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 Raven, Annabel 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: