Joseph S. Salemi
It has been said that a prophet has no honor in his own country, and the same can occasionally be true for great literary figures. Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were publicly ignored (while studiously persecuted) in the Soviet Union, despite the great esteem and success that their work garnered abroad. Louis-Ferdinand Céline is recognized as one of the foremost figures of modern French literature, and yet it is illegal to publish much of his oeuvre in France. The writings of the Sichuan author Liao Yiwu are banned in Communist China, though his talents are widely recognized.
Some of this disdain is fashion-based, and linked to the fact that a writer does not spout the politically correct platitudes that leave bien-pensant readers comfortable and self-satisfied. Or else it is rooted in a government’s fear of political dissidence and opposition. But here in the United States, the question is more complex. Yes, we see many writers ignored because of their sociopolitical or cultural views, or their religious commitments. Huge corporate concerns like Google and Amazon routinely (and openly) prevent unorthodox writers from getting publicity, or access to a wider audience. But in the case of one of our stellar writers, Edgar Allan Poe, there is a deep and lasting critical resistance to honoring him and his work, even 170 years after his death. Poe just rubs the American literary establishment the wrong way.
Why is this so? Well, let’s examine the matter.
Edgar Poe (1809-1849) was born in Boston, but he was raised in Richmond, Virginia, and received a good deal of his education in England. The vagaries of his life—trouble with his family, dismissal from West Point, marriage to a thirteen-year-old first cousin, rumors of alcoholism, financial straits, shifting from job to job and residence to residence, acrimonious disputes with other writers—all these worked against him in the court of public opinion, and even more so in the estimation of his literary contemporaries. Whatever else he may have been, Poe was a bohemian in the original sense. Unlike Emerson or Wendell Holmes or Whittier or Longfellow, he did not maintain a stage persona of tight-assed Yankee rectitude. In the United States, that frequently counts heavily against someone.
Nevertheless, Poe’s work had a very wide audience, appealing as it did to the popular desire for the strange, the mysterious, the exotic, and the unusual. It was as if an America of homespun pieties and Sunday sermons had a surreptitious need for what was opposed to the humdrum, the conventional, and the tediously didactic. Poe gave readers what they wanted, in spades, both as a writer and an editor.
But he wasn’t a hack, surfing the wave of popular demands, as the vast majority of faux writers today seem to do. Poe was a first-rate critic and literary innovator. He jump-started two major genres: science fiction and the detective story. He created new stanza forms in poetry. He gave the modern short story the basic format that it used for over a century. His single novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is recognized as seminal in the development of the form, and profoundly prophetic of the nightmare of the twentieth century. (It also had a strong influence on Melville’s seafaring novels). He brought the Gothic strain in literature to unexampled heights in The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, The Premature Burial, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. These are unforgettable stories, still unsettling today. And of course his achievement in individual poems like “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “The City in the Sea,” and “The Conqueror Worm” puts him in the very highest rank of Romantic poets, whether here or in Europe.
His work is electrifying. As the critic C.A. Smith said nearly one hundred years ago, “Poe is the necromancer of American literature. Read his prose and you crown him as the king of terror. Read his poetry and you concede a witchery of words found in no other of our American poets.” And Poe carefully set out his aesthetic principles in essays (“The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition”) that are still crucial for literary criticism. His ideas on the “totality of effect” and “brevity” were revolutionary in a nineteenth century that was still mired in long-windedness and bombast. Poe argued, trenchantly and convincingly, that everything in a literary composition has to be designed for and directed towards an unmixed and single effect that has been chosen and planned by the author. There can be no discursive tangents. There can be no sidebars. There can be no endless drifting off into unforeseen paths. A poem should be read in a single sitting. The interminable blather of a Wordsworth or a Shelley, dragging us through page after page of meandering declamation and opining, was utterly alien to Poe’s aesthetic principles. In this sense he was a modernist avant la lettre, a writer who ruthlessly pruned his work of whatever did not serve the immediate needs of forceful expression. No wonder Baudelaire worshipped him! And not just Baudelaire—Poe was idolized by Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and André Breton as well. His science fiction works were a major influence on Jules Verne.
And this last point brings us to the esteem in which Poe was held in France, and the authority that his views on compositional methods and stylistics held for late nineteenth-century French poets and the later surrealists. This authority also spread widely among Francophile writers throughout Europe, cementing Poe’s global reputation. He is still a towering literary presence outside of the United States. But what happened here in America?
This country, with its innate Low-Church Protestant puritanism, never granted Poe the well-deserved laurels that the Europeans awarded to his memory. Poe’s irregular life, his contempt for New England piety and its gaseous Transcendentalism, his deep Southern sympathies, his prescience about racial conflict, his bare-knuckled criticism, his willingness to attack big names like Longfellow, and his unabashed relish for subject matter that was medieval or grotesque—all of this was too much for the psalm-singing moralists of Congregationalism, or the glassy-eyed idealists of Unitarianism. Poe represented a Gestalt of taboo thinking that utterly disconcerted the American psyche. Like forbidden fruit, he was enjoyed but disavowed.
As late as 1909 Poe was refused a place in the Hall of Fame of American achievement. The censorious Mrs. Grundys of American womanhood fought against his inclusion in school curricula. Even today stupid academic critics attack him for racism, or for insufficient attention to social problems, as if it were the job of a poet and critic to come up with a plan for slum clearance. T.S. Eliot sniffed at Poe’s criticism, preferring that of Coleridge. You would be hard pressed to find an American college that even offers a course in Poe’s work. The literary establishment of this country simply refuses to treat Poe as anything other than a minor (and somewhat regrettable) figure. Modernists like to pretend that they are superior to him, and if they mention him at all it is with the patronizing contempt of dismissal or ridicule.
The real but unspoken complaint against Poe is that he refused to be a member of any clique or set. He hadn’t the slightest interest in making a lot of po-biz friends. His only interest was his work, and following his peculiar literary genius in producing what he thought good. American literary types (who are natural networkers and back-scratchers) find this kind of attitude offensive and insulting, since it silently rebukes their slavish social climbing and groupthink. Longfellow was the most prominent poet of the time, and yet Poe had not the slightest scruple about occasionally deriding his work. For American academics and literary wannabes, this is unthinkable. His blistering and mordant put-down of the idiotic Margaret Fuller has made him a permanent enemy to feminist critics.
Poe’s posthumous reputation suffered as well from the vicious and false “Memoir” of the poet published by Rufus Griswold, a pompous ass who considered himself the arbiter of all American literature. Griswold’s lies and exaggerations established a negative “Poe legend” of alcoholism, chicanery, and disgraceful actions, one that has finally been dispersed by the patient research of scholarship. Poe did lead an irregular and tumultuous life, but he was certainly not the monster of depravity that a deeply envious Griswold painted. Nevertheless, the ingrained prejudice against Poe is still strong, and will probably grow more intense in the current climate of insane anti-white, anti-Southern, and anti-Western ideology. I fully expect that public monuments dedicated to him will be vandalized, defaced, or quietly dismantled over the next few years. If Jefferson is now a pariah, what can we expect for Poe?
It makes no sense here to reprint and comment on his famous and widely anthologized pieces. I’m instead going to choose one poem, and use it to show some of the deeper and less obvious reasons why Poe continues to be despised by a powerful coterie of American academic critics and opinion-makers. Let’s look at the brilliant poem “Dream-Land,” first published in 1844, considering it stanza by stanza:
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—out of TIME.
These are perfect trochaic tetrameter couplets, with only two variations: a choriambic beginning in line 7, and the unusual two cretics of the final indented line. Note also that the stanza is carefully and symmetrically arranged, the first and third couplets having feminine endings, the second and fourth having masculine endings. Poe’s precision is never in doubt.
What do we have before us? The speaker is on some mystical journey, via a path that is obscure and sinister (“ill angels”), with an enthroned idol of Night, and he has arrived out of space and time. Is this death? Is it a dream? Is it some sort of fantasy? Where is the “ultimate dim Thule” from which he has come? The stanza is swirling with mystery, danger, vague threats, and fear. Let’s continue:
Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.
This is pure copia of description, giving us details of the place where the speaker has arrived. The meter continues the general trochaic tetrameter pattern, and the alternation of masculine/feminine endings in the couplets is sustained. But Poe introduces variations in the first, second, and last lines: the first has a choriambic start, the second the same but with an unstressed initial syllable. And the last line introduces a dactyl for the second foot.
The strange image of “the lolling lily” mingled with the lone, dead, still waters of the lakes is a clear death-reference: the lily is the funereal flower, and it lolls or droops after having been cut and placed on the breast of the departed. If this isn’t a death landscape, it nevertheless gives a strong impression of finality and fatalism. Here’s more:
By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily—
By the mountains—near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever—
By the grey woods, by the swamp
Where the toad and newt encamp—
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls—
By each spot the most unholy—
In each nook most melancholy—
There the traveller meets, aghast,
Sheeted Memories of the Past—
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by—
White-robed forms of friends long given
In agony, to the Earth—and Heaven.
This is pure Poe: the obsession with the dead, the fixation on some place of grief and loss, the conjuring up of vowel sounds that echo disquiet (the variations on o, oo, ou), and above all the truncated and indented line Where dwell the Ghouls—, which interrupts the meter with the direct horror that was only hinted at in ill angels. It also confirms, to my way of thinking, that the place being described is some kind of underworld of the dead, since the speaker specifically mentions meeting the spirits of departed friends. Is it Hell? Not when we read on:
For the heart whose woes are legion
’Tis a peaceful, soothing region—
For the spirit that walks in shadow
’Tis—oh, ’tis an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not—dare not openly view it;
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fring’d lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.
Here the speaker provides some clarification of where he is, and what the place represents. For the sad and the deeply depressed, this land provides peace, and can even be an “Eldorado” of bliss. But the traveller (who here must be taken to be the living speaker) cannot directly see the place, except through “darkened glasses.” This last allusion is to St. Paul’s words about how during our time on earth we see “but through a glass darkly,” whereas in the afterlife we will see clearly. The “King” can be read as God, or else as some mighty force that forbids our full perception of what lies beyond the grave. The line about “uplifting the fring’d lid” is almost certainly a reference to a coffin and its lid, and can be glossed as “We are forbidden to know the reality of death until it comes to us, though we can imagine it either a frightening and evil transition, or as a blissful homecoming.” It is also possible that “the fring’d lid” refers to an eyelid and its lashes, though even this reading does not contradict the foregoing interpretation. In either case, we are forbidden to see the full truth about death.
The poem ends with a repetition that has always puzzled critics:
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only.
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have wandered home but newly
From this ultimate dim Thule.
Has the speaker now returned from his mystical visit? Has he gone home to life, or is he now swallowed up by death? The lack of absolute clarity here is quintessential Poe. His habit is to conflate life and death in an inextricable fusion, to blur the boundaries of our two worlds so that we are in a perpetual daze about which is which. The grammatical sense of the poem suggests that “ultimate dim Thule” may be the world of the living, or it may be the final “home” of rest that the speaker is visiting. The use of dim (one of Poe’s favorite adjectives) argues that Thule might well be the world in which we cannot see reality clearly; but the adjective ultimate, with its sense of finality and ending, could be taken as evidence that Thule is this mysterious land of the dead into which the speaker has come.
Let’s now consider elements of this poem that will predictably make some moderns grit their teeth. To begin with, Poe always calls the reader’s attention to his vocabulary—first by its lush sound, and next by its associations. He uses evocative words, and avoids ones that are prosaic or colloquial or dull. Eidolon, chasms, sublime, Titan, aghast, shrouded—these are lexical items that send the Plain Speech Police of modernism into a blood-rage. There is a deeply rooted distaste for copia and rhetorical flourishes and complex diction among those who dictate what texts we should appreciate. Poe thumbs his nose at straightforward and uncomplicated plainness.
Second, Poe’s subject infuriates. It is mysterious, to be sure—but it is clearly about death and the possibility of an afterlife. Poe is not interested in the details of quotidian existence. He isn’t going to write a poem about a personal misunderstanding, or about his trip to the grocery store, or why you should be worried about global warming. Poe can be profoundly metaphysical, not in the sense that Dr. Johnson meant, but in the original sense of dealing with matters that do not present themselves to our sense perceptions. Call them “ghostly matters,” if you wish. Poe lived and breathed in an imaginative netherworld that secularist modernism has sworn off.
Third, Poe is incantatory. “Dream-Land” is a perfect example of how Poe loves the sound of words, and revels in their sheer aural power. This is why so many of his poems are still loved and recited by ordinary persons. Taken together, these two facts constitute a major sore spot for modernist critics who—despite all their pious prating about democracy and inclusion—are essentially snobs. This sort of renown and popularity irritates elitist academic critics and modernist poseurs, who secretly believe that they alone should keep the keys to what is poetically acceptable. Poe’s works are unashamedly beautiful, and simple people remember them. How many persons of all ages and levels of education love “The Raven” or “The Bells”? How many can recite, by heart, that chilling first sentence of The Cask of Amontillado?
Fourth, Poe is not
particularly concerned with being self-revelatory in the embarrassing
manner of Whitman and his camp followers. He would have considered “Song
of Myself” as a laughable
pathetic in its self-absorption. Instead, Poe was passionate about
traditions, strange lore, human limitations, tragedy, and the dark web
of inherited history. The brainless optimism, self-reliance, utopianism,
reformist claptrap, and boring social concerns of Transcendentalism only
evoked his scorn. (He urged Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work he
respected, to get out of the silly movement as quickly as possible).
There is nothing in “Dream-Land” that is confessional or self-revelatory
in the manner that is prized by poetry critics today. Instead, the poem
presents a mental journey taken in an altered state, involving “ill
angels” and “Ghouls.” And no one could possibly claim that it is
Finally, the real problem is this: Transcendentalism is in fact still the regnant American ideology, and its sunny optimism and Smiley-Face do-goodery still dominate the official American psyche. Poe was a heretic who had rejected this pseudo-religion. His work has absolutely no connection with its pieties and its pruderies. His is a secret world of mystery, darkness, frightening altered states, and the strangely wrought intricacies that emerge from sickness and gloom. It is for this reason that Poe is deliberately disdained by the opinion-makers in his own country, which is still governed by the denatured puritanism of Emerson and Thoreau. Thank God the rest of the world knows better.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming in 2019 from Pivot Press.