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The Late Edgar Allen Poe


by John Reuben Thompson, from the Southern Literary Messenger, November, 1849

[Poe's obituary from the magazine he once edited.]


So much has been said by the newspaper press of the country concerning this gifted child of genius, since his recent death, that our readers are already in possession of the leading incidents of his short, brilliant, erratic and unhappy career. It is quite unnecessary that we should recount them in this place. We feel it due to the dead, however, as editor of a magazine which owes its earliest celebrity to his efforts, that some recognition of his talent, on the part of the Messenger, should mingle with the general apotheosis which just now enrols him on the list of "heroes in history and gods in song."

Mr. Poe became connected with the Messenger during the first year of its existence. He was commended to the favorable consideration of the proprietor, the late T. W. White, by the Honorable John P. Kennedy who, as Chairman of a Committee, had just awarded to Poe the prize for the successful tale in a literary competition at Baltimore. Under his editorial management the work soon became well-known every where. Perhaps no similar enterprise ever prospered so largely in its inception, and we doubt if any, in the same length of time--even Blackwood in the days of Dr. Maginn, whom Poe in some respects closely resembled--ever published so many shining articles from the same pen. Those who will turn to the first two volumes of the Messenger will be struck with the number and variety of his contributions. On one page may be found some lyric cadence, plaintive and inexpressibly sweet, the earliest vibrations of those chords which have since thrilled with so many wild and wondrous harmonies. On another some strange story of the German school, akin to the most fanciful legends of the Rhine, fascinates and astonishes the reader with the verisimilitude of its improbabilities. But it was in the editorial department of the magazine that his power was most conspicuously displayed. There he appeared as the critic, not always impartial, it may be, in the distribution of his praises, or correct in the positions he assumed, but ever merciless to the unlucky author who offended by a dull book. A blunder in this respect he considered worse than a crime, and visited it with corresponding rigor. Among the nascent novelists and newly fledged poetasters of fifteen years ago he came down "like a Visigoth marching on Rome." No elegant imbecile or conceited pedant, no matter whether he made his avatar under the auspices of a Society, or with the prestige of a degree, but felt the lash of his severity. Baccalaurei baculo potius quam laureo digni was the principle of his action in such cases, and to the last he continued to castigate impudent aspirants for the bays. Now that he is gone, the vast multitude of blockheads may breathe again, and we can imagine that we hear the shade of the departed crying out to them, in the epitaph designed for Robespierre,

Passant! ne plains point mon sort, Si je vivais, tu serais mort!

We translate it freely,

Traveller! forbear to mourn my lot,

Thou would'st have died, if I had not.

It will readily occur to the reader that such a course, while it gained subscribers to the review, was not well calculated to gain friends for the reviewer. And so Mr. Poe found it, for during the two years of his connection with the Messenger, he contrived to attach to himself animosities of the most enduring kind. It was the fashion with a large class to decry his literary pretensions, as poet and romancer and scholar, to represent him as one who possessed little else than

th' extravagancy

And crazy ribaldry of fancy--

and to challenge his finest efforts with a chilling cui bono; while the critics of otherlands and other tongues, the Athenaeum and the Revue des deux Mondes, were warmly recognizing his high claims. They did not appreciate him. To the envious obscure. he might not indeed seem entitled to the first literary honors, for he was versed in a more profound learning and skilled in a more lofty minstrelsy, scholar by virtue of a larger erudition and poet by the transmission of a diviner spark.

Unquestionably he was a man of great genius. Among the litterateurs of his day he stands out distinctively as an original writer and thinker. In nothing did he conform to established custom. Conventionality he condemned. Thus his writings admit of no classification. And yet in his most eccentric vagaries he was always cor rect. The fastidious reader may look in vain, even among his earlier poems--where " wild words wander here and there"--for an offence against rhetorical propriety. He did not easily pardon solecisms in others; he committed none himself. It is remarkable too that a mind so prone to unrestrained imaginings should be capable of analytic investigation or studious research. Yet few excelled Mr. Poe in power of analysis or patient application. Such are the contradictions of the human intellect. He was an impersonated antithesis.

The regret has been often expressed that Mr. Poe did not bring his singular capacity to bear on subjects nearer ordinary life and of a more cheerful nature than the gloomy incidents of his tales and sketches. P. P. Cooke, (the accomplished author of the Froissart Ballads, who, we predict, will one day take, by common consent, his rightful high position in American letters,) in a discriminating essay on the genius of Poe, published in this magazine for January, 1848, remarks upon this point,

"For my individual part, having the seventy or more tales, analytic, mystic, grotesque, arabesque, always wonderful, often great, which his industry and fertility have already given us, I would like to read one cheerful book made by his invention, with little or no aid from its twin brother imagination a book in his admirable style of full, minute, never tedious narrative-a book full of homely doings, of successful toils, of ingenious shifts and contrivances, of ruddy firesides a book happy and healthy throughout, and with no poetry in it at all anywhere, except a good old English 'poetic justice' in the end."

That such a work would have greatly enhanced Mr. Poe's reputation with the million, we think, will scarcely be disputed. But it could not be. Mr. Poe was not the man to have produced a home-book. He had little of the domestic feeling and his thoughts were ever wandering. He was either in criticism or in the clouds, by turns a disciplinarian and a dreamer. And in his dreams, what visions came to him, may be gathered to some extent from the revealings he has given--visions wherein his fancy would stray off upon some new Walpurgis, or descend into the dark realms of the Inferno, and where occasionally, through the impenetrable gloom, the supernal beauty of Lenore would burst upon his sight, as did the glorified Beatrice on the rapt gaze of the Italian master.

The poems of Mr. Poe are remarkable above all other characteristics, for the exceeding melody of the versification. "Ulalume" might be cited as a happy instance of this quality, but we prefer to quote "The Bells" from the last number of the Union Magazine. It was the design of the author, as he himself told us, to express in language the exact sounds of bells to the ear. He has succeeded, we think, far better than Southey, who attempted a similar feat, to tell us "how the waters come down at Lodore"....

The untimely death of Mr. Poe occasioned a very general feeling of regret, although little genuine sorrow was called forth by it, out of the narrow circle of his relatives. We have received, in our private correspondence, from various quarters of the Union, warm tributes to his talent, some of which we take the liberty of quoting, though not designed for publication. A friend in the country writes--

"Many who deem themselves perfect critics talk of the want of moral in the writings and particularly the poetry of Poe. They would have every one to write like AEsop, with the moral distinctly drawn at the end to prevent mistake. Such men would object to the meteor, or the lightning's flash, because it lasts only for the moment--and yet they speak the power of God, and fill our minds with the sublime more readily than does the enduring sunlight. It is thus with the writings of Poe. Every moment there comes across the darkness of his style a flash of that spirit which is not of earth. You cannot analyze the feeling--you cannot tell in what the beauty of a particular passage consists; and yet you feel that deep pathos which only genius can incite-- you feel the trembling of that melancholy chord which fills the soul with pleasant mournfulness-- you feel that deep yearning for something brighter and better than this world can give--that unutterable gushing of the heart which springs up at the touch of the enchanter, as poured the stream from

'Horeb's rock, beneath the prophet's hand.'

I wish I could convey to you the impression which the 'Raven' has made upon me. I had read it hastily in times gone by without appreciation; but now it is a study to me--as I go along like Sinbad in the Valley of Diamonds, I find a new jewel at every step. The beautiful rhythm, the mournful cadence, still ring in the ear for hours after a perusal--whilst the heart is bowed down by the outpourings of a soul made desolate not alone by disappointed love, but by the crushing of every hope, and every aspiration."

In a recent letter the following noble acknowledgement is made by the first of American poets--Henry W. Longfellow--towards whom, it must be said, Mr. Poe did not always act with justice. Mr. Longfellow will pardon us, we trust, for publishing what was intended as a private communication. The passage evidences a magnanimity which belongs only to great minds.

"What a melancholy death," says Mr. Longfellow, "is that of Mr. Poe--a man so richly endowed with genius! I never knew him personally, but have always entertained a high appreciation of his powers as a prose-writer and a poet. His prose is remarkably vigorous, direct and yet affluent; and his verse has a particular charm of melody, an atmosphere of true poetry about it, which is very winning. The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."

It was not until within two years past that we ever met Mr. Poe, but during that time, and especially for two or three months previous to his death, we saw him very often. When in Richmond, he made the office of the Messenger a place of frequent resort. His conversation was always attractive, and at times very brilliant. Among modern authors his favorite was Tennyson, and he delighted to recite from "The Princess" the song "Tears, idle tears;" a fragment of which

--when unto dying eyes

The casement slowly grows a glimmering square,--

he pronounced unsurpassed by any image expressed in writing....

In what we have said of Mr. Poe, we have been considering only the brighter side of the picture. That he had many and sad infirmities cannot be questioned. Over these we would throw in charity the mantle of forgetfulness. The grave has come between our perception and his errors, and we pass them over in silence. They found indeed a mournful expiation in his alienated friendships and his early death.