- The Discontinuity of American Poetry
A consideration of the poetic innovations of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whit-man, and Emily Dickinson in light of the long lyric tradition beginning with Petrarchan humanism, John Michael's Secular Lyric: The Modernization of the Poem in Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson offers a historical, formal critique reminiscent of Roy Harvey Pearce's landmark study, The Continuity of American Poetry [Middleton: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1987]. Yet where Pearce—in concert with the critical preoccupations of his era—sought to articulate a distinctive American continuity ranging from the Puritans to the moderns, Michael begins with a historical rupture in the Western poetic tradition. Secular Lyric aims to demonstrate how the increasingly heterogeneous composition of a mid-nineteenth-century mass audience compelled lyric poetry itself to confront and adapt to the terms of secular modernity, a condition characterized less by "loss of belief" than one in which "beliefs proliferate and contend, in which everything, even science and progress, become both articles of faith and subject to doubt" . Long before the secular turn, Petrarch's "centering of art on subjectivity . . . [and] his profound investment in and hopes for a Christian salvation" made it possible for the lyricist to "imagine he shared with the people for whom he wrote" a unified core of beliefs . The emergence of a secular lyric is a consequence of losing this type of audience characterized by shared belief and intimacy. Yet, because the lyric mode foregrounds both subjective identity and the "you" of address, Michael argues that it serves Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson as an especially potent vehicle to "perform the dislocations, conflicts, and doubts that emerge in their negotiations of literary existences in a secular era defined by the heterogeneities of the modern crowd" .
The first of two chapters about Poe addresses his "posthumanism," a term Michael repurposes without reference to its more familiar critical denotation in the work of N. Katherine Hayles and others. For Michael, posthumanism more specifically marks the disavowal of what Poe's mouthpiece in "An Enigma" derisively calls "your Petrarchan stuff" [Works, 1:425], the shopworn conceits and blazons characteristic of the humanist lyric tradition . Inaugurating the [End Page E3] "beginning of humanism's end," Poe's love poetry, like Petrarch's, "emphasizes the extremity of the lover's melancholia and the painful, obsessive probing of the gap in the self that loss leaves." Unlike Petrarch, however, Poe refuses humanism's "hopeful project of restoring love, belief, and self-possession through writing" . Such compensations of higher meaning are overtly subverted in the tone and structure of a poem like "The Raven," where the "nevermore" mechanically repeated by the bird "finally signifies nothing in itself" . "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "Ulalume" become sheerly tonal and affective delivery vehicles for "absence and loss," eternizing not so much the lost lover as "loss itself" . Poe's intensively aestheticized poetry of loss, Michael argues, "goes right to the heart of the modern" and delivers readers to "a secular hell, where no promise of salvation or surcease of sorrow remains credible" .
The second chapter extends consideration of Poe's subversion of humanist tropes to his tales, which Michael argues are "often as lyrical as his verses" . "Berenice" and "Ligeia" each refashion Petrarchan "tropes of comparison" into "blazons of loss" that reverse the expected function of lyric metaphor to re-present or resupply the absent lover's body [57, 63]. Michael demonstrates, for instance, how Poe's narrator, in his lament for the lost Ligeia, reverses the most common direction of metaphorical comparisons: "It is not that Ligeia's eyes and expression recall a growing vine (and how strange a comparison that is) but that the growing vine recalls Ligeia." The world of Poe's fiction—"without immanent meaning or discoverable correspondences"—offers itself arbitrarily as "matter for metaphors" . The narrator of "Berenice" likewise "cannot realize the metaphoric potentials of language, the meanings that tropes of comparison might unlock or reveal...