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Sounding the Sublime: Poe, Burke, and the (Non)Sense of Language DENNIS PAHL A s any discussion of Poe’s aesthetics must necessarily revolve around his use of language, it may be instructive to focus, more specifically, on the way sounds operate within that language. What role do sounds play in Poe’s literary works? And how does his use of sounds become suggestive of his aesthetic goals? It was the French Symbolist poets, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, who first broached these questions in a serious way, recognizing the “music” of Poe’s writing as embodying the essence of their own literary aesthetics. Unlike Emerson, who famously dismissed his fellow American author as no more than a “jingle man,” such writers as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all found in Poe a literary precursor, a kindred spirit who, like themselves, aspired to represent poetry’s divine musicality while, at the same time, advocating an “art-for-art” aesthetic.1 For the Symbolists, Poe’s poetry, as well as his “poetic” fictional narratives, became an example of the literary artist’s ability not only to create his visions with rich, powerful, dreamlike imagery but also to use poetic sound for transcendental effects—as a vehicle, that is, for breaking through the mundane realities of the everyday to a higher, more ethereal order of knowledge and perception. In an essay that both analyzes and praises Poe, Baudelaire says, “It is at once by poetry and through poetry, by and through music, that the soul glimpses the splendors beyond the tomb.”2 In Baudelaire’s view, Poe’s aim was to sound the spiritual and to do so, most assuredly, in a way that Emerson and his New England school of writing—what Poe sardonically refers to as the “so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists”—could not do.3 Yet while Symbolist aesthetics emphasized the way in which poetic language could, through pure musicality, transport one to a place “beyond,” one should not overlook the way Poe, for all of his ethereal interests, seems equally if not more intent on affirming the material or sensuous aspects of poetic discourse. As a writer who embraces both the material and the metaphysical , and who would, as Kenneth Hovey argues, attempt to give a sensual dimension to the soul, Poe makes clear his “materialist metaphysics,” doing so not only in works of fiction and poetry, as well as in works with specific philosophical intentions such as Eureka, but also in his compositional theory.4 C  2009 Washington State University P O E S T U D I E S , VOL. 42, 2009 41 D E N N I S P A H L If in “The Poetic Principle” he advances a poetics of divine musicality, one that signals forth “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (389), Poe’s equally wellknown aesthetic statement “The Philosophy of Composition” argues implicitly for a poetics solidly grounded in empirical methods and objectives. While discussing “The Raven” as well as the finer points of poetic writing in general, Poe, in his “Philosophy,” illustrates the practical mechanics that lie behind the “supernal Beauty” toward which poetry should, according to him, always aspire. The poem’s “sonorousness,” its “close circumscription of space” (371), its “suggestiveness,” its indefiniteness of meaning (373), its “originality of combination,” and its “application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration” (370) are all essential to Poe’s “science” of poetry. And each element of his aesthetic program is necessary for creating not only beauty but also strong sensory and emotional effects, or what Poe refers to as “intense excitements” (365). Whatever idealist strain can be observed in Poe’s theories of writing is, in other words, always tempered by a keen awareness of the sensuous materiality of his art. Indeed, if one of the central aims of Poe’s aesthetics—an aesthetics just as meaningful for his fiction as for his poetry—is the “pure elevation of soul” (366), such a spiritual endeavor is suggested to be achievable only through the excitement of the senses or through the sensuous-aesthetic thrill in Poe’s rhetoric. As Poe contends, “intense melancholy . . . we find thrilling us...


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