Theory and Practice - Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Theory and Practice
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

At this point it is essential for us to discuss some aspects of Poe’s critical theory, for in this manner we will be able to ascertain some phases of the influence of the Gothic tradition on Poe that we have hitherto touched upon only briefly. It is well known that Poe’s theory of poetry emphasised the aesthetic impossibility of a “long” poem (one that could not be read at a single sitting) and also stressed a “unity of effect”—the given emotional effect toward which every line, indeed every word, of a poem must contribute. The most concise expression of this latter idea occurs in the relatively late essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), his largely tendentious account of his conception and composition of “The Raven” (1845): “Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect” (ER 14). As for the former:

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief practical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. (ER 15)

Let us overlook the patent fallacies inherent in some aspects of this formulation—the fallacy, for example, that the “effect” of a work is “destroyed” merely because a few minutes, a few hours, or even an entire day, elapses between readings. In many ways it is a compelling and appealing manifesto, and it is worth noting that Poe here encompasses all literary works, not just poems, within its scope.

Floyd Stovall long ago established that the essence of this theory of poetry was derived from Coleridge. Our chief concern at the moment is the “unity of effect” idea. We find the following in Coleridge’s Table Talk: “the great thing in poetry is, quocunque modo, to effect a unity of impression upon the whole; and a too great fulness and profusion of point in the parts will prevent this. Who can read with pleasure more than a hundred lines or so of Hudibras at one time? Each couplet or quatrain is so whole in itself, that you can’t connect them. There is no fusion,—just as it is in Seneca” (quoted in Stovall 145). In some of his critical writings Poe sometimes uses the phrase “unity of interest,” which he explicitly states is derived from the critical theory of August Wilhelm von Schlegel; but Stovall has convincingly argued that all Poe’s borrowings of Schlegel are likely to have been made through Coleridge.

Poe’s theory of short fiction is manifestly adapted from his theory of poetry, both as regards length and as regards the “unity of effect.” Indeed, that phrase is apparently first used in an 1836 review of Dickens’s Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches (ER 205), and is more exhaustively enunciated in Poe’s celebrated 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. After noting acidly that “the ordinary novel is objectionable” chiefly because “it cannot be read at one sitting” and therefore “deprives itself … of the immense force derivable from totality,” Poe contrasts the effect of the short story:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. (ER 572)

There are some fallacies and anomalies here also: it turns the author into some kind of scientist carefully weighing some particular “effect” to be conveyed to the reader; and the idea that some given word might “indirectly” lead to the preconceived end seems to open the way to fairly broad interpretation as to what words, or even whole scenes or episodes, might be said to contribute to the ultimate effect. But these are small points.

It is worth noting, however, that the above theory is not specific to the tale of supernatural horror or, indeed, any other genre of tale. How, then, does Poe justify his focus on horror, terror, the supernatural, and what would (much later) be termed psychological suspense? In the first place—as I shall discuss more extensively in the conclusion to this chapter—it cannot be said that most, or even a bare majority, of Poe’s tales are of this type; he had what to many readers and critics (myself included) a lamentable tendency to engage in what Lovecraft quite accurately labelled “his blundering ventures in stilted and laboured pseudo-humour” (S 43). In the second place, Poe on a surprisingly few occasions did defend his taste for the macabre, chiefly as a quest for imaginative expansion. In a lengthy footnote to an article on N. P. Willis that constitutes a section of his late essay “The Literati of New York” (1846), Poe first destroys Coleridge’s purported distinction between fancy and imagination (“it is a distinction without a difference—without a difference even of degree”) and goes on to argue for the aesthetic value of works produced under their aegis:

Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty. The imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects such only as are harmonious; the result, of course, is beauty itself—using the word in its most extended sense and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity [the emphasis is Poe’s], only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking in character of sublimity or beauty in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined, which are themselves still to be considered as atomic—that is to say, as previous combinations… . The range of imagination is thus unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test. (ER 1126—27)

If this somewhat laborious passage tells us anything, it is the simple fact that horror, terror, weirdness, and the like can in fact be “beautiful” in the hands of a talented artist. Poe’s criticism of what he terms fantasy (whose “votaries … delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of combination, but in the avoidance of proportion. The result is, therefore, abnormal, and, to a healthy mind, affords less of pleasure through its novelty than of pain through its incoherence” [ER 1127]) is, I maintain, directed at Hoffmann; in effect, what Poe is calling fantasy is what we would call the grotesque.

But a somewhat earlier credo is much more relevant to our concerns. This is the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (CW 2.473—74). This rather aggressive manifesto begins by declaring that Poe wrote the stories in the collection “with an eye to this republication in volume form, and may, therefore, have desired to preserve, as far as a certain point, a certain unity of design” (a highly implausible remark—the tales were written over a period of nearly a decade—but one that seeks to extend Poe’s theory of the short story to an entire volume) and seeks to refute criticisms that Poe indulges too frequently in “’Germanism’ and gloom”:

Let us admit, for the moment, that the ’phantasy-pieces’ now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is ’the vein’ for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else… . But the truth is that, with a single exception [“Metzengerstein”], there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognise the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call German, for no better reason than that some of the secondary names of German literature have become identified with its folly. If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,—that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results. (CW 2.473)

This is probably all we need to establish Poe’s theory of horror. The focus of the discussion is all too obviously Hoffmann, and Poe—whose temperament led him not merely to accuse others wildly of plagiarism but to be excessively sensitive to even the most remote accusations of the same sort as directed toward himself—was seeking to establish his declaration of aesthetic independence from Hoffmann and his predecessors. That pregnant line “I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” is as precise an indication as anyone could want that Poe was seeking to explore the psychology of fear in his tales of terror, and his ability to do so with the most consummate skill and emotive power is what distinguishes his work from all that went before and a great proportion of what came after.

Up to now we have been considering Poe’s theories of poetry and short fiction somewhat abstractly. There is certainly an argument to be made that Poe was merely making virtues out of necessities in his formulations, for not only are his own “long” poems—the early ventures Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf—markedly unsuccessful, but, as I shall examine presently, his longer tales and especially his one “novel,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, are scarcely less so from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Poe’s initial work in the short story dates to 1831, and it came at a particularly low point in his life: he had left the University of Virginia in 1826 after attending only a semester; he had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 but was discharged two years later; with the help of his foster-parent, John Allan, he enrolled in West Point in 1830, but when Allan remarried and, through his wife’s influence, severed ties with Poe, the latter got himself expelled from West Point in 1831 and moved to Baltimore, where he had trouble finding work and complained of his threadbare clothes. A Philadelphia newspaper, the Saturday Courier, offered a prize for “the best AMERICAN TALE “ (Silverman 88), and Poe submitted five stories, none of which won the contest but several of which impressed the judges, leading them to publish “Metzengerstein” and others in the paper.

There is, then, a very real possibility that Poe took to short story writing at least in part as a means of making money at a critical point in his life, and that his later vaunting of the merits of short fiction and short poetry (it is likely that he absorbed Coleridge on this point in 1831 as well) was a kind of after-the-fact justification for the kind of work he hoped would bring him a steady income. (In this he proved to be in error, and the bulk of Poe’s meagre revenues came from his editorial duties for various magazines.) It should also be noted—as Michael Allen established in his important treatise Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969)—that Poe was significantly influenced by the short fiction that had begun to appear in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a periodical that was widely read in the United States in the 1810s and 1820s. Poe himself observed, in his review of Twice-Told Tales, that the emotions of “terror, or passion, or horror” are best treated in prose rather than verse, and that “many fine examples” of such tales “were found in the earlier numbers of Blackwood” (ER 573). Of course, Poe was clearly led by temperament to write the kind of supernatural and psychological horror fiction that he wrote; but to the extent that he found suitable models in the “sensational” fiction that Blackwood’s occasionally published, he radically improved upon them by emphasising the “unity of effect” and, to put it simply, by writing infinitely better—more cogently, more skilfully, and with a greater understanding of the psychological effects of the bizarre and the supernatural—than his predecessors or contemporaries.

Coming, at last, to Poe’s actual fiction, we can readily identify those stories that most clearly reflect Gothic influence. Poe himself was, as we have seen, aware that “Metzengerstein” (Philadelphia Saturday Courier, 14 January 1832) was one of these. But here, as elsewhere, it would appear that the Gothic influence is manifested largely in the stage properties rather than in the underlying theme. While the general influence of The Castle of Otranto on “Metzengerstein” may be indisputable, as many scholars have maintained, it is noteworthy how few specific parallels to that novel, or any other Gothic novel, can be found in the story; in any case, if The Castle of Otranto is the principal influence, why does Poe refer to the story as “Germanic”? Whatever the case, the supernatural in “Metzengerstein” is used far more rigorously (and sparingly) than in most of its Gothic predecessors. There are, in effect, three usages of the supernatural in the story. First, after the baron Metzengerstein has set fire to the stables of his rival, Count Berlifitzing, he is appalled to see that a tapestry depicting a horse bending over his erstwhile rider (an ancestor of the count who had been killed by an ancestor of Metzengerstein) has suddenly changed:

To his extreme horror and astonishment, the head of the gigantic steed had, in the meantime, altered its poisition. The neck of the animal, before arched, as if in compassion, over the prostrate body of its lord, was now extended at full length, in the direction of the Baron. The eyes, before invisible, now wore an energetic and human expression, while they gleamed with a fiery and unusual red; and the distended lips of the apparently enraged horse left in full view his sepulchral and disgusting teeth. (CW 2.22—23)

Truly enough, every word here is carefully chosen. What Poe is wishing to depict (and this is the second supernatural occurrence, assuming it can be logically separated from the first) is the transference of the soul of Count Berlifitzing (who has perished in the flames) to the horse. It is not surprising, therefore, that Metzengerstein becomes fascinated with a white horse that mysteriously appears out of the burning stables—the horse that ultimately plunges, with Metzengerstein on its back, into Metzengerstein’s own castle, now itself ablaze, later in the story. And here the third supernatural manifestation occurs: above the smoking ruins of Metzengerstein castle, “a cloud of smoke settled heavily over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of—a horse” (CW 2.29). This is the last line of the story, and it integrates all the events of the tale, supernatural and otherwise, into a flawless unity.

The grotesqueries of “King Pest” (Southern Literary Messenger, September 1835) would seem to suggest a Hoffmann influence, although T. O. Mabbott, Poe’s most learned editor, notes influences from several other sources, ranging from newspaper accounts to a scene in Disraeli’s novel Vivian Grey (CW 2.238—39). This tale—the first of Poe’s works to produce a genuine (and relatively effective) amalgam of humour and horror—tells, in an almost Dali-esque manner, what happens when two sailors burst in upon a bizarre gathering in a tavern most of whose members symbolically represent death in some fashion (one of them is wearing a coffin).

But the Hoffmann influence is most pronounced on Poe’s most celebrated tale—“The Fall of the House of Usher” (Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1839). It is not merely the use of the name Roderick for the protagonist that highlights the influence of Hoffmann’s “The Entail,” but the fact that the latter deals, as does Poe’s story, with “some dark family secret locked within these walls” (264). There are, of course, other influences, as Mabbott notes (CW 2.393—94), and, if anything, the Hoffmann story may have served as a kind of horrible example of how not to write a compelling tale of supernatural horror. I say “may have,” because there is not much likelihood that Poe actually read the story, either in German or in English, as it was not translated at that time; rather, he probably derived a sense of the story from Sir Walter Scott’s long summary of it in “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.”

The “dark family secret” in Poe’s story resides not merely in the suggestion of incest between Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline (as the narrator notes, “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them” [CW 2.410]), and not merely in her premature burial, but (as Lovecraft was the first to point out) the fact that the house, Roderick, and Madeline all share a common soul, and that their own dissolution spells the spectacular collapse of the house that concludes the tale. As a result, the title becomes a kind of pun, whereby “house” stands both for the physical structure and the family line. Roderick tips us off to this when he suspects that his own house is animate—a belief that goes well beyond his general view (itself a bit bizarre) “of the sentience of all vegetable things” (CW 2.408). But no analysis of the plot or even of the underlying theme of “The Fall of the House of Usher” can begin to convey its masterful collocation of words, images, and scenes to create a cumulative horror unlike anything that had ever been seen in supernatural literature before and has rarely been seen in the nearly two centuries that have followed.

Other Gothic-influenced tales by Poe can be treated in short order. The detective story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Manuscript, March 1841) finds Dupin and the narrator living in a kind of Gothic castle—“a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain” (CW 2.532). But all this is merely lagniappe, for the very premise of the tale is its explicability on other than supernatural grounds. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (The Gift, 1842) may be the ultimate refinement of the dungeon motif of Gothic fiction; in spite of its non-supernaturalism it is one of Poe’s masterworks in the maintenance of an unrelenting atmosphere of terror and its meticulous attention to the shifting moods and sensations of its hapless protagonist.

Two late stories might be said to reveal some Gothic influence in the general setting and background. “The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1846) is, of course, non-supernatural; but its setting in Italy, the descent of the protagonists into some catacombs (corresponding to the Gothic dungeon), and its apparent temporal setting in the past (does the use of flambeaux suggest the mediaeval or Renaissance period?) all point to the lingering shadow of Gothicism. Much the same could be said of “Hop-Frog” (Flag of Our Union, 17 March 1849), although the location of the story is left deliberately vague. Some of the costumes worn by the king and his courtiers in the story are apparently derived from a description of a wedding party at the court of Charles VI of France in 1385, as found in Froissart’s chronicles (see Mabbott’s notes, CW 3.1343 and 1355n12), but there is nothing in the text to suggest a French setting.

The remarkable thing about Poe’s work, in fact, is the very lack of substantive connexions with the Gothic movement. “Metzengerstein” was published only twelve years after Melmoth the Wanderer, but we are already in another world. It is not merely that Gothic fiction was, in Poe’s day, entirely dead as a popular literary fashion; it is that Poe felt the need to draw inspiration both from the world around him and from the wells of his own fevered imagination, and he did so in a way that permanently rendered Gothicism of the Walpole-Radcliffe-Lewis-Maturin sort a thing of the past.