Edgar Allan Poe is a great writer because he writes from his heart, from his experience; he’s true to himself. His writing has energy, vivacity, originality. He doesn’t imitate, he is imitated. He inspired the detective fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, and he inspired science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In his day, Poe was a well-known critic, one of the first critics to recognize Hawthorne’s talent. James Russell Lowell called Poe “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.”1 Poe’s poems, such as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” have won more popular favor than critical favor (Emerson called Poe “the jingle man,”2 and Harold Bloom spoke of Poe’s “dreadful poems”3).
Poe is remembered today more for his short stories than for his criticism or his poetry. Poe’s stories can be divided into “tales of terror” and “tales of ratiocination.” D. H. Lawrence (whom Harold Bloom called “Poe’s best critic”4) preferred the tales of terror to the tales of ratiocination. Among the tales of terror, Lawrence was particularly interested in “The Fall of The House of Usher” (often called Poe’s best story) and “Ligeia.” Lawrence dismissed the tales of ratiocination (such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Gold-Bug”) as “mechanical.”
Poe had a gift for ratiocination, for puzzle-solving. When the first installments of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge appeared in the U.S., Poe quickly identified the murderer, prompting Dickens to exclaim “That man must be the devil!”5 Poe prided himself on being able to unravel any system of coded writing; he challenged “the universe” to send a code to his magazine that he couldn’t break. “The Gold-Bug” deals with codes, and it inspired William Friedman, who helped to break the Japanese code in World War II.
Poe wasn’t content with small puzzles, he tried to solve the biggest puzzle of all: the universe itself. Even as a youngster, he had observed the stars from his porch through a telescope, and as he grew older, he kept up with developments in astronomy. He also studied the philosophical writings of Coleridge and others. In his last years, he wrote Eureka, which mixes philosophy and cosmology. Poe chose the title Eureka because he thought he had solved the puzzle of the universe: “What I have propounded,” he wrote, “will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly — but I say it.”6 Poe was indeed capable of deep philosophical insights, and some of his astronomical theories were ahead of their time (for example, he anticipated the Big Bang theory and perhaps Einsteinís relativity).
D. H. Lawrence devotes a chapter to Poe in his Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence argues that Poe depicts the collapse of personality, the loss of self, that results from excessive love or excessive hate. Poe’s characters lose themselves in passion, they don’t find themselves, they don’t find their center. Poe fails to achieve the detachment that comes with maturity, he fails to offer a vision of spiritual growth. In his poem “Annabel Lee,” Poe describes a love that is excessive, immature, and unrealistic:
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love —
I and my Annabel Lee....
Poe depicts a love that is immoderate and unhealthy, a love that ends in early death. Poe’s characters “kill the thing they love.”
Proust depicts excessive attachment, love carried to the point of obsession, but he also points the way to wisdom, maturity, detachment. Proust depicts spiritual growth, Poe doesn’t. Proust suffers and overcomes suffering, Poe just suffers.
Poe could depict terror because he experienced it, and he could depict mental instability because he experienced it. He dreaded being alone, especially at night, and if he was writing at night, his aunt would sit up with him to keep him company.7 In his last years, lucid periods alternated with spells of madness. The traumas that Poe experienced in early childhood — his father left the family when Poe was two, and his mother died when he was three — left a lasting mark on him.
Marie Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte and a disciple of Freud, wrote a lengthy study of Poe’s life and work. Her book can serve as an introduction to Freud’s ideas. I suggest that one start by reading Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and then read Bonaparte’s analysis of that story.
Perhaps Poe’s most famous student was Baudelaire, who translated Poe into French, and helped make Poe popular in Europe. Poe’s morbid streak struck a responsive chord in Baudelaire; Baudelaire said that he was fond of Poe “because he resembled me.”8 Readers are often fond of writers to whom they feel akin.
Poe’s mental instability and alcoholism brought him to an early grave; he died in 1849, at the age of 40. Shortly before his death, he spent an afternoon with friends in Richmond. A meteor passed over his head, prompting a joke about omens; after he died, his friends felt that the meteor had indeed been an omen.9 Perhaps the meteor was an example of a linkage between the human world and the inanimate world, the sort of linkage that Poe had depicted in works like “The Fall of The House of Usher.”
Click here for an excellent Poe documentary, part of the American Masters series.
Since the local Great Books group is reading “The Fall of The House of Usher,” I decided to read it myself. It’s Poe at his best. It’s a fun story to read, and it raises the biggest of all philosophical questions: is the universe an organism, in which all the parts are inter-connected, or is it something mechanical that’s composed of discrete objects? Can parts of the universe affect each other by mysterious means, occult means, or can parts of the universe only affect each other by direct contact? Is the universe like a billiard table, in which the balls affect each other by direct contact, or is it like two separate billiard tables, the balls on one of which are able, we know not how, to affect the balls on the other? Is the universe rational and comprehensible, or is it mysterious, occult, beyond our grasp? Was primitive man right to believe that everything is inter-connected, or were Newton and Descartes right to believe that “occult influence” is nonsense, superstition?
At the end of “The Fall of The House of Usher,” the protagonist, Roderick Usher, and his twin sister, Madeline Usher, die, and then their house collapses. There seems to be some sort of rapport, some occult connection, between the Usher house and the Usher siblings. The story seems like wild fantasy, but could it be true? Stories abound of clocks stopping when their owner dies. Isn’t the Usher house similar to a clock, isn’t it a clock writ large? Isn’t the difference between a clock stopping and a house collapsing just a difference of degree, not a difference of kind? Isn’t the essential fact in both cases an occult connection between an inanimate object and a person?
There’s an ancient Chinese belief that if an emperor dies, there will be an earthquake in the same year; in other words, the Chinese believed that there was an occult connection, a synchronicity (to use Jung’s term) between an emperor’s death and an earthquake. Isn’t this analogous to the Poe story? Again, we have an inexplicable connection between an inanimate object (in this case, the earth) and a person.
In Macbeth, we have a connection between the weather and human affairs: the weather is stormy, and there’s a storm in the human realm, too (the king is assassinated). A similar synchronicity between weather and human affairs is found in “House of Usher,” where a storm breaks out as the story reaches its climax.
We’ve looked at several cases of a relationship between a person and an inanimate object. Now let’s look at a case of occult connection between two inanimate objects, a case so well authenticated by science that even the most confirmed skeptic couldn’t deny it. I refer to The Case of Paired Particles, which I discussed in an earlier issue: “Two paired particles, with opposite spin, are sent in opposite directions. The spin of one of the particles is changed. The other particle’s spin also changes, at the same instant, without any apparent cause.”
Now let’s look at an occult connection between two people. If twins are separated by 1,000 miles, and one of them falls down a flight of stairs and breaks his leg, the other may sense that something is wrong with him, or may have a pain in his own leg. An occult connection between twins exists in “The Fall of The House of Usher”: “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between [Roderick and Madeline].” The phrase “scarcely intelligible” can be paraphrased “mysterious, inexplicable, occult.” The mysterious “sympathies” between Roderick and Madeline are further evidence that Poe believes in an inter-connected universe, Poe has a Hermetic worldview.10
In the Poe story, Roderick Usher believes in “the sentience of all vegetable things.” In a footnote, Poe tells us that Usher’s belief was shared by various scientists — “Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.” But Usher goes further, goes beyond vegetable things: “in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization.” That is, Usher believed that even inorganic matter may be sentient. “The belief [was] connected... with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers.” So the daring theory fits in with the story, but nonetheless it may be a theory that Poe actually subscribed to, or at least was intrigued by. Is it crazy to believe that “gray stones” are sentient if The Case of Paired Particles shows that particles are sentient? Aren’t stones made of particles, and isn’t it therefore likely that stones are sentient? Surely Poe would have been fascinated by quantum physics.
The books that Usher reads are major Hermetic texts: “the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg... the Chiromancy of Robert Flud... and the City of the Sun of Campanella.” I discussed Fludd and Campanella when I wrote about Hermetism. These Hermetic thinkers believed that the whole universe was sentient, alive, inter-connected. Usher’s daring theory is part of a major school of philosophy, the Hermetic School — the mystical, occult, non-rational school. We have every reason to believe that Poe took these ideas seriously. His story is more than a story of mental collapse, more than a terrifying fantasy. His story is a classic expression of an important philosophical idea. “House of Usher” is part of The Poe Worldview, which is part of the Romantic Worldview, which rejected the mechanical, Newton-Descartes worldview.
Some may object that I’m turning Poe into a philosopher, but it should be remembered that Poe, like Coleridge, wrote philosophy as well as imaginative literature. Poe’s Eureka is an “attempt to explain the universe, material and spiritual.... 11[Poe] pursued a unitary theory of metaphysics, nature, art, and the human mind. He conducted his search with astounding vitality and persistence, and surely, by the time he had written Eureka, he believed he had arrived at the goal.”12 It would be surprising if Poe’s philosophical ideas didn’t find their way into his fiction.
Usher’s daring theory (that the whole universe is sentient) may have been influenced by Coleridge, a leading Romantic theorist. In one of his essays, Coleridge “objects to the division ‘of all that surrounds us into things with life, and things without life’ as an ‘arbitrary assumption’.... He conceives of metals as having a low order of life.”13 Poe may have acquired his Hermetism from Coleridge, rather than from older Hermetics like Fludd and Campanella.
Like any good Hermetist, Poe not only believed that the universe had a non-rational character (a mysterious, occult character), but also believed that we could grasp the universe best by non-rational means; Poe believed that “intuition is a surer road to truth than either induction or deduction.”14
One might compare Poe to Balzac, who was born in 1799, just ten years before Poe. Like Poe, Balzac had a keen interest in the occult, in Mesmerism, and in phrenology; Balzac also had a keen interest in Swedenborg. Balzac attempted “to construct a viable theory to unify spirit and matter.”15 Balzac delved into these topics in Louis Lambert, and later in Seraphita. Since Balzac was renowned for his realistic portraits of French society, the case of Balzac shows that a keen interest in the occult is compatible with a sure grasp of reality.16
Since I rarely read fiction without reading commentary on the fiction, I borrowed from the library a study of Poe called Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe.17 This book contains D. H. Lawrence’s remarks on “The Fall of The House of Usher.” I was so impressed by Lawrence’s criticism that I consulted Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, in order to read Lawrence’s analysis of Poe in its original, unabridged form. Lawrence recognizes that Usher’s daring theory has a certain truth:
|Surely all material things have a form of sentience, even the inorganic: surely they all exist in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects, irrespective of contact.|
It’s remarkable that Lawrence grasped the Hermetic worldview, the inter-connected worldview, and realized that Poe was expressing this worldview, not just writing an entertaining story.
But Lawrence doesn’t dwell on Poe’s view of the universe, he dwells on Poe’s depiction of mental collapse, loss of self. Lawrence says that “House of Usher” is a story of excessive love, and the resulting breakdown of personality. Roderick Usher is so close to his twin sister, so merged in her, that he loses himself. One might describe this obsession with another person as transference; we discussed transference in earlier issues, and noted that it can be positive or negative, loving or hating.
According to Lawrence, Poe’s lovers disintegrate because they
|cannot be separate, cannot be isolate, cannot listen in isolation to the isolate Holy Ghost. For it is the Holy Ghost we must live by. The next era is the era of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghost speaks individually inside each individual: always, for ever a ghost. There is no manifestation to the general world. Each isolate individual listening in isolation to the Holy Ghost within him.
The Ushers, brother and sister, betrayed the Holy Ghost in themselves. They would love, love, without resistance. They would love, they would merge, they would be as one thing. So they dragged each other down into death. For the Holy Ghost says you must not be as one thing with another being. Each must abide by itself, and correspond only within certain limits.
The best tales all have the same burden [that is, Poe’s best tales all have the same theme]. Hate is as inordinate as love, and as slowly consuming, as secret, as underground, as subtle. All this underground vault business in Poe only symbolizes that which takes place beneath the consciousness. On top, all is fair-spoken. Beneath, there is awful murderous extremity of burying alive. Fortunato, in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ is buried alive out of perfect hatred, as the lady Madeline of Usher is buried alive out of love.
This is literary criticism at its best, literary criticism that reaches the level of philosophy. If we substitute the word “unconscious” for “Holy Ghost,” Lawrence’s view is much like Jung’s. (Indeed, Lawrence often uses the term “unconscious,” and Jung often uses the term “Holy Ghost.”) Both Lawrence and Jung say that it’s healthy to listen to our unconscious, unhealthy to lose ourselves in the Other.
In his essay on Friendship, Emerson said “The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it.... There must be very two, before there can be very one.” Poe’s stories show us the danger of becoming “very one” before we’ve become “very two”, the danger of merging with the Other before we’ve become an individual, an individual capable of standing alone.
Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” deals with boundless love, love that refuses to give up the beloved even after she dies. Poe epitomizes the Romantic merging of love and death. The narrator of “The Raven” reminds us of Poe: he’s a scholar, pondering “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” He’s hyper-sensitive to external impressions: “the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors.” The narrator mourns for “the lost Lenore... the rare and radiant maiden.” Was Poe anticipating the death of his ailing cousin-wife, Virginia? Was Virginia’s early death, and Poe’s own early death, part of Poe’s destiny? Did Poe’s art anticipate his future, as well as reflect his past?18 Or is “the lost Lenore” based on Poe’s dead mother? Poe’s despairing melancholy is expressed by the raven’s refrain “Nevermore.” The linkage between love and death is apparent in some lines that Poe wrote when he was 20:
I could not love except where Death
Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath.
Another essay in the Bloom volume is by Allen Tate, a prominent critic and leading member of the “New Criticism” school. Tate argues that Roderick has, in some way, brought about his sister’s death:
|The love, circumventing the body into the secret being of the beloved, tries to convert the spiritual object into an object of sensation: the intellect which knows and the will which possesses are unnaturally turned upon that center of the beloved which should remain inviolate. As the story of Usher opens, the Lady Madeline is suffering from a strange illness. She dies. Her brother has, of course, possessed her inner being, and killed her; or thinks he has.... Why has he committed this monstrous crime? Sister though she is, she is nevertheless not entirely identical with him: she has her own otherness, of however slight degree, resisting his hypertrophied will.|
If “House of Usher” is a love story (as Lawrence argues), and the lovers are murdering each other (as Tate argues), perhaps Poe is presenting love and hate as essentially the same. In Poe’s work, both love and hate are taken to an extreme, and both try to destroy the “inner being” of the Other. According to Freud, “Love is with unexpected regularity accompanied by hate [and] in a number of circumstances hate changes into love and love into hate.”19
According to Lawrence, Poe’s “chief story” is “Ligeia.” Like “House of Usher”, “Ligeia” is a story of excessive love. According to Lawrence, “Ligeia” is also Poe’s own story, the story of his love for his young cousin. Lawrence calls Poe’s love “the intensest nervous vibration of unison,” and Lawrence says, “the longing for identification with the beloved becomes a lust.”20
Ligeia’s husband wants to know her completely, to probe her inmost soul. “What he wants to do with Ligeia,” writes Lawrence, “is to analyze her, till he knows all her component parts, till he has got her all in his consciousness.” Lawrence quotes from the story:
|The expression of the eyes of Ligeia! How for long hours have I pondered upon it! How have I, through the whole of a midsummer night, struggled to fathom it! What was it... which lay far within the pupils of my beloved? What was it? I was possessed with a passion to discover.|
Like many of Poe’s characters, Ligeia sometimes reminds us of Poe himself. Ligeia is swept away by strong passions: “Of all the women whom I have ever known, she, the outwardly calm, the ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion.” This prompts the following from Lawrence: “Poor Poe, he had caught a bird of the same feather as himself. One of those terrible cravers, who crave the further sensation. Crave to madness or death.”
“Ligeia” is a story of immoderate love, and also immoderate hate. Ligeia’s love for her husband is “no ordinary passion.... For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry.” After Ligeia dies, her husband marries Lady Rowena, for whom he soon conceives an immoderate hate: “I loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man.” Despite this immoderate hatred, Lawrence groups “Ligeia” among Poe’s love stories. Among the stories of hatred, Lawrence mentions “The Cask of Amontillado.”
On the whole, Lawrence seems to be a fan of Poe, but he says that Poe is purely destructive, and fails to be constructive. Poe depicts the personality disintegrating, but doesn’t show us a way out, hence he isn’t a true artist: “In true art,” Lawrence writes, “there is always the double rhythm of creating and destroying.” But Lawrence insists that Poe’s dark vision has a certain value: “the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive.”
Lawrence takes a dim view of Poe’s poetry. Lawrence says that Poe’s personality-collapse makes him hyper-sensitive to external impressions. Lawrence speaks of Poe’s
|extraordinary facility in versification. The absence of real central or impulsive being in himself leaves him inordinately, mechanically sensitive to sounds and effects, associations of sounds, associations of rhyme, for example — mechanical, facile, having no root in any passion.|
|1.|| Quinn, Arthur Hobson (1941), Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, p. 432; cited in Wikipedia article on Poe
Another prominent Poe commentator is also named Quinn — Patrick Quinn is the author of The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, 1957). back
|2.|| “Emerson’s Estimate of Poe,” New York Times, May 20, 1894; quoted in the Wikipedia article on Poe back|
|3.|| Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Introduction, p. 9 back|
|4.|| Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Editor’s Note, p. 8 back|
|5.|| Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 17, p. 100 back|
|6.|| Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 20, p. 155 back|
|7.|| Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 20, p. 154 back|
|8.|| See Louis Untermeyer, Makers of the Modern World, “Baudelaire” back|
|9.|| Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 22, p. 200 back|
|10.|| Marie Bonaparte, a Freudian, didn’t have a Hermetic worldview, and didn’t believe that a relationship between a person and a thing could really exist; she speaks of, “that mysterious ‘accord’ between persons and things, which emanates from the unconscious” — from the unconscious, not from reality itself. (The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 26) back|
|11.|| See Floyd Stovall’s essay, “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge,” in the Norton Critical Edition of Poe. back|
|12.|| See the Joseph Moldenhauer essay in the Norton Critical Edition. back|
|13.|| See Floyd Stovall’s essay, “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge,” in the Norton Critical Edition of Poe. back|
|14.|| Quote from Stovall, not Poe. back|
|15.|| Wikipedia back|
|16.|| In an earlier issue, I discussed Goethe’s attempt to trace both organic life and inorganic matter back to a basic plan, or Urbild. back|
|17.|| This book contains a brief biography of Poe, which is very badly done. Bloom probably assigned this project to an assistant. Bloom wrote/edited hundreds of books, and sometimes worked carelessly. back|
|18.|| In an earlier issue, I discussed how Proust’s art anticipated his life (the death of Albertine occurred in his novel before it occurred in reality). back|
|19.|| The Ego and The Id, ch. 4 back|
|20.|| The epigraph of “Ligeia” is a quote from Joseph Glanvill, a 17th-century English writer: “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” Lawrence says that this quote is the “clue” to Poe. Lawrence interprets the Glanvill quote as an exaggeration of will; Lawrence thinks the quote is unhealthy, “deadly.” “If God is a great will,” Lawrence writes, “then the universe is but an instrument.... Because a man wants his own will, and nothing but his will, he needn’t say that God is the same will, magnified ad infinitum.... Poe had experienced the ecstasies of extreme spiritual love. And he wanted those ecstasies and nothing but those ecstasies.... [Poe] set up his will against the whole of the limitations of nature.” I interpret the Glanvill quote differently; here’s my interpretation, sentence by sentence:|