Ah, To Dismiss
BY ELI SIEGEL
Dear Unknown Friends:
Years ago, through Trent’s American Literature, I learned that Edgar Allan Poe had a hold on Europe which hardly any other American writer had. The literary historian said Edgar Allan Poe reached something in readers of Paris, Vienna, Rome, or Moscow not reached by most American writers. I think it is well to quote from American Literature by William Peterfield Trent, page 383. Trent writes:
Perhaps the safest conclusion in this vexed matter of Poe’s standing in American literature is to admit...he is the American writer that means most to the civilized world of today, and that probably has the best chance of maintaining, if not of increasing, his hold upon posterity.
The preface of Trent’s work is dated 1903. About this time, Poe was seen more and more in Europe as an American writer Europe did not want to dismiss. And the world in general went along with Europe. Poe has a hold on the world.
We have to ask, what is the nature of this hold of Poe on the reading world? I am matter-of-fact when I say that the reason Poe has a hold on the reading world is that he tells so well of persons’ desire to dismiss the world. When you do well with the general desire to dismiss the world, you can become internationally indispensable. That is so with Poe. It became clear while Trent was writing his rather popular work on American literature.
1. Dismissing the World
The clearest instance of Poe’s dismissing the world is in his story “The Masque of the Red Death.” The story is not one of Poe’s best; yet it has affected people since it was published in Graham’s Magazine, Philadelphia, 1842. The sentence that says most of world-dismissing is this:
The external world could take care of itself.
The story tells of how a group of select people, led by a king, shut themselves out from a plague affecting all the other inhabitants of the kingdom. The select seekers of safety and distinction engage in diverse merriment. But death, a masquer, is a guest anyway. The story does get at the common desire to have reality elsewhere. And so the story, not so good in itself, has affected people in Bulgaria and Corsica.
The desire of Poe to dismiss is universally meaningful. One has to know all his work, including the criticism, to see how many forms this desire could take.
In a poem of 1829, “Sonnet—To Science,” Poe wants science to let him alone. The way Poe, at twenty, puts this aversion to science is pretty much like the way the writer tells the Raven, in 1845, to go about its business. I quote two dismissing lines from the early sonnet:
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
Here are similar lines in “The Raven":
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
Poe could see the world when darkly inimical as a condor, a vulture, a raven. That science is talked of in 1829 as a raven was talked to later, shows that some attitude to the world was represented by the raven.
2. Preference Can Dismiss
Poe in many ways showed that he liked a distant world, loftier than this, more than the world of Andrew Jackson, merchants, and ordinary houses. The world of coins and bills, other people’s feelings, and jostling bodies did not please Poe. He shows this feeling in the much commented-on last lines of the “Israfel” of 1831:
If I could dwell
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.
Poe is saying that if he had as good a world as that had by the Mohammedan representative of song, Israfel, he might do as well as the ancient poet of Islam, perhaps even better. You just have to have the right world.
Poe could be, like others, easily dissatisfied. One’s dissatisfaction is often the prelude of a desire to dismiss. And when we prefer one thing to another, we have within us the desire to dismiss. Preference carries with it dismissal of something.
The desire to discard, to dismiss, to put aside, to annul, is a large thing in man. Discarding, dismissing, putting aside, annulling, can be justly regarded as the executive phase of contempt. Poe had this executive phase of contempt. It shows itself diversely; even in his formal criticism.
But first we should look at the presence of contempt, even in the midst of love.
3. “A Dread Burden”
Strangely, in Poe’s “Ulalume,” a person singly carries the body of a loved woman to a foreseen tomb. I quote some lines from “Ulalume":
And I cried: “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed—I journeyed down here!—
That I brought a dread burden down here.”
I said last week that Poe had difficulty both with the complete reality of existence itself and with the complete reality of a woman. That a woman could smile lovingly and cherishingly, seem to be love itself, and yet disagree with one or drop groceries on the floor—this was something Poe did not like. He could not make a one of woman as repellent, as impingingly everyday; and woman as expressing the possible kindness and sweetness of the world. Poe wanted to dismiss woman as competitor, as a problem, as a being as real as a table you had to walk around.
It was woman as puzzling, not going along with reality as ideal and cherishing, that was the “dread burden” one man journeyed with and carried. And Poe was ashamed of wanting to dismiss reality where it did not cherishingly suit him. Reality may be both competition and good will.
It may seem strange for me to say this, but the Ligeia of Poe’s great story, the Madeline of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the lady in “The Oblong Box,” the “dread burden” in “Ulalume,” have a relation to what Poe didn’t like in literature or art.
I said that long ago, I was taken by Professor Trent’s telling of Poe’s hold on reading Europe and the reading world. Differently, I was taken years ago with a chiding by George Saintsbury of Poe as literary critic. Saintsbury, in his History of Criticism (III, 634) is amazed by some of the critical statements of the trans-atlantic judge of literature. Saintsbury, evaluating Poe’s criticism, says:
You may, if you please, pick out of it the most amazing things, such as that “for one Fouqué there are fifty Molières” (I am no undervaluer of Fouqué [author of Undine], but I wish—I do wish—that I knew where to look for even one of the forty-nine additional Poquelins).
4. Literary Criticism and Ulalume
I have to become a little, at this point, like Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and two other analytical narratives. The problem is, how is the deeply melodious writer about Ulalume the same person who decries the plays of Jean Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière? Well, the question isn’t really so hard. I’m trying to make it seem hard.
The ordinary reality associated with the French middle class of the 17th century was a reality Molière loved—for did he not make everlasting, rather benevolent comedy out of this fairly well-to-do reality in the time of Louis XIV? Moliere, in other words, saw permanent meaning in the comically limited bourgeois we meet in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. And the reality that Molière was much taken by as he saw it in women was just that reality Poe felt he could do without and wanted to dismiss. The reality that Molière’s sprightly, rather combative women can show was, as a single person, part of the “dread burden” the writer carried one October evening to a tomb. In other words, the Ulalume that once did not please altogether, is a little like the Agnes or Elmire of Molière.
Poe wanted reality to be different, as we all do in some way or other. The desire of Poe to dismiss a good part of reality in the New York of 1845 is why, in discussing the contemporary American play Fashion, by Anna Cora Mowatt, he says:
It was much indebted, too, to the carpets, the ottomans, the chandeliers and the conservatories, which gained so decided a popularity for that despicable mass of inanity, the “London Assurance” of Boucicault.
Here Poe shows himself in two ways. First, he did not want a woman to be like Boucicault’s Lady Gay Spanker: talkative, bright, incisive, and all that. Poe rather wanted a woman to be like Frances Sargent Osgood: meditative, a little drooping, with eyes like wise, cherishing pools. And then Poe, watching Mrs. Mowatt’s play, saw the ottomans and upholstery he loved to put in his rather far-away stories, right there on a downtown New York stage. This also could vex.
The changing of woman into two beings, one who smiled lovingly at you in a manner that showed reality cared for you; and, two, a woman who could raise questions like any other instance of what is real—this changing of woman made for the poem “Ulalume” and for the ever-living story “Ligeia.” For woman is two beings to herself, too. She represents the world as love; and she also is a contender for the prizes of the hours.
The seeing by Poe of woman as love is in nearly the last words of his renowned lecture on poetry, “The Poetic Principle":
He feels it [poetry] in the beauty of woman—in the grace of her step—in the lustre of her eye—in the melody of her voice—in her soft laughter—in her sigh—in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments—in her burning enthusiasms—in her gentle charities—in her meek and devotional endurances—but above all—ah, far above all—he kneels to it, he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty—of her love.
5. Woman Is the Oneness of Opposites
Had Poe seen woman, like the world itself, as the aesthetic oneness of opposites—the view of Aesthetic Realism—his life, I think, would not have been so agitated, so unendurably uncertain. Yet woman is the mingling of curtness and idea; of snappiness and space; of triviality and majesty. The world is a mingling of cheapness and grandeur; of unsettling vexation and order.
It was woman as unmastered contradiction which was taken to the tomb in “Ulalume”; and later so much regretted, so much a cause of self-chastening. It was woman and the world, so puzzling, so unsettling that it became necessary to dismiss both, which we meet in “The Oblong Box,” a story explaining “Ulalume”; and which we meet in the renowned “Raven.”
Woman as something to dismiss and the world as something to dismiss are greatly present in the writings of Poe. This is one reason for Baudelaire’s deep respect for Poe and his becoming a part, almost, of Poe’s stories. This is why Mallarmé, the least crude of all French poets, felt it was right to translate Poe’s “Raven.” In France, it is stately, undulating prose, and “le Corbeau.”
And there is so much still to be said of Poe. In Poe’s life, we can see contempt and reverence struggling in the midst of the literary life of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond. Poe’s life is a constant annotation of contempt. His stories and poems show contempt at one with grief and devotion beyond this world. Because of all this, Poe will live. Because of all this, Aesthetic Realism will say more of him.
And we should see how the dingy old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the vanishing Ligeia are kindred things in this continuing world of ours.