Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Memoriam: A Little-Known Poe Obituary

"But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!--for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old-time entombed."
-"The Haunted Palace"

The following eulogy for Poe appeared in the "New Bedford (MA) Mercury" on October 20 and 26, 1849. It does not appear that the author, who was probably "Mercury" editor Benjamin Lindsey, knew Poe personally, but it is one of the most interesting contemporary obituaries of him I have seen. It is particularly notable that this author concentrates on Poe’s crucial and unique role in American literature, while bypassing (except for brief, and not unkindly, comments at the end) the usual tiresome frettings and moralizings about his private life.

This column has largely been overlooked by Poe scholars, (although Burton Pollin republished it in 1994,) so I include it here to commemorate this day. It can almost stand as the “authorized” obituary Griswold would have written if—well, if he had not been Griswold:

"The recent melancholy decease of Mr. Poe seems hardly to have drawn from the public press that hearty recognition of his abilities which they undoubtedly merit. Here and there a member of this conscientious body seizes the occasion to air his morality. This was to have been expected. People who had, Heaven knows, reason enough to remember him while living, will certainly take the opportunity of his death to chronicle his errors, and their own virtues. This too was to have been expected. Men and women, whose pretentions he laughed at, and whose principles of literary labor he despised; who having taken possession of the papers and magazines did not hear the salutary truth half often enough; who seized the mutual idea of the day for praise, as journeymen tailors do for pence, and paid each other monthly dividends with ludicrous punctuality; who maintained themselves precariously by writing verses, none of them better, and not many of them as good as those with which “Persons of Quality” graced the literature of the last century; men and women who, upon the largest and most liberal consideration, seem to the honest judgment wanting as much in sincerity and earnestness of purpose as literary ability—alas! These were the unworthy censors to whom Poe’s works and ways were submitted. Unworthy they certainly were, for he was solid while they were frivolous, earnest while they were sunk in lethargy; full of manliness and vigor which contrasted unfavorably with their monthly produce of poor verses and fashionable tales.

To another class Poe, during his fitful life, owed small thanks! These were the men who are consecrated to the service of respectability in letters and ex officio in dullness in every thing; men too harmless to find much fault with; whose quarterly oracles might indeed be missed by the wakeful. They are men who heartily admire every thing upon which time and reputation have set their seals, but who would have refused to talk with Savage, or visit the garret of Johnson. They are men who do not like to be startled out of their self-complacency; who read Addison or Junius for style, and absolutely could not, if they would, make American letters anything but a dead reproduction of the forms of standard authors. It has never occurred to these sapient philosophers that they are living in the nineteenth of the centuries; that a literature with a head and heart in it which shall remain as the exponent of our struggles, our hopes, or only our despair, which shall indicate to the future by its shortcomings its half-articulate utterance , its very want and weakness, that which spiritual darkness wrapped us as in a garment, and free action and manly thought were forgotten, there remained one or two in whose bosom smouldered the fires of an antique heroism—that such a literature, of necessity intemperate, fragmentary, and eccentric, will not come, heralded by the soft lullaby of the lute or the quiet ripple of Arcadian rivulets, these men have forgotten, if they ever knew. Poe, more than any literary man of his time and country, chafed in his fetters. He saw at a glance through what we call American literature, and as he was a man to say what he thought, he never was forgiven.

It was as a critic that Mr. Poe made himself especially obnoxious to these retail dealers in literary commodity, as to distinguish them from the wholesale importers, we may call them. The Duke of Nassau who purchases numerous jugs wherein to export to a thirsty world the veritable Selters, submits them all to a rigid and ultimate test. Being filled with water, if it shall be found upon subsequent inspection that any one has leaked, or appeared to leak the least in the world, the stern hammer of the potentate, in the hands of some qualified deputy, settles completely enough that jug’s prospects of foreign travel. It was in this summary manner that Mr. Poe was wont to complete the career of certain “broken cisterns.” They should not pass themselves upon a confiding world, as genuine Selters—the empty jugs. That this prompt and final adjudication of matters gave rise to much lamentation and many tears, is not to be denied. There was then and is now much talk of cruelty. But if a fly will try to convince the world that he is a beetle, or even if a respectable beetle claims to be called and known as a tortoise, what remedy is there but the entomological pin, were it only for the purpose of scientific demonstration and refutation of all that? That Mr. Poe did the state some service, and they did not know it, only proves how blind the state is to that lamentable waste of paper and ink of which our bards, callo[w] as well as callous, are guilty. His way of doing the work may seem questionable to the tender hearted, whose gentle constitution alike blinds them to the extent of the evil, and the immediate need of stringent remedies; we have no doubt that it was judicious, and considering the future, not untinctured by benevolence.

But personal as Mr. Poe sometimes was, we suspect he was irritated and dissatisfied rather with our whole system than with any individual examples. Few men knew better than he, few men had better opportunities of knowing, the falsity and emptiness of the hosts who covet the lofty honors of inspiration, or the impudent assumption of mere imitators, that they were singing the thoughts and achievements of the American age or the American people. He knew that America did not sing other music than the clang of the forge, or the ring of the emigrant’s axe. That his country, unquestionably great and genuine in much, should be forever exhibiting her weak side to the world, vexed him sometimes into virulence, for he himself never attained the pure height of a rational severity. With those who thus compromised her character Mr. Poe lived for the most part in a state of quarrel. It could hardly have been otherwise, for he was a practical man, who knew what he did well, and did what he did do well, and who was not above the examination of details. He was intended by Nature for the noblest warfare against error, but he submitted to champion Truth in meaner contests.

Of Mr. Poe’s works we do not intend to speak at length. They are the various productions of a literary man working for bread, in an age essentially un-literary. But in all he did, whatever may be its intrinsic value, there is a certain completeness or finish, which is remarkable when one considers his erratic courses. This is what we meant when we said that what he did do he did well. About this he seems to have been punctilious. He would have his metre right, if not his morals. His “Tales,” by which he is and probably will be, best known, amidst their wildness, and the luxuriance of their grotesque fancies, exhibit a rigidity of mathematical demonstration which (paradoxical as it may appear) we think is closely allied to the lofty spirituality of his poems. If we might institute a comparison—not in the best taste certainly, but merely for the purpose of a slight illustration—we should say that his mind was not unlike that of Coleridge, while his general handiness, practical skill, and versatility of pursuit, are fragmentary traces of Goethe’s well-disciplined and gigantic intellect.

And of whom are we thus speaking? Whose name is this we are thus joining with those of the illustrious departed? Alas! The name of one whose way of life was not wise; who struggled in vain against the world, the flesh, and the devil. He grappled with the sins and short-comings of his day and generation, and he fell. He sleeps soundly now that was so restless—the weary spirit is quiet at length. The man of many means which he could not use, of dauntless spirit which he could not bridle, who chafed and fretted in the harness of this clod-pated world until he cast it off forever, has departed; and while the censorious renew their shallow estimate of his works, his worth and his ways, we may sit down by his fresh grave and reverently remember that all things, whether of life or of death, are governed by Infinite Wisdom, while as year by year the world tramps forward to a better and brighter era, let us not complain that it treads into the dust so much of what to us is dear and beautiful."

Edgar Allan Poe died October 7 1849

(Header image via Wikipedia. Footer image via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)