Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Poetic Principle

Edgar Allan Poe The Poetic Principle"The Poetic Principle" was Poe's last major prose work. It was a lecture he delivered several times in 1848 and 1849, although it was not published until after his death. While ostensibly merely an analysis on his pet theories about verse, it is also, like "Eureka," and "The Domain of Arnheim," an exploration of his most deeply-held personal philosophies.

He began with his famous claim that "a long poem does not exist." While verses should not be so brief that they "degenerate into mere epigrammatism," a poem "deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul...But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient...After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags--fails--a revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such."

Anyone who had to read "The Faerie Queene" in school can't disagree.

His next dictum was that the sole effect of a poem should be to "elevate the soul," that "the value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement." Again, he made the point that a long poem would necessarily be a failure because "that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length."

Thirdly, he called for poetry to have unity, a "totality of effect or impression." In other words, one part of a poem should not clash in style or mood with another. This unity, Poe believed, was impossible with lengthy poems.

Most importantly, he said, the poet had to discard what he called "the heresy of the didactic." "It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged...We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force."

Poe was having none of that. He stated that the enforcement of the True required severity, simplicity, preciseness, coolness--in other words, the exact opposite of the poetic spirit. The aim of all genuine poetry was not Truth, but Beauty; to invoke an instinctive response that awakens the reader to a sense of his or her own divinity--an "elevation of the soul." His description of this goal is impossible to paraphrase:

"An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, or sentiments, a duplicate source of delight...We have still a thirst unquenchable...This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us--but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone."

Poe saw this human instinct to connect with the world of the spirit as taking various forms--painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, landscape gardening (a look back at "The Domain of Arnheim,") but particularly in music, where "the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles--the creation of supernal Beauty." He saw poetry and music, with their similar modes of rhythm and rhyme, as virtual partners in this creation. (Although one wonders how much of the Beautiful he would find in your typical Top 40 playlist of today. But I digress.) The true artist acts as a guide for the rest of humanity in their unconscious need to transcend the earthly bodies which cage our souls, and unite with God--a God whose spirit is within every object and creature in our world. "The struggle to apprehend the supernal loveliness--this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted--has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic."The Poetic Principle a lecture by Edgar Allan PoeHis description of the "Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty" should be read by everyone who accepts with the utmost seriousness all the legends of his many bizarre romantic entanglements. One finds it hard to reconcile the man depicted in, say, "Poe's Mary," or the libels of John Evangelist Walsh with the writer of these lines:

"...the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul, quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart--or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary--Love--the true, the divine Eros--the Uranian, as distinguished from the Dionæan Venus--is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes."

At the end of the essay, Poe gave us his conception of true Poetry by listing some of the elements "which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect." It is among my favorite passages in any of his works, and if I ever get my hands on a time machine, one of the first places I'm going is Richmond in the summer of 1849 to hear them recited by their author. This peroration, in the opinion of Arthur H. Quinn, was where "Poe's true self flashed out." If he was correct, it would serve as proof for what I have argued on practically every post on this blog--that the Edgar Allan Poe depicted in most of his biographies never existed, that nearly all we think we know about him is based on some of the most shameless lies imaginable.

The Poet, Poe said, "...recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven--in the volutes of the flower--in the clustering of low shrubberies--in the waving of the grain-fields--in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees--in the blue distance of mountains--in the grouping of clouds--in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks--in the gleaming of silver rivers--in the repose of sequestered lakes--in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds--in the harp of Æolus--in the sighing of the night-wind--in the repining voice of the forest--in the surf that complains to the shore--in the fresh breath of the woods--in the scent of the violet--in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth--in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts--in all unworldly motives--in all holy impulses--in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it 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."