- Deciphering Poe: Subtexts, Contexts, Subversive Meanings edited by Alexandra Urakova
Another installment in the Perspectives on Edgar Allan Poe Series published by Lehigh University Press, Deciphering Poe contains several essays about texts that have already received much scrutiny. Framing the collection is editor Alexandra Urakova’s introductory essay, in which she explains the grouping of the chapters, summarizes the book’s contents, and lays out the raison d’être of the volume. This collection is, she indicates, the fruit of “fascination with the subversive, secret, coded, and controversial in Poe” (xi). Turning on surprising revelations, Poe’s writings astonish readers of all ages, but Urakova points to more deeply subversive tendencies in these texts, which defy aesthetic and cultural expectations of nineteenth-century readers as well as cherished beliefs of their twenty-first-century counterparts. Deciphering Poe includes more, however, than new interpretations of the writer’s tales and poems, with the subjects discussed ranging from seventeenth-century verse and figurations of the sublime to nineteenth-century theories of race and daguerreotypy, to list only a few of the topics broached.
In chapters 1 and 2, contributors reconsider Poe the poet. While many critics emphasize the author’s borrowings from Romantic antecedents such as Byron and Shelley, William E. Engel, whose essay opens the collection, finds analogues for Poe’s “quaint phraseology and grotesqueness in rhythm” in the writings of Frances Quarles, the English emblematist of the seventeenth century (9). To make his case for influence, Engel points to a Southern Literary Messenger review in which Poe mentions Quarles, as well as some striking similarities of phrasing in works by the British writer and poems by Poe, in particular “The Raven,” which first appeared under the pseudonym “Quarles.” Showcasing Engel’s detective work on nineteenth-century reprints of Quarles’s works, this essay demonstrates the impressive range of Poe’s reading and the breadth of his literary imagination, which extended far beyond the confines of mere Romanticism. In chapter 2, John Edward Martin recontextualizes Poe’s “Tamerlane,” which some critics consider an autobiographical response to thwarted love. In this poem, Poe adopts the conventional confession narrative, in which a penitent submits to a paternal figure, but undermines “the very authority of [the] confessor,” for the dying Tamerlane rejects the spiritual absolution his “holy father” extends (13). Martin links this defiance to Poe’s tempestuous [End Page 100] relationship with his foster father John Allan, a bond that deteriorated rapidly while Poe prepared the earliest versions of “Tamerlane.” Insubordination of this sort is, Martin argues, typical of the mature Poe, who considered himself an outsider at odds with colleagues and the public. Especially interesting are Martin’s readings of Poe’s letters to Allan, which contain the same kinds of confessions and repudiations one finds in “Tamerlane.”
The third and fourth chapters also touch on Poe and his poetry. In chapter 3, Amy Branam focuses on a short poem (later titled “Catholic Hymn”) that first appeared in “Morella.” Ostensibly a paean to the Virgin Mary, this poem is uttered by a woman whom the troubled narrator associates with supernatural power, a spiritual force shared by the Holy Mother, a goddess figure. Nevertheless, the man dreads rather than reveres Morella, and such fear of empowered womanhood as well as a corresponding contempt for the adoration of Mary are, Branam suggests, characteristic of nineteenth-century Protestantism, with its patriarchal values that Poe and his audience embraced. Branam may overstate, however, Poe’s antipathy to the Church of Rome. His correspondence reveals no deep concerns about religious controversy, and some critics—Michael Burduck, to name one—argue that Poe may actually have found artistic inspiration in some Catholic teachings. Also problematic is Branam’s tendency to conflate Poe and the narrator of “Morella,” who is, at best, unreliable. These criticisms aside, her essay is a thought-provoking contribution to the critical debates surrounding Poe’s portrayals of women. Furthermore, Branam here lays the foundation for a brilliant rereading of “Eulalie,” a poem she deems a drama of sexual repression, and one hopes her interpretation...