The HyperTexts

Edgar Allan Poe: "The Heresy of the Didactic" and "The Courtship of Poe"

with an intro by Michael R. Burch

I promise to get to Edgar Allan Poe's essay "The Heresy of the Didactic" soon, or perhaps eventually, considering how I tend to ramble when I find topics as interesting as I do Poe and his work. But first I would like to discuss Poe's importance as a writer, and what I perceive to be the unfair treatment he sometimes receives these days, from literary critics and even his fellow poets.

I believe we should judge artists by what they attempt to accomplish. We should not judge the Marx Brothers for not being serious actors, like Sir Laurence Olivier. Nor should we judge Ogden Nash for not being a writer of tragedies, like Shakespeare. And in the same way, we should judge Poe by what he attempted to accomplish, not by what he didn't attempt. So how does Poe rank as a writer of hypnotically-rhythmed, darkly humorous ghost stories, like "The Raven"? How does he rank as a writer of mysteries, detective stories, horror stories, psychological thrillers and supernatural fare? If he judge him by what he attempted, I think Poe is one of the modern masters of his chosen genres, if not The Master, as in the one who led the way.

But if Poe was a genius, he is surely one of the most maligned geniuses in the history of literature. Poets on the left—i.e., modernists who often damn rhythmic, rhyming poems on sight, unless they were written by someone properly canonized, like Shakespeare—frequently dismiss Poe because he wrote highly musical rhyming poems such as "The Bells" and "The Raven." Many arch free-versers seem to believe that only poets of the distant past can write such poems and get away with it. But many poets on the right—i.e., formalists who tend to be conservative, sometimes to the point of seeming reactionary—also dismiss Poe for being too (take your pick) romantic, sentimental, escapist, emotional, juvenile, silly, or just plain insane (with evidence of his "insanity" either being contrived or greatly exaggerated).

Here's an example of the kind of rough, unfair treatment Poe can receive from contemporary formalists.
I once belonged, very briefly, to an online community of poets called Eratosphere, until I was banished for making ironic statements about certain critiques I received in the forum's aptly named metrical "Deep End." (I had posted a love poem there only to be told by certain resident "experts" not to use the word "love" in a love poem, never to mention the South because some Southerners are bigots, to avoid abstractions like the plague, and other such nonsense.) Since my banishment I have come to think of the more irrational Eratosphereans as the Erratics. A friend of mine who sometimes lurks in the Deep End recently informed me that the Erratics were discussing Poe, and emailed me a link to the thread. Unfortunately some of the formalists were defending and even wildly applauding a poem entitled "Poe on Courtship," which portrayed Poe as a necrophiliac, saying, for instance, that he liked his girls "inert." However, that is the opposite of what Poe said himself, when he wrote that the death of a beautiful woman was the most melancholy, and thus the most poetical, of all topics. Thus it seems Poe didn't like beautiful women "inert," but mourned their passing, like any sane lover of beautiful living women.

Here are three dubious defenses of "Poe on Courtship" from the highly erratic thread:

"... the dead cannot be libeled. Making intelligent fun of their eccentricities? Where is the harm in that?"
"I see no harm here unless one was to denigrate another member writer. Poe has long been dead. He is fair game."
The poet who wrote the poem said: "... the poem is a joke. Jokes don't try to be fair; they try to be funny."

Was Poe a necrophiliac? The poem's author offered the following lines as "evidence," calling them "Exhibit A." The lines comprise the last stanza of Poe's "Annabel Lee":

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Is Poe confessing to being a necrophiliac? No, because “Annabel Lee” is a work of imaginative fiction. The story is not real. It never happened. I once wrote a poem in which the speaker was a vampire. I wrote the poem in the first person, as if I was the vampire, but I have never had the slightest interest in drinking anyone’s blood. Rather, I hate the sight and smell of blood and the idea of drinking it revolts me.

In defense of her poem, the poet also said: "To any who object to this poem 'Poe wouldn't really have done this,' my response is 'That is what makes it a joke.' There is a huge gap between a writer's unconscious, which is on display in much that he or she writes, and the actions the writer takes in reality."

Here, the poet seems to not understand works of pure imagination. She seems to think that if Poe wrote about necrophilia (which is debatable), he must have had an unconscious desire to have sex with dead women, so if he didn’t consummate his desire, it was out of some sort of cowardice or lack of resolve. But there is no reason to believe that Poe had any conscious or unconscious desire to have sex with dead women. I can write about doing all sorts of things that I have no desire to do myself.

The following comment by Poe was also discussed as “evidence”:

"I asked myself: 'Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?' Death, was the obvious reply. 'And when,' I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?' From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious: 'When it most closely allies itself to Beauty, the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.'"

But nothing here suggests necrophilia. Many poets are lovers of beauty. For many men, the apex of beauty is a beautiful woman. So for them the death of a beautiful woman is incredibly sad. Being sad about a beautiful woman dying does not normally create a compulsion to have sex with her corpse.

One of the moderators opined: "With all due respect to the other commentators I'm not sensitive at all to a joke at Poe's expense. If anything we need more. Richard Wilbur says he spent his life (meaning his work) rebutting Poe's aesthetics."

If I’m not a fan of the moderator’s aesthetics, do I have the right to call him a pedophile? Of course not. If I disagreed with Richard Wilbur’s aesthetics, I wouldn’t make up lies about him. And to be fair, Wilbur's main disagreement with Poe had to do with Poe's then-Romantic-but-now-commonly-accepted notion that poetry should be pure art, an escape from reality into a realm of intellectual beauty, "art for the sake of art." And this is precisely what many contemporary formalists now say about poetry. So if Wilbur has a life-long disagreement with Poe, he has exactly the same disagreement with many of the Erratics.

Another poet in the thread cautioned: "... though I admit this may sound like making an unnecessary colossal fuss, I think it’s good to consider that some day the joke may be on ... not just you, on all of us."

I believe the last poet is the only one who makes any sense. To me the thread seems like a tribe of Lilliputians pricking a Titan with tiny, ineffective swords.

Poe’s place in the literary canon seems secure, with poems like "The Raven," "The Bells," "To Helen" and "Annabel Lee" and short stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Purloined Letter" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe was a leading figure of modernism, symbolism, surrealism and the American Romantic movement, and is considered to be one of the main pioneers of the short story, mystery writing, detective stories, horror stories, and science fiction. He was one of the first American writers to earn worldwide praise, often from other major writers at the head of classes he helped create.

For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of Poe's detective stories: "Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed ...Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841, featured Auguste C. Dupin, the world's first fictional detective. Poe's "tale of rationation," as he termed it, inaugurated a highly popular new genre of literature.

Poe also greatly influenced science fiction, notably Jules Verne, who wrote a sequel to Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. (Verne's sequel, An Antarctic Mystery, is also known as The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.) Poe's tale of a lost world rediscovered predated and quite possibly influenced Doyle's The Lost World, since Doyle had obviously read and admired Poe. Another science fiction icon, H. G. Wells, noted, "Pym tells what a very intelligent mind could imagine about the south polar region a century ago." Poe’s "Eureka: A Prose Poem," an essay written in 1848, included a cosmological theory with a universe-originating singularity or "primordial particle." His essay presaged the Big Bang theory by 80 years. Poe considered it his greatest work Albert Einstein said that Poe's essay was "eine schöne Leistung eines ungewöhnlich selbständigen Geistes" (a very beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind). How influential was Poe in the realm of science fiction? In Hugo Gernsback's first editorial for Amazing Stories in April 1926, he said: "Edgar Allan Poe may well be called the father of "scientifiction." It was he who really originated the romance, cleverly weaving into and around the story, a scientific thread. Jules Verne, with his amazing romances, also cleverly interwoven with a scientific thread, came next. A little later came H.G. Wells, whose scientifiction stories, like those of his forerunners, have become famous and immortal." By way of example, Poe's 1835 short story "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal" is about a man who used compressed air and a balloon to travel to the moon. It predates Verne's classic From the Earth to the Moon by 30 years. "The Masque of the Red Death" describes a plague that devastates mankind, and predates similar stories in the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genres. "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" describes the destruction of Earth by a passing comet, predating Wells' In the Days of the Comet and Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's When Worlds Collide.

Poe was also a major influence on French symbolism and surrealism. For instance, Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet, translated a number of Poe's writings into French over a period of 14 years. And in his essay "The Poe Mysteries," Richard Wilbur raised the question of whether Poe may have also inspired one of Russia's greatest writers. Wilbur mentioned "Dostoevsky’s notice of 1861, in which he praises Poe’s 'marvelous acumen and amazing realism' in the depiction of 'inner states.' (It is interesting that this last piece, published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Wremia five years before Crime and Punishment, stood as introduction to three stories by Poe, two of which—”The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat”—are accounts of murder, conscience, and confession.)"

Poe is so esteemed as a writer of mysteries that The Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence the "Edgars."

Poe was the first well-known American writer to make a living strictly from writing. And he did it the very hard way — for instance, making only $9 from the initial publication of his most famous poem, "The Raven." But to demonstrate how highly Poe is regarded today, a copy of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, sold at Christie's for $662,500, a record for a work of American literature.

Poe was also highly esteemed as a literary critic. James Russell Lowell called Poe "the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America," claiming that Poe sometimes used prussic acid rather than ink. Poe's caustic reviews earned him the epithet "Tomahawk Man." One target of Poe's criticism was Boston's then-much-acclaimed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Poe accused of "the heresy of the didactic" (i.e., writing poetry that was preachy or more instructive than poetic). Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow's reputation would decline, concluding: "We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future." Poe also correctly predicted that the best future prospects for poetry lay in its fusion with popular music. Today the most famous and best-paid poets are singer-songwriters. And many of them are fans of Poe. Musicians who have included or mentioned Poe in their work include the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jim Reeves, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Stevie Nicks, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, Green Day and the Yardbirds.

A professional football team, the Baltimore Ravens, are named after Poe’s most famous poem. One wonders if all the Erratics combined will ever come close to rivaling just one of Poe's major accomplishments. I will go out on a limb and confidently predict, "Not a chance."

And so it's amusing to hear the Erratics speaking dismissively of Poe, while lining up in the parade he helped start: "Art for the sake of art." But unlike contemporary formalists who claim that truth doesn't matter in poetry, and that poets can lie through their teeth (Joe Salemi comes to mind), Poe didn't say that truth didn't matter. Rather, he said that the beauty (i.e., the ability to please) of a poem should come first, and that beauty should be the primary measure of a poem's worth. I don’t agree with Poe about the oil and water bit in his essay below; I think poems can organically incorporate beauty and truth, the way flowers incorporate water and light. But what probably matters most is where we end up, and if we end up saying that the art of a poem matters most, but that the best poems incorporate both art and truth, that seems right to me. I like to paraphrase Horace and Frost and say that poetry delights readers into wisdom. It they don't please readers, poems fall flat and are rendered ineffective. But when readers are pleased by poems, they become open to whatever information the poets wish to transmit.

In his "moth to the star" passage, Poe seems to be thinking of Plato’s perfect forms, seen through Saint Paul's glass, darkly. While not everyone will agree that poets are reaching for the stars of a perfect heaven, I think many of us can agree that poets are reaching for something elevated, and at the same time trying to communicate their vision of the truth, or questions about the truth, to readers.

The Heresy of the Didactic
by Edgar Allan Poe

. . . . 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 Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. 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:—but the simple fact is, that, would we permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified—more supremely noble than this very poem—this poem per se—this poem which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake.

With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of man, I would, nevertheless, limit, in some measure, its modes of inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by dissipation. The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.

Dividing the world of the mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with wither extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:—waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity—her disproportion—her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious—in a word, to Beauty.
An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This is what 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, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. 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 presence of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry—or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods—we find ourselves melted into tears—we weep then . . . through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

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 Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes—in painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance—very especially in Music—and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition of the Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has regard only to its manifestations in words. And here let me speak briefly on the topic of rhythm. Contenting myself with the certainty that Music, in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected—is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality. It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles—the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we do not possess—and Thomas More, singing his own songs, was, in the most legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.

To recapitulate, then:—I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever with Duty or with Truth.

A few words, however, in explanation. That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore—using the word as inclusive of the sublime—I make Beauty the province of the poem, simple because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the Lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work:—but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is at atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

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