Even as we read his poems, I feel that we ought to revise our traditional and prejudiced view of Edgar Allan Poe. We cannot forget his faults and failings, for the world has dwelt long and too insistently upon them,—but on this occasion we may well remember sympathetically some of the finer traits of his life—which were as truly part of him—more truly, I think, than the darker side. There were many kindly and lovable features of his life which glint forth at times in his poems, as well as in the reminiscences of some of his best friends.
Remember that, besides his sad and weird side, he had a side which was bright and cheerful. Some of his friends who knew him well bear testimony to the fact that often he was most cheerful and even playful in mood and brilliant in light-hearted repartee. Remember the humor that comes out at times in some of his brilliant stories, like that rollicking farce, "The Spectacles," which tells the story of the near-sighted young man who married his great-grandmother. And there are here and there light, brilliant, playful touches in some of his poems. Remember the purity, the clean-mindedness of his work. Not a single line in all his poetry or his prose that is unworthy to be read by the purest-hearted. It is a wonderful record for one who loved the occult, the gruesome, the abnormal. It shows character and ideals.
Remember the exquisite faithfulness, sweetness and devotion of his home-life, in both his poetry and in the reality of his life. His child-wife, Virginia, as one says, was "a dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of the South; her face exquisitely lovely—the most delicate realization of the poet's ideal." And his love for his wife was "a sort of rapturous worship."
Remember also that his poems, in delicacy and nobility of phrasing and feeling, as well as the letters of his friends, bear testimony to the fact that throughout his life and even in the midst of his sorrows, he had the instincts and the constant manners of a gentleman. He was proud but genial, handsome but grave, courtly and courteous, eloquent and kindly.
In a word, there is a most beautiful and attractive side to Poe's life. I love to think that on his finer side, he was an embodiment of much of the genius of the South. He had the steadfast Southern devotion to ideals. He had no sordid love of money. He was never unfaithful to honor. He was always in pursuit of some noble quest. His whole ambition was literary achievement, and he never wavered, in spite of suffering, loss and defeat.
His poems show that he had the instinctive Southern chivalry for women. They are full of the mystery of beauty, of the idealization of women—of the eternal worship and longings of love. His poems show the stately and majestic sadness which, after all, is something of the background of our Southern life and nature—the feeling of an exquisite beauty too delicate for earth, the sense of present happiness that must presently end, an outward gayety that hides a secret sorrow—the persistent intimation of mystery, the sense of evanescence, the tender love for the past and of the glory that has vanished.
It is true there is no definite geography, only vague and mystical locations, in Poe's poems, yet there is certainly enough of local color and of pervasive atmosphere to identify his poems absolutely with the South. And I am quite sure that his music in verse, his pathetic sweetness of speech, his love of soft refrains were largely inspired by the soft croonings of some African mammy in childhood's days, by the gracious caressing voices of Southern women, by the whole dreamy delicious mystic atmosphere of the Southland.
Only three themes did Poe touch in his poetry,—Love, Beauty, Death. He felt that this was all that poetry could do. We are glad that other poets have struck other notes. We are glad for a greater diapason, for the strong notes of Life, and Faith and Work. We are glad for Chivalry and Heroism and Achievement that stir the poetry in some mighty souls. We rejoice that other equally true poets, like Tennyson and Browning in England, and Emerson and Lowell and Lanier in America, while loving beauty with their whole soul, love it, as it seems to me, with a sturdier faith and a more whole some cheeriness.
Yet it would be ungracious to find fault with what Poe was not. We can only be grateful for the golden treasuries which he has given us as his heritage to us and to the world. Literature would be forever the poorer to deprive it of these exquisite pearls of the passion of genius. His sad life we may remember in pity; much of his work may be forgotten; but the few perfect poems that his spirit wrought out are among the imperishable treasures of mankind.
Friends, the Southern people and especially we of Baltimore must erect to the honor of the genius of Poe a noble and worthy monument in this city—a monument, perchance not so large, but as exquisite in its way as the Scott monument in Edinburgh. The Southern people must build it. For Poe's genius is the exquisite flower of the South, as well as a marvelous creation of our whole wonderful American life. The Southern people must build this monument. If we show that we are in earnest in our appreciation of Poe and in our endeavor in this movement, we shall not lack coöperation from our whole people of America and from all the world. But the burden and the glory of this work belongs to the South. It must be their splendid achievement. I know that we shall yet see it,—a superb work of art in a commanding centre of this goodly city of Baltimore, that is so inseparably linked with the name and fame of Edgar Allan Poe.
When Lafayette made his visit to this country in 1824, and came to Baltimore, he went with his staff to the Westminster Churchyard to the grave of his old Revolutionary friend, General David Poe, and kneeling on the ground, he kissed the sod, and exclaimed, "Here lies a noble heart!"
There will come a day, I believe, when a new and beautiful charity, in form like an angel, shall yet come to another grave that lies alongside of the old General's in that same cemetery, and kneeling down in immemorial atonement for the harshness of past judgments, shall print a kiss of loving pity on the sod above the grave of genius, and shall say, "God bless him, and forgive him. Here lies a noble heart!"
EDGAR ALLAN POE