The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Missed by Edgar Allan Poe


Dear Unknown Friends:

I shall try in this number of TRO to give the first evidences that Edgar Allan Poe felt that he had put aside good will in his life; and that for the rest of his years, he was hoping to have it back. It is good will, essentially, who is or which is missed in his poems like “Ulalume” or “The Raven.” It is good will which is sadly killed in Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” and also in “The Black Cat.” It is good will who is or which is the other self of William Wilson, attacked by the more assertive self. I believe, dear unknown friends, when all the evidence is looked at, it will be seen that good will, presented as a lost woman, is regretted in “The Raven.” So let us see.

I have found it wise to begin with Poe's earliest work, the Tamerlane of 1827. I shall relate lines of Tamerlane to other expressions of Poe and to occurrences in his life.

1. What Did Poe Mean in Tamerlane?

I said last week that statements made by Hawthorne were not taken as things meant by him, as things mattering in his own life. It is known, certainly, that persons can speak for others than themselves in poems or stories; yet it is also possible that a person tell of himself, even as this person writes a poem or story. I think Poe is talking about himself in the Tamerlane of 1827, just as he is talking about himself in “The Raven” of 1845. Should we not see?

The first line of the Tamerlane of 1827 is:

Kind solace in a dying hour!

This line was written by Poe when he was eighteen. It is true that there had been sadness and difficulty about Sarah Elmira Royster in Richmond, some months before Poe published his Tamerlane in Boston—likely in May 1827. But as we look at the poem, the difficulty Tamerlane or Poe talks about concerns ambition. And ambition, all through his life, Poe associated with the absence of good will. Tamerlane, in English literature, is man as conqueror.

The word “solace” in Tamerlane's first line, and its meaning, are much in the life of Poe. There was something, until the moment he died in Baltimore in October 1849, for which he needed solace; constantly, he looked for solace. One can look for solace because a girl has been lost, because money is not present, because health has changed for the worse, because a house has to be given up—and all these causes are present somewhat in the life of Poe. Still, it must be said that what Poe missed most is a certain capacity for beautiful feeling, which it is correct to call good will.

Early in the poem, Tamerlane, there are these lines:

Such, father, is not (now) my theme—

I will not madly deem that power

Of Earth may shrive me of the sin

Unearthly pride hath revell'd in.

Why does Poe use the phrase, “unearthly pride”? Does this have something to do with our subject, contempt? Might not a person—Tamerlane or anyone—who has unearthly pride, have contempt as a large ingredient of that pride? Poe suffered from Sarah Elmira Royster; who suffered likewise. He also had some contempt for Miss Royster. Later we may get to some documentation of this contempt.

Poe talks of some “power of Earth” which “may shrive me of the sin.” I said that Hawthorne was not listened to gravely when he seemed to say his heart was too cold. And so we have to ask, how much does Poe mean it, when in Tamerlane he uses the words “shrive me of the sin”? He means it a good deal. The words are old-fashioned, but the feeling is sharply contemporary.

2. From Tamerlane to ”The Raven”

Solace is thought about early in Tamerlane. Solace is looked for in “The Raven” of eighteen or so years later. Do the lines in which the writer asks for quietude, or “nepenthe,” arise from the loss of a woman, or from the feeling he had done some injustice to himself? Does Poe’s unease arise from the harshness with which he had lessened good will in himself; and from the incorrectness of his desire to dismiss good will? The lines from ”The Raven” are:

“Wretch,” I cried,“thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh, quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

These lines have in them, seemingly, a strong desire to forget a loved girl, Lenore. “Respite” and “nepenthe” are wished for “from thy memories of Lenore.” Is this wholly respectful of Lenore, whoever she may be?—and as biographers of Poe know, there is more than one candidate. Is it courteous, so intensely, so strongly, to want to abolish the memories of a loved feminine person?

Tennyson wrote a long poem, all to remember a person he cared for: the poem is In Memoriam, concerning Arthur Henry Hallam. Is not Tennyson more in keeping with the bereaved persons who every year publish in some newspaper lines in behalf of or remembering a loved person who has died? Is it not likely that Poe's strong desire is to abolish awareness of a regretful feeling, not a memory of true love? And does this regretful feeling have something to do with the solace thought of in the first line of Tamerlane?

Again, there is documentation for the statement that Poe was regretting some feeling he had disdained, rather than a specific person with eyes, legs, arms. We should keep on asking what was the sin Poe, at eighteen, had in mind, when he wrote Tamerlane. Did the sin continue, and is it present in “The Raven” of 1845? Also in the later “Ulalume”?

3. Hope Is Questioned

The word “hope” and the idea of hope are not in fashion these days, with strong-minded people. The realism of the moment does not go along with the softness of hope. Poe, like many today, saw hope as not becoming him. He associates hope with the “old man” he is talking to at the beginning of Tamerlane. The speaker says: “If I can hope.” Hope, it seems, had been advocated by the “father” he is talking to. If hope were valid, Tamerlane says, “I would not call thee fool, old man.”

So what these early lines say is that the “father” or “old man” had told Tamerlane-Poe that he still could hope; but that there was a tendency on Tamerlane's part to see his advisor, the old man, as a fool. There was that in Poe which saw the common virtues as rather foolish—at least, in the way they were had by the people he knew.

In the story, “William Wilson,” of 1839, the writer does not like the counsel given him by the other William Wilson. This other William Wilson is too soft. He is under the spell of the “deceiver,” good will. The strong William Wilson was not a devotee of such a soft thing as hope. The strong William Wilson believed, like Tamerlane, in “ambition” and “the passionate energy of mind.” I quote the sentence in which Poe presents gentleness as a lack, if one wishes to do well in life. If you are so gentle as not to depend on your own masterfulness or energy, you may give way to a flabby care for hope. The sentence is:

He appeared to be destitute alike of the ambition which urged, and of the passionate energy of mind which enabled me to excel.

Poe, like the strong William Wilson, had a passionate desire to excel. And when you have this passionate desire, good will can often seem to be an encumbrance; something in the way. The William Wilson who is strong, rather ruthless, kills, in the story of 1839, the William Wilson who is considerate, gentle. Does the story tell of Poe's earlier desire to kill good will? I think it does.

And the final sentences of the story have good will yielding to contempt as power:

It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said: “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

These two sentences from “William Wilson” say something of Poe’s life, his poems, his stories, his criticism. Poe felt that because he had insulted the good will in himself, he was not entitled to hope that was strong. The other William Wilson does say: You are now dead to hope. Do these words of William' Wilson explain somewhat the use of the word ”hope” in the early lines of Tamerlane?

It is sad that many will think we are not talking of real things when we talk of Hope and Good Will; of Fear as the converse of Hope; of Anger as the converse of Good Will; of Contempt as the converse of Respect. But I think that the reality of these abstractions, their great place in the life of today, will likely be perceived in time.

4. To Tamerlane Again

It is possible to surmise that the old man in the line:

I would not call thee fool, old man—

of Tamerlane has something to do with the “old man” in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Even if the “old man” in the poem of 1827 is not the old man in the story of 1843, still, it may be said that the old man killed in the story corresponds to the person or being who has died in “The Raven”; who is in the tomb of “Ulalume” who dies in “Ligeia” and “Morella” who is “The Black Cat” in the story of that name. Old man, Lenore, Ulalume, Black Cat, Ligeia—are all the representations of the good will Poe had put aside. The documentation here begins with Tamerlane and goes on indefinitely, even to this moment.

Let us have a little of this extensive documentation now. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” there are these sentences:

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye!

Nearly the last words of “The Black Cat” are these:

Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast.

Two things have been true about human beings for many years. The first is, they often don’t like to be looked at fixedly by another. The second is, they don’t like to look at themselves too fixedly or accurately. Because Poe had despised good will in himself, it was hard for him to look at himself, or to have someone else look at him. Therefore, the good William Wilson and the gentle old man and the cat who was so lovely in the beginning, were changed into enemies. Both old man and cat have on eye, troubling.

We have leaped through the years, from an early line of Tamerlane. Early, early in the poem of 1827, with Poe a little over eighteen, we have a regret for what was. At eighteen, Poe already sadly reminisces, with poetic music:

O craving heart, for the lost flowers

And sunshine of my summer hours!

The undying voice of that dead time,

With its interminable chime.

It has been said often that Tamerlane is an American poetic consequence of Byron; that the despair in Tamerlane is an emulation of Byronic despair; that of Manfred, perhaps. All despair has something akin; but there is that in the despair of Edgar Allan Poe, aged eighteen, which is different from the despair of Coleridge, or of Byron, or of Keats, or of Shelley.

Poe is perhaps the most useful witness to the fact that good will is a reality, enemy to contempt. His life shows that a person can care for good will, make it stronger or more comprehensive; or see it as a hindrance and make it weaker. How valuable Poe is here! What an ethical treasure he is, subtle, everlasting!

That Poe put aside his good will and preferred severity and ambition, impressiveness and power, is in these lines:

I have not always been as now:

The fever'd diadem on my brow

I claim'd and won usurpingly.

Does this mean that something else—contempt and coldness—usurped the place in Poe’s life good will should have had? I think it does. And the choice was followed by poetic regret.

I shall go on using the work of Poe and the days of his life to show the meaning of contempt in the life of man. The grave of Poe in Baltimore made for the poem “Ralph Isham” in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. I thank him for that; and also for possibly making Aesthetic Realism more respected, cared for, truly studied in America.

With love,

Eli Siegel