- “A Condition To Be Criticized”: Edgar Allan Poe and the Vocation of Antebellum Criticism
It is folly to assert, as some at present are fond of asserting, that the Literature of any nation or age was ever injured by plain speaking on the part of the Critics. As for American Letters, plain-speaking about them is, simply, the one thing needed. They are in a condition of absolute quagmire.
To see distinctly the machinery—the wheels and pinions—of any work of art is, unquestionably, of itself, a pleasure, but one which we are able to enjoy only just in proportion as we do not enjoy the legitimate effect designed by the artist:—and, in fact, it too often happens that to reflect analytically upon Art, is to reflect after the fashion of mirrors in the temple of Smirna, which represent the fairest image as deformed.Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, 1849
In the fall of 1849, while on a Southern speaking tour intended to raise money and attract subscribers for his long-standing project of a magazine of his own, Edgar Allan Poe sat down in his Norfolk hotel room to answer a letter from an admirer. Susan Ingram had attended an intimate speaking engagement of his at the Hygeia Hotel the night before, and while admiring the beauty of the new poem he had recited, a mystical piece entitled “Ulalume,” she nonetheless failed to grasp its broader meaning. Conscientious as always, Poe responded with a transcription of the poem and the following note: [End Page 1]
I have transcribed “Ulalume” with much pleasure, dear Miss Ingram,—as I am sure I would do any thing else, at your bidding—but I fear that you will find the verses scarcely more intelligible to day in my manuscript than last night in my recitation. I would endeavor to explain to you what I really meant—or what I really fancied I meant by the poem, if it were not that I remember Dr Johnson’s bitter and rather just remarks about the folly of explaining what, if worth explanation, should explain itself. He has a happy witticism, too, about some book which he calls “as obscure as an explanatory note.” Leaving “Ulalume” to its fate, therefore, & in good hands, I am
Yours trulyEdgar A Poe (Letters 2: 460)
Twenty-seven days later, Poe was dead. In the interim, he wrote only one final extant letter, a few paragraphs to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, informing her of his arrival in Richmond and his travel plans for the days to come. As such, his note to Miss Ingram with its polite refusal to explain away the mystery of one of his more cryptic poems exists as a curious final word of sorts, as well as a polite nod to the eighteenth century’s most famous critic by one of the nineteenth century’s most famous.1
As far as final words go, however, this is a strange one; after all, Poe was never tight-lipped with his opinions, either of his own work or that of others. Indeed, he spent the better part of his adult life “endeavor[ing] to explain” the inner workings of literature, boasting to his name just under a thousand critical pieces produced in his fourteen years as practicing magazinist. His 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition” is, moreover, one of literature’s most famous poetic glosses, an exhaustive reconstruction of both the composition and intended effect of his most popular poem, “The Raven”—or at least, so the majority of Poe scholars have maintained. Still a vocal minority takes a different stance, rejecting the legitimacy of the essay completely and reading it either as another of Poe’s hoaxes or, more abstractly, as a New Critical impossibility in its flagrant demonstration of the intentional fallacy. By and large, however, most critics read the essay as a sincere ars poetica, downplaying the extravagancies and eccentricities of the piece and grouping it instead with “The Poetic Principle” or “The Rationale of Verse.” This reading [End Page 2] gains credibility from the fact that Poe himself referred to the article as “my best specimen of...