Obscure Poe: “Letter to B—“

Obscure Poe is a series I’ll be running from time to time.

When I say “obscure”, I mean Poe’s essays, reviews, and letters

I’ve read some of those at the Edgar Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, but I picked up a Library of America volume of Poe’s non-fiction, so I’m going to briefly post on some of the pieces there as I read them. Honestly, though, I suspect I’ll have nothing to say on most of them. Poe, the first American who tried to live by the pen alone, had to write a lot of stuff of no interest now.

“Letter to B — “, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, July 1936.

McKee Portrait of Poe 1842
Thomas J. Mckee Daguerreotype, dated to 1842 by Michael J. Deas in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe

This was essay was first published in 1831 as the preface to Poe’s Poems under a different title.

Who “B” was is uncertain.

Poe firmly argues that only poets are fit to judge the worth of other poets. The fool may know Shakespeare is great, but it’s received wisdom from his neighbor who “is a step higher on the Andes of the mind”. The neighbor, in turn, got his opinion from someone else. It’s not that Poe disagrees with the valuation of Shakespeare, he just thinks the non-poet is giving an opinion, an opinion he got from somebody else, while the poet gives an informed judgement. Poe likens the opinion of the common man to a book he bought. He owns the book, but he didn’t create it.

Poe goes on to gripe about how the American writer has to work against the “combined and established wit of the world’ for a public that has traded the antiquarian’s love of age for a love of distance. The works of foreign authors are revered automatically because they are foreign.

He then goes on to further develop his idea that only poets can judge poetry and that includes the worth of his own.

Even then, a poet can assert what he does not believe. He thinks Milton’s Paradise Regained is the equal of Paradise Lost no matter what the poet said. The real reason people hold that opinion and Milton accepted is that “men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary”. Milton’s readers were “too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second”.  (Poe did not like epic poetry thinking it too long to preserve a unity of effect.)

Poe spends most of this short essay attacking the idea of metaphysical poetry designed to instruct, and he cites Wordsworth as the big offender. For Poe, the end of poetry is happiness, of course, since happiness should be the “end of every separate part of our existence is happiness”. Instruction of the kind Wordsworth offers is just an end to that happiness. Why not skip the intermediate step?:

… he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness.

Then the 25-year old Poe criticizes Coleridge and Wordsworth since he doesn’t think learning has much to do with imagination or age with poetic skill.

Both poets, for Poe, think great truths are found in beneath life’s surface.

Wordsworth, in particular, is disappointing to Poe. His youthful work had “extreme delicacy” but his best work is behind him. He talent was squandered in philosophizing.

If you have to explain why your poetry is great, you’re in trouble. Poe says of Wordsworth

The long wordy discussion by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favor …

Poe is much more an admirer of Coleridge of whom “I cannot speak but with reverence”. But Poe thinks Coleridge buried his talent in his metaphysical pursuits.

Poe concludes with his definition of poetry. (If it sounds familiar, Orson Welles intoned something similar on the second side of the Poe inspired 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the Alan Parsons Project.)

A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.

It stands as Poe’s complete definition of what he thought poetry should be and some of his own work attained. I think it’s a reasonable definition though I’m not sure good poetry can’t have a “definite pleasure”.

And, in case his opinion of the metaphysical poets wasn’t clear, he concludes by saying he holds them in “sovereign contempt”.

How Poe reconciled his disdain for metaphysical poetry with his Eureka — A Prose Poem, a very metaphysical work presented in 1848, I don’t know.

 

More reviews of Poe related work are indexed on the Poe page.

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