Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
Certain fastidious critics, from Henry James to Harold Bloom, have questioned the greatness of Poe, both as a poet and as a fiction writer, chiefly because of their apparent distaste for his occasionally florid, flamboyant, and seemingly artificial prose style. On this question much may be said beyond the obvious fact that the enjoyment of or displeasure in this kind of Asianic style is largely a matter of temperament. But it is of interest to see what Poe himself said of his own prose. We find this remarkable assessment in his anonymous review of his Tales (1845):
The style of Mr. Poe is clear and forcible. There is often a minuteness of detail; but on examination it will always be found that this minuteness was necessary to the development of the plot, the effect, or the incidents. His style may be called, strictly, an earnest one. And this earnestness is one of its greatest charms. A writer must have the fullest belief in his statements, or must simulate that belief perfectly, to produce an absorbing interest in the mind of his reader. That power of simulation can only be possessed by a man of high genius. It is the result of a peculiar combination of the mental faculties. It produces earnestness, minute, not profuse detail, and fidelity of description. It is possessed by Mr. Poe, in its full perfection. (ER 873)
Let us overlook the no doubt tongue-in-cheek self-flattery of the passage. It is not likely that many readers (especially hostile ones) will conclude that Poe’s style is “clear and forcible,” but as a matter of fact the overall thrust of his remarks is that the style is meant to suit the subject-matter, and this it does flawlessly, even triumphantly. All Poe’s critical writing on the craft of poetry or fiction indicates that his prime goal was to create a powerful emotional impact upon his readers; and his manipulation of language was his chief means of effecting that end. The gradual accretion of cumulative power is one of the hallmarks of his prose narratives; Poe early mastered the ability to modulate the emotional cadence of his prose to create an overwhelming crescendo of horror. “Ligeia” is perhaps the most notable accomplishment in this regard—consider a portion of the final paragraph, where the narrator finally comes to the realisation that the corpse of Rowena has been reanimated by the spirit of Ligeia:
Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head the ghastly cerements which had confined it, and there streamed forth, into the rushing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and dishevelled hair; it was blacker than the wings of the midnight! And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me. “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never—can I never be mistaken—these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love—of the lady—of the LADY LIGEIA!” (CW 2.330; italics and small capitals in original)
Lurid and overwritten as this appears to be out of context, it is exactly suited to the cataclysmic conclusion that Poe has so artfully orchestrated. That final sentence, with its telling use of polysyndeton and anaphora, point to the careful use of prose-poetic devices to augment the emotive effect of his climaxes. The prose rhythms of such tales as “Morella,” “The Oval Portrait,” “Silence—A Fable,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are unsurpassed in their aesthetic polish. Not a word could be changed or displaced without spoiling the entire narrative.
Moreover, as Michael Allen has pointed out (141f.), Poe modified the floridity of his style in the last decade or so of his career, so that such narratives as “The Descent into the Maelström,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and even “The Tell-Tale Heart” are written with something approaching the spareness of Swift or Hemingway. Poe was possibly responding to criticisms of his earlier prose manner; but whatever the case, the evolution of his style from flamboyance to concision should be noted.
We now have to return to an anomaly we noted at the outset of this chapter—the fact that Poe’s tales of supernatural and psychological horror (even including his detective tales) comprise probably less than half of his collected output of fiction; the balance are comic and satirical tales, nowadays generally little read. The matter is not, strictly speaking, of direct relevance to the history of supernatural fiction, or even to the understanding of Poe’s supernatural work; but it may be of interest to determine whether Poe in fact saw all his fictional work as a unity, and, if so, how he did so. Perhaps a single comment in his essay on N. P. Willis—which we have already seen is one of the few occasions where Poe attempts to provide an aesthetic justification for weird fiction—might suffice: “Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty” (ER 1126). The point is made somewhat more amply in his anonymous review of his Tales:
The evident and most prominent aim of Mr. Poe is originality, either of idea, or the combination of ideas. He appears to think it a crime to write unless he has something novel to write about, or some novel way of writing about an old thing. He rejects every word not having a tendency to develop the effect. Most writers get their subjects first, and write to develop it. The first inquiry of Mr. Poe is for a novel effect—then for a subject; that is, a new arrangement of circumstance, or a new application of tone, by which the effect shall be developed. And he evidently holds whatever tends to the furtherance of the effect, to be legitimate material. Thus it is that he has produced works of the most notable character, and elevated the mere “tale,” in this country, over the larger “novel”—conventionally so termed. (ER 873)
The succulent pun on the two senses of “novel” is delightful. “Novelty” may be a somewhat vague and imprecise conception on which to base a theory of fiction, but in its way it seems to have served as the foundation for much of Poe’s work. The novelty of Poe’s restricting supernatural (and psychological) horror to the intense and condensed mode of the short story; his virtual invention of the genre of the detective story; his radical departure from the thematic and tonal conventions of Gothicism—all these and other elements justify Poe’s self-praise for novelty and originality.
The idea of “novelty” is not, in spite of Poe’s comment above, in itself sufficient to account for his extensive use of humour, parody, and satire in a broad spectrum of tales that have not been studied here. One manner of accounting for it may come from a study of his abortive story collection, Tales of the Folio Club. In a letter Poe described the broad outline of the volume, which by 1836 had evolved into seventeen stories: “They are of a bizarre and generally whimsical character, and were originally written to illustrate a large work ’On the Imaginative Faculties’” (L 103). Here again the concepts of imagination, strangeness, and humour are fused, as if they are all outgrowths of the same aesthetic stimulus. The framework of Tales of the Folio Club was explained by Poe as follows:
I imagine a company of 17 persons who call themselves the Folio Club. They meet once a month at the house of one of the members, and, at a late dinner, each member reads aloud a short prose tale of his own composition. The votes are taken in regard to the merits of each tale. The author of the worst tale, for the month, forfeits the dinner & wine at the next meeting. The seventeen tales which appeared in the Mess are supposed to be narrated by the seventeen members at one of these monthly meetings. As soon as each tale is read—the other 16 members criticise it in turn—and these criticisms are intended as a burlesque upon criticism generally. (L 103—4)
That final remark has been taken by some critics as suggesting that even Poe’s grim tales of supernatural and psychological horror are themselves meant parodically. I do not believe we are forced to this conclusion: even though G. R. Thompson (Poe’s Fiction) has made a compelling case for an extensive use of Romantic irony in the horror tales, Michael Allen has countered that the most we can conclude from the inclusion of such tales as “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Berenice” in the Tales of the Folio Club schema is an indication of Poe’s “tortured uncertainty” (124) about the value of such “sensational” narratives, at least at this early stage of his career. His horror tales are written with such a sense of conviction, and such a sense of their “unity of effect,” that they must be taken largely at face value as excursions into the darker regions of human consciousness and the terrors of the external world.
The fact is that many of Poe’s humorous tales are parodies—and parodies of other literary works, especially those appearing in Blackwood’s. This applies not only to such obvious send-ups as “How to Write a Blackwood Article” or “Loss of Breath” (subtitled “A Tale Neither In nor Out of ’Blackwood’” [CW 2.61]), but many others. What this means is that these stories are, in effect, an extension of Poe’s work as a literary critic—especially as pertains to his harsh condemnations of plagiarism, verbosity, triteness, and the many other literary flaws he found, or thought he found, in the books that crossed his desk. In employing the element of “novelty” he strove to avoid these gaffes, even at the risk of producing work whose unprecedented intensity of horror and gruesomeness evoked criticism of its own from the squeamish.
I repeat that Poe’s work is the true beginning of weird literature. In his day most of the Gothic novels had already become hopelessly passé, and by the end of his creative life he had given them a fitting burial by showing that horror can be conveyed with infinitely greater force and impact by a careful analysis of the psychology of terror, a structure that leads inexorably from the first word to the cataclysmic conclusion, and a “novelty” of subject-matter that puts in the shade the stilted Gothic villains or chain-clanking ghosts or hackneyed devils of Gothicism. The true novelty of Poe’s work comes from the innovative supernatural elements found in his greatest tales—the animate ship of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the psychic vampire of “Ligeia,” the soul shared by house and inhabitants in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the supernatural cat in “The Black Cat,” the hideous life-in-death of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and so forth. And Poe should also be given credit for avoiding what were by then the already hackneyed ghosts, vampires, and demons of the earlier Gothic movement. The tales of psychological terror are no less original—the bizarre monomania of “Berenice” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the mental aberrations hinted at in “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Premature Burial,” the paradox of revenge in “The Cask of Amondillado.”
But Poe’s greatest novelty—and the one facet of his work that his would-be successors and disciples have found the greatest difficulty in duplicating—is the excellence of his output. His greatest tales are imperishable contributions to the literature of the world as they are towering landmarks in the literature of terror. The psychological acuity of his stories and their impeccable concision and unity set a model and a standard that few have equalled and none have surpassed. In their totality they constitute all that is needed to justify the tale of terror as a distinctive and viable branch of literature.