Happy Poe Day: Genius and Sheer Fudge

poe raven

Edgar Allan Poe was born this day two hundred and five years ago (1809). The best, if back-handed, critical assessment of Poe was penned by another 19th century poet and writer, James Russell Lowell:

There comes Poe, with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,
Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,
In a way to make people of common sense damn metres,
Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.

Poe himself wrote:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken 
My sorrow; I could not awaken 
My heart to joy at the same tone; 
And all I loved, I loved alone.

Other than the poem The Raven, Poe is better known in these latter days for his short stories than his poetry. His tales of the macabre. It would be easy to believe the word macabre was coined to describe Poe’s stories. This is not entirely unjust, his stories are very memorable, and Poe essentially created and established the form of the modern short story; but his poetry doesn’t get the same attention. A shame, really. Poe’s more familiar poems, that is, those anthologized in high school English textbooks when I was in school, such as RavenAnnabel Lee, The Bells, have a sing-songy galloping meter, and rather monotonous rhymes. Whitman kinda put the kibosh on this style of versiflage with Leaves of Grass in 1855, though it took a while for more free form unrhymed verse to win out. Poe died in 1849; I wonder what Poe would have made of Whitman’s barbaric yawp? Or of Emily Dickinson’s zero at the bone?

Poe’s short stories are genius, much of his poetry sheer fudge, but I think some of his lyrics capture genuine melancholy:

And all my days are trances, 
   And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy grey eye glances,
   And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
   By what eternal streams.
By the way, does anyone remember the 1976 Poe-themed debut album by The Alan Parsons Project? Once upon a time, I owned the vinyl:

One response to “Happy Poe Day: Genius and Sheer Fudge

  1. The price of iconoclasm was and remains high.
    Poe the graduate of military academy; Poe the sound journalist, trying to be a good boy ? Poe the metaphysically blasted, working it out as poet, obsessed with euphonies that often do not fit the mood of his subjects. Poe the disasterist of prose style, whose deliberately meandering sentences may make one long for the plein air of his contemporary, James F. Cooper. [ Yes, I know that is not fair. ]
    To paraphrase a comment from Mark Twain on the climates of the hereafter,
    I’ll still take Poe in Hell for the company, rather than Lowell for the pablum of his pacific sanity, above.
    btw, seem to have misplaced a century in your opening.

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