“The Tell-Tale Heart”

This week’s weird fiction …

Review: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Since this is one of the most read stories in all the English language, I’m going to dispense with a lot of plot synopsis.

You know the story. A crazy man, the story’s narrator, kills an old man because of his “evil eye”, buries the body under some floorboards, and, when the police come to investigate, confesses because he hears the beating of the man’s heart.

The opening sentence,

“TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

and the closing sentences,

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

is justly famous.

Stephen Peithman’s annotations and notes are quite useful with this story. Continue reading ““The Tell-Tale Heart””

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Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, October-November 1848.

ultima thule portrait of poe 1848
The “Ultima Thule” portrait of Poe taken by Edwin H. Manchester on November 9, 1847, four days after he attempted suicide.

This is a long essay, 45 pages long in my Library of America edition. It’s a technical theory of verse, and I won’t attempt a discussion of all its points or pass judgements on Poe’s opinions.

It’s mostly an attack on all existing theories of English “versification” with plenty of detailed analysis. My impression is, after looking at a couple of times, it probably is of value to would-be poets.

I suppose the heart of the essay is the falling paragraph:

So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Pannurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Illiad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand in stead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded – to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship” can lead a book-worm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over, for a few moments, any one of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Liebnitz’s principle of a ‘sufficient reason’.

The eighteenth century was a time of great English pedantry when it came to the English language. Various English writers, worshipping at the feet of classical civilization, insisted on Latin being the model for English. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way talks about some of this. All sorts of grammatical rules were proclaimed for English: no ending sentences with a preposition, no starting them with a conjunction, and no splitting infinitives. None of which described English as written or presented a rule whose violation obscured the sense of the language. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse””

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1846.

McDougall Portrait of Poe
Miniature of Poe by John A. McDougall, ca. 1846 from The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas

A questionable choice, perhaps, for this series since you may know at least one phrase in this essay:

 . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

This is nothing less than Edgar Allan Poe explaining how, in a cold, analytical, and logical fashion how he wrote his most popular work: “The Raven”.

It’s not just that poem. Poe claims his essay describes the “modus operandi by which some of my own works was put together [sic]”.

The Poe steps of composition for the poem follow.

Pick your length. Poe felt the poems lost their effect after a certain length. He aimed for 100 lines. “The Raven” is a 108 lines long.

Next decide on the impression you want to leave. Poe wanted something “universally appreciable”. For Poe, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. But beauty, for Poe, is not a quality but the “intense and pure elevation of soul”. “Truth” and “Passion” are better addressed in prose. The precision to depict Truth and the “homeliness” needed for depict Passion are “antagonistic” to creating a sense of beauty. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition””

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.

“Dearth’s Farm”

I’m taking a break from James Gunn to look at this week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: “Dearth’s Farm”, Gerald Bullett, 1923.untitled

I liked this story by an author I’d never heard of.

It’s one of those old school chum stories.

The writer meets, on Fleet Street in London, his acquaintance Bailey (not his real name, we’re told).

He hasn’t seen Bailey in five years, and he gives us his memories of him from their days at Cambridge. Then Bailey was sleek, young and possessing “an almost feline love of luxury” with a “flaming personality” and great imagination. He spun fantastic theories out about Theosophy. However, Bailey did “badly in his Tripos” and left Cambridge without a degree. Continue reading ““Dearth’s Farm””

Pre-Modern Science Fiction

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

Essay: Pre-Modern Science Fiction.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.