Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Be That Word Our Sign of Parting...

This is just to say that I'll be taking a hiatus from this blog. (I'm suddenly picturing all of you responding to this statement by quoting to me the words of Oliver Cromwell: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately...Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!")

I had only one reason for starting World of Poe back in 2009--to leave "on the record" (even if it's in this obscure back alley of cyberspace) some sort of counterargument to the many errors, misconceptions, deliberate lies, and, here and there, (particularly on the Internet) sheer gibbering insanity that have hopelessly befuddled any efforts to truly understand Edgar Allan Poe.

Like so many others before me, I found it very difficult to reconcile the profound idealism and deep spiritual insight of Poe's writings with the degraded, almost buffoonish person found in his biographies. It is easy to imagine that a man can be a deeply flawed person and still be a talented writer. It is impossible to imagine that such an individual can be a wise writer. And Poe was not only a wise and enlightened writer indeed--one of the very wisest I have ever encountered--but an eminently sane, even compassionate one. ("Not only do I think it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility.") I realized that something had to be wrong somewhere. So I began examining his history more closely, and soon discovered that nearly everything was wrong. His "accepted" life story consisted largely of one bizarre falsehood after another. Rufus Griswold's memoir was not an anomaly. It was a template. (And, if you can imagine it, I have avoided writing here about some of the more appalling crimes that have been perpetrated against Poe, simply because I knew few would believe me.)

However eccentric or inept my rebuttals may have been, well, Edgar, at least I tried. I only hope I've done my "mite" (as George W. Eveleth would say) in aiding what I have come to think of as the Poe samizdat. Let me put it this way: If I've managed to persuade just one person to look at everything said or written about the man with a certain healthy skepticism, it will all have been worth it.

I suppose my admittedly odd crusade is all thanks to "Eureka." For many years, the work was generally regarded as the ravings of a madman or megalomaniac. In recent times, the focus has been almost exclusively on Poe's cosmology, reducing his book to a mere scientific essay. What both schools of thought have largely overlooked is that "Eureka" is, as Poe himself said, "a poem"--to my mind, one of the greatest ever written. It is difficult to pull individual quotes from this work--it must be read as a whole, really, or not read at all--but there are some particular passages that I have studied so often I practically have them memorized:
"...But now comes the period at which a conventional World-Reason awakens us from the truth of our dream. ­ Doubt, Surprise and Incomprehensibility arrive at the same moment. They say:--'You live and the time was when you lived not. You have been created. An Intelligence exists greater than your own; and it is only through this Intelligence you live at all.' These things we struggle to comprehend and cannot:--cannot, because these things, being untrue, are thus, of necessity, incomprehensible.

No thinking being lives who, at some luminous point of his life of thought, has not felt himself lost amid the surges of futile efforts at understanding, or believing, that anything exists greater than his own soul. The utter impossibility of any one’s soul feeling itself inferior to another; the intense, overwhelming dissatisfaction and rebellion at the thought;--these, with the omniprevalent aspirations at perfection, are but the spiritual, coincident with the material, struggles towards the original Unity--are, to my mind at least, a species of proof far surpassing what Man terms demonstration, that no one soul is inferior to another--that nothing is, or can be, superior to any one soul--that each soul is, in part, its own God--its own Creator:--in a word, that God--the material and spiritual God--now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe; and that the regathering of this diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the re-constitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God.

In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Injustice--of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more--it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have ­imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes--with a view--if even with a futile view--to the extension of our own Joy."

The close of "Eureka" contains the two finest lines he ever wrote:
"Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness--that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life--Life--Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."

Strange, and to some, outrageous, though it may sound, "Eureka" has been a vital help and consolation in my long, painful struggles to make some sense of this "material and spiritual universe." For that reason alone, I will always feel love and gratitude towards Edgar Poe, and a corresponding desire to defend his name against all the dirty work--whether anyone in the world listens to me or not. I owe the man at least that much.

I hope to continue posting here from time to time, whenever I come across anything else in Poe "scholarship" that particularly annoys me. (Or if, God help us, Lenore Hart decides to lift from write another Poe novel.) I find abandoned blogs peculiarly depressing; it's like walking into a ghost town. For now, however, I'll "sling the knapsack for new fields," and focus my energies, such as they are, elsewhere.

So, as far as this space is concerned, I bid farewell--as cordially to foes as to friends.Edgar Allan Poe blog final post

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part Two)

"The Frogpondians may as well spare us their abuse. If we cared a fig for their wrath we should not first have insulted them to their teeth, and then subjected to their tender mercies a volume of our Poems:--that, we think, is sufficiently clear. The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together."
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the "Broadway Journal," November 22, 1845
Edgar Allan Poe Al AaraafPoe was clearly having far too much fun with his antagonists. When reading his editorial, it is difficult to imagine anything better suited to add fat to the fire, and it is even more difficult to imagine that this was not precisely his intention. Inevitably, this only invited further attacks upon him from Miss Walter and her editorial allies, who seemed to never tire of informing their readers that Poe was a pathetic, indigent madman who had, it was suggested, been visibly drunk during his Lyceum recital. (The allegation that Poe took the stage intoxicated is still widely repeated today, despite the fact that it is utterly fictitious. Despite what such unfortunate productions as Jeffrey Combs’ recent one-man show about Poe would have us believe, he never made any sort of stage appearance when he was under the influence.) Poe himself snorted at such insinuations, wondering why “these miserable hypocrites” couldn't “say ‘drunk’ at once and be done with it?”

The literary battle over his Lyceum appearance continued for an astonishing length of time, at least partly due to the fact that, whenever it showed any signs of dying a natural death, Poe would use the pages of the “Broadway Journal” to eagerly bring it back to full strength. Other newspapers and magazines were drawn into the fray, either for or against him, and Poe responded to both praise and abuse with equal gusto. (When the "Harbinger," the official journal of the transcendental Brook Farm commune, published a column questioning Poe's mental condition, he responded, "Insanity is a word that the Brook Farm Phalanx should never be brought to mention under any circumstances whatsoever." He added condescendingly that the "Harbinger" was "the most reputable organ of the Crazyites," run by people whose objects were honorable, "all that anybody can understand of them." He also noted with malicious delight that the circulation of the "Broadway Journal" had doubled since his Lyceum appearance.)

He probably would have kept the debate going in perpetuity—the opportunity it gave him to publicly mock the Transcendentalists was clearly a source of unflagging joy to him—if it had not been for the untimely demise of the “Broadway Journal” in January of 1846. Deprived of his public forum, Poe was forced to retreat from the field, a complication which allowed his enemies to attack him with impunity.

When the "Journal" folded, the Transcendentalists immediately proclaimed victory over Poe. Cornelia Walter even published a clumsy little poem in which she hinted that a conspiracy had deliberately brought down the magazine:
"To trust in friends is but so so,
Especially when cash is low;
The Broadway Journal's proved 'no go'--
Friends would not pay the pen of Poe."
Clearly, Poe and the Transcendentalists were adversaries to the death. But why? Initially, the Transcendentalists had wanted to bring Poe into the fold; to make him one of their own. Poe, however, felt contempt for them from the beginning.

Many of the early Transcendentalists were evolving Unitarians who desperately wanted to be spiritual, but could not commit themselves to the existence of God. They chose to instead worship environmentalism, and European philosophers, and communitarianism, and "good works," and anti-industrialization.

And Poe considered them frauds, phonies, and misguided lost souls. He said as much often enough, and he said it to their faces when he mischievously recited "Al Aaraaf." As a truly spiritual man, Poe disdained the pretensions of the Transcendentalists, whose religion was the movement itself. So many of Poe's poems and stories are about the soul's quest for Heaven, for God, for escape from earthly entombment. Yet, some souls don't make the grade. In "Ulalume," the soul briefly soars, but then falls back to the hell of earth. In "Al Aaraaf," the souls choose to exist in a grey area where they will eventually perish because they retained earthly thoughts and desires, and never achieved true spirituality. "I know how to get to Heaven," he seemed to be saying, "and you don't."

This was the message he intended to convey to his Boston audience.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Boston incident is that, contrary to what one would assume, it had no discernible impact on Poe’s career as a lecturer. Even though the Lyceum’s Board of Trustees would later censure him, (not so much for his appearance there itself, but for the insulting things he published about it afterwards,) he continued to receive invitations to lecture or recite at various venues. Although he did not make very many more public appearances in the four years before his death, this appears to have been by choice. His lectures were generally very well reviewed, and frequently well-attended. If he had wished to, Poe, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably could have made a good living by concentrating on lecture tours. His reasons for not doing so are unknown, but he probably simply had other priorities. In any case, the controversy which surrounded his Lyceum appearance was never repeated in any of his other stage performances.

There is another thing that needs to be said about his Boston Lyceum failure— it was hardly universally regarded as having been a failure. As was noted earlier, some of the more objective papers found his recital mystically compelling. The “Boston Daily Courier” called “Al Aaraaf” “an elegant and classic production,” that was, they implied, simply too good for his audience. In 1879, the Transcendentalist writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had been in the audience on that memorable night in Boston, recorded the remarkable impact of Poe’s performance. Higginson recalled that the spectators found the poem “rather perplexing,” and it failed to make a great impression upon them until Poe began to read the second half of the poem. His tone began “softening to a finer melody." When he came to the verse that began:
Ligeia! Ligeia!
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
O! is it thy will
On the breezes to toss?
Or, capriciously still,
Like the lone Albatross,
Incumbent on night
(As she on the air)
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?
Higginson said Poe’s voice “seemed attenuated to the finest golden thread; the audience became hushed, and, as it were, breathless; there seemed no life in the hall but his.” He added that “every syllable was accentuated with such delicacy, and sustained with such sweetness as I never heard equaled by other lips...I remember nothing more, except in walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt we had been under the spell of some wizard.” Surely, any event that could elicit such a reaction could hardly be called disastrous.Robinson Al AaraafWhen Cornelia Walter began trumpeting his performance as a pitiful debacle, Poe clearly relished the attention, no matter how negative it may have been. He was an instinctive showman, who would have been in full agreement with the old Hollywood adage of “say anything you like about me, as long as you spell my name right.” He saw Walter’s campaigns against him as chances to not only publicize the “Broadway Journal,” and his recent book, “The Raven and Other Poems,” but to highlight what he saw as the mendacity and imbecility of his enemies. He certainly accomplished both those goals. Poe’s so-called “madness” had a cool-headed method to it much more often than is popularly assumed.