The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman

Enter now two egotists, who have little in common save their egotism, two outsiders who upset most of the conventional American rules for winning the literary race, two men of genius, in short, about whom we are still quarreling, and whose distinctive quality is more accurately perceived in Europe than it has ever been in the United States.

Both Poe and Whitman were Romanticists by temperament. Both shared in the tradition and influence of European Romanticism. But they were also late comers, and they were caught in the more morbid and extravagant phases of the great European movement while its current was beginning to ebb. Their acquaintance with its literature was mainly at second-hand and through the medium of British and American periodicals. Poe, who was older than Whitman by ten years, was fifteen when Byron died, in 1824. He was untouched by the nobler mood of Byron, though his verse was colored by the influence of Byron, Moore, and Shelley. His prose models were De Quincey, Disraeli, and Bulwer. Yet he owed more to Coleridge than to any of the Romantics. He was himself a sort of Coleridge without the piety, with the same keen penetrating critical intelligence, the same lovely opium-shadowed dreams, and, alas, with something of the same reputation as a deadbeat.

A child of strolling players, Poe happened to be born in Boston, but he hated “Frog-Pondium"–his favorite name for the city of his nativity–as much as Whistler hated his native town of Lowell. His father died early of tuberculosis, and his mother, after a pitiful struggle with disease and poverty, soon followed her husband to the grave. The boy, by physical inheritance a neurasthenic, though with marked bodily activity in youth, was adopted by the Allans, a kindly family in Richmond, Virginia. Poe liked to think of himself as a Southerner. He was sent to school in England, and in 1826, at seventeen, he attended for nearly a year the newly founded University of Virginia. He was a dark, short, bow-legged boy, with the face of his own Roderick Usher. He made a good record in French and Latin, read, wrote and recited poetry, tramped on the Ragged Mountains, and did not notably exceed his companions in drinking and gambling. But his Scotch foster-father disapproved of his conduct and withdrew him from the University. A period of wandering followed. He enlisted in the army and was stationed in Boston in 1827, when his first volume, “Tamerlane,” was published. In 1829 he was in Fortress Monroe, and published “Al Aaraf” at Baltimore. He entered West Point in 1830, and was surely, except Whistler, the strangest of all possible cadets. When he was dismissed in 1831, he had written the marvellous lines “To Helen,” “Israfel,” and “The City in the Sea.” That is enough to have in one’s knapsack at the age of twenty-two.

In the eighteen years from 1831 to 1849, when Poe’s unhappy life came to an end in a Baltimore hospital, his literary activity was chiefly that of a journalist, critic, and short story writer. He lived in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. Authors who now exploit their fat bargains with their publishers may have forgotten that letter which Poe wrote back to Philadelphia the morning after he arrived with his child-wife in New York: “We are both in excellent spirits . . . . We have now got four dollars and a half left. To-morrow I am going to try and borrow three dollars, so that I may have a fortnight to go upon.” When the child-wife died in the shabby cottage at Fordham, her wasted body was covered with the old army overcoat which Poe had brought from West Point. If Poe met some of the tests of practical life inadequately, it must be remembered that his health failed at twenty-five, that he was pitiably poor, and that the slightest indulgence in drink set his overwrought nerves jangling. Ferguson, the former office-boy of the “Literary Messenger," judged this man of letters with an office-boy’s firm and experienced eye: “Mr. Poe was a fine gentleman when he was sober. He was ever kind and courtly, and at such times everyone liked him. But when he was drinking he was about one of the most disagreeable men I have ever met.” “I am sorry for him,” wrote C. F. Briggs to Lowell. “He has some good points, but taken altogether, he is badly made up.” “Badly made up,” no doubt, both in body and mind, but all respectable and prosperous Pharisees should be reminded that Poe did not make himself; or rather, that he could not make himself over. Very few men can. Given Poe’s temperament, and the problem is insoluble. He wrote to Lowell in 1844: “I have been too deeply conscious of the mutability and evanescence of temporal things to give any continuous effort to anything–to be consistent in anything. My life has been WHIM–impulse–passion–a longing for solitude–a scorn of all things present in an earnest desire for the future.” It is the pathetic confession of a dreamer. Yet this dreamer was also a keen analyzer, a tireless creator of beautiful things. In them he sought and found a refuge from actuality. The marvel of his career is, as I have said elsewhere, that this solitary, embittered craftsman, out of such hopeless material as negations and abstractions, shadows and superstitions, out of disordered fancies and dreams of physical horror and strange crime, should have wrought structures of imperishable beauty.

Let us notice the critical instinct which he brought to the task of creation. His theory of verse is simple, in fact too simple to account for all of the facts. The aim of poetry, according to Poe, is not truth but pleasure–the rhythmical creation of beauty. Poetry should be brief, indefinite, and musical. Its chief instrument is sound. A certain quaintness or grotesqueness of tone is a means for satisfying the thirst for supernal beauty. Hence the musical lyric is to Poe the only true type of poetry; a long poem does not exist. Readers who respond more readily to auditory than to visual or motor stimulus are therefore Poe’s chosen audience. For them he executes, like Paganini, marvels upon his single string. He has easily recognizable devices: the dominant note, the refrain, the “repetend,” that is to say the phrase which echoes, with some variation, a phrase or line already used. In such poems as “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Haunted Palace,” “Annabel Lee,” the theme, the tone, the melody all weave their magic spell; it is like listening to a lute-player in a dream.

That the device often turns into a trick is equally true. In “The Bells” and “The Raven” we detect the prestidigitator. It is jugglery, though such juggling as only a master-musician can perform. In “Ulalume” and other showpieces the wires get crossed and the charm snaps, scattering tinsel fragments of nonsense verse. Such are the dangers of the technical temperament unenriched by wide and deep contact with human feeling.

Poe’s theory of the art of the short story is now familiar enough. The power of a tale, he thought, turned chiefly if not solely upon its unity, its harmony of effect. This is illustrated in all of his finest stories. In “The Fall of the House of Usher" the theme is Fear; the opening sentence strikes the key and the closing sentence contains the climax. In the whole composition every sentence is modulated to the one end in view. The autumn landscape tones with the melancholy house; the somber chamber frames the cadaverous face of Roderick Usher; the face is an index of the tumultuous agitation of a mind wrestling with the grim phantom Fear and awaiting the cumulative horror of the final moment. In “Ligeia,” which Poe sometimes thought the best of all his tales, the theme is the ceaseless life of the will, the potency of the spirit of the beloved and departed woman. The unity of effect is absolute, the workmanship consummate. So with the theme of revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado,” the theme of mysterious intrigue in “The Assignation.” In Poe’s detective stories, or tales of ratiocination as he preferred to call them, he takes to pieces for our amusement a puzzle which he has cunningly put together. “The Gold Bug” is the best known of these, “The Purloined Letter” the most perfect, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the most sensational. Then there are the tales upon scientific subjects or displaying the pretence of scientific knowledge, where the narrator loves to pose as a man without imagination and with “habits of rigid thought.” And there are tales of conscience, of which “The Black Cat” is the most fearful and “William Wilson” the most subtle; and there are landscape sketches and fantasies and extravaganzas, most of these poor stuff.

It is ungrateful and perhaps unnecessary to dwell upon Poe’s limitations. His scornful glance caught certain aspects of the human drama with camera-like precision. Other aspects of life, and nobler, he never seemed to perceive. The human comedy sometimes moved him to laughter, but his humor is impish and his wit malign. His imagination fled from the daylight; he dwelt in the twilight among the tombs. He closed his eyes to dream, and could not see the green sunlit earth, seed-time and harvest, man going forth to his toil and returning to his hearthstone, the America that laughs as it labors. He wore upon his finger the magic ring and the genii did his bidding. But we could wish that the palaces they reared for him were not in such a somber land, with such infernal lights gleaming in their windows, and crowded with such horror-haunted forms. We could wish that his imagination dealt less often with those primitive terrors that belong to the childhood of our race. Yet when his spell is upon us we lapse back by a sort of atavism into primal savagery and shudder with a recrudescence of long forgotten fears. No doubt Poe was ignorant of life, in the highest sense. He was caged in by his ignorance, Yet he had beautiful dusky wings that bruised themselves against his prison.

Poe was a tireless critic of his own work, and both his standards of workmanship and his critical precepts have been of great service to his careless countrymen. He turned out between four and five short stories a year, was poorly paid for them, and indeed found difficulty in selling them at all. Yet he was constantly correcting them for the better. His best poems were likewise his latest. He was tantalized with the desire for artistic perfection. He became the pathbreaker for a long file of men in France, Italy, England, and America. He found the way and they brought back the glory and the cash.

I have sometimes imagined Poe, with four other men and one woman, seated at a dinner-table laid for six, and talking of their art and of themselves. What would the others think of Poe? I fancy that Thackeray would chat with him courteously, but would not greatly care for him. George Eliot, woman-like, would pity him. Hawthorne would watch him with those inscrutable eyes and understand him better than the rest. But Stevenson would be immensely interested; he would begin an essay on Poe before he went to sleep. And Mr. Kipling would look sharply at him: he has seen that man before, in “The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows.” All of them would find in him something to praise, a great deal to marvel at, and perhaps not much to love. And the sensitive, shabby, lonely Poe–what would he think of them? He might not care much for the other guests, but I think he would say to himself with a thrill of pride: “I belong at this table.” And he does.

Walt Whitman, whom his friend O’Connor dubbed the “good gray poet,” offers a bizarre contrast to Edgar Allan Poe. There was nothing distinctively American about Poe except his ingenuity; he had no interest in American history or in American ideas; he was a timeless, placeless embodiment of technical artistry. But Whitman had a passion for his native soil; he was hypnotized by the word America; he spent much of his mature life in brooding over the question, “What, after all, is an American, and what should an American poet be in our age of science and democracy?" It is true that he was as untypical as Poe of the average citizen of “these states.” His personality is unique. In many respects he still baffles our curiosity. He repels many of his countrymen without arousing the pity which adds to their romantic interest in Poe. Whatever our literary students may feel, and whatever foreign critics may assert, it must be acknowledged that to the vast majority of American men and women “good old Walt” is still an outsider.

Let us try to see first the type of mind with which we are dealing. It is fundamentally religious, perceiving the unity and kinship and glory of all created things. It is this passion of worship which inspired St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle to the Sun.” It cries, “Benedicite, Omnia opera Domini: All ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord!” That is the real motto for Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Like St. Francis, and like his own immediate master, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman is a mystic. He cannot argue the ultimate questions; he asserts them. Instead of marshaling and sifting the proofs for immortality, he chants “I know I am deathless.” Like Emerson again, Whitman shares that peculiarly American type of mysticism known as Transcendentalism, but he came at the end of this movement instead of at the beginning of it. In his Romanticism, likewise, he is an end of an era figure. His affiliations with Victor Hugo are significant; and a volume of Scott’s poems which he owned at the age of sixteen became his “inexhaustible mine and treasury for more than sixty years.” Finally, and quite as uncompromisingly as Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, Whitman is an individualist. He represents the assertive, Jacksonian period of our national existence. In a thousand similes he makes a declaration of independence for the separate person, the “single man” of Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address. “I wear my hat as I please, indoors and out.” Sometimes this is mere swagger. Sometimes it is superb.

So much for the type. Let us turn next to the story of Whitman’s life. It must here be told in the briefest fashion, for Whitman’s own prose and poetry relate the essentials of his biography. He was born on Long Island, of New England and Dutch ancestry, in 1819. Lowell, W. W. Story, and Charles A. Dana were born in that year, as was also George Eliot. Whitman’s father was a carpenter, who “leaned to the Quakers.” There were many children. When little “Walt"–as he was called, to distinguish him from his father, Walter–was four, the family moved to Brooklyn. The boy had scanty schooling, and by the time he was twenty had tried typesetting, teaching, and editing a country newspaper on Long Island. He was a big, dark-haired fellow, sensitive, emotional, extraordinarily impressible.

The next sixteen years were full of happy vagrancy. At twenty-two he was editing a paper in New York, and furnishing short stories to the “Democratic Review,” a literary journal which numbered Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among its contributors. He wrote a novel on temperance, “mostly in the reading-room of Tammany Hall,” and tried here and there an experiment in free verse. He was in love with the pavements of New York and the Brooklyn ferryboats, in love with Italian opera and with long tramps over Long Island. He left his position on “The Brooklyn Eagle” and wandered south to New Orleans. By and by he drifted back to New York, tried lecturing, worked at the carpenter’s trade with his father, and brooded over a book–"a book of new things.”

This was the famous “Leaves of Grass.” He set the type himself, in a Brooklyn printing-office, and printed about eight hundred copies. The book had a portrait of the author–a meditative, gray-bearded poet in workman’s clothes–and a confused preface on America as a field for the true poet. Then followed the new gospel, “I celebrate myself,” chanted in long lines of free verse, whose patterns perplexed contemporary readers. For the most part it was passionate speech rather than song, a rhapsodical declamation in hybrid rhythms. Very few people bought the book or pretended to understand what it was all about. Some were startled by the frank sexuality of certain poems. But Emerson wrote to Whitman from Concord: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Until the Civil War was half over, Whitman remained in Brooklyn, patiently composing new poems for successive printings of his book. Then he went to the front to care for a wounded brother, and finally settled down in a Washington garret to spend his strength as an army hospital nurse. He wrote “Drum Taps” and other magnificent poems about the War, culminating in his threnody on Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Swinburne called this “the most sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world.” After the war had ended, Whitman stayed on in Washington as a government clerk, and saw much of John Burroughs and W. D. O’Connor. John Hay was a staunch friend. Some of the best known poets and critics of England and the Continent now began to recognize his genius. But his health had been permanently shattered by his heroic service as a nurse, and in 1873 he suffered a paralytic stroke which forced him to resign his position in Washington and remove to his brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey.

He was only fifty-four, but his best work was already done, and his remaining years, until his death in 1892, were those of patient and serene invalidism. He wrote some fascinating prose in this final period, and his cluttered chamber in Camden became the shrine of many a literary pilgrim, among them some of the foremost men of letters of this country and of Europe. He was cared for by loyal friends. Occasionally he appeared in public, a magnificent gray figure of a man. And then, at seventy-three, the “Dark mother always gliding near” enfolded him.

There are puzzling things in the physical and moral constitution of Walt Whitman, and the obstinate questions involved in his theory of poetry and in his actual poetical performance are still far from solution. But a few points concerning him are by this time fairly clear. They must be swiftly summarized.

The first obstacle to the popular acceptance of Walt Whitman is the formlessness or alleged formlessness of “Leaves of Grass." This is a highly technical question, involving a more accurate notation than has thus far been made of the patterns and tunes of free verse and of emotional prose. Whitman’s “new and national declamatory expression,” as he termed it, cannot receive a final technical valuation until we have made more scientific progress in the analysis of rhythms. As regards the contents of his verse, it is plain that he included much material unfused and untransformed by emotion. These elements foreign to the nature of poetry clog many of his lines. The enumerated objects in his catalogue or inventory poems often remain inert objects only. Like many mystics, he was hypnotized by external phenomena, and he often fails to communicate to his reader the trancelike emotion which he himself experienced. This imperfect transfusion of his material is a far more significant defect in Whitman’s poetry than the relatively few passages of unashamed sexuality which shocked the American public in 1855.

The gospel or burden of “Leaves of Grass” is no more difficult of comprehension than the general drift of Emerson’s essays, which helped to inspire it. The starting point of the book is a mystical illumination regarding the unity and blessedness of the universe, an insight passing understanding, but based upon the revelatory experience of love. In the light of this experience, all created things are recognized as divine. The starting-point and center of the Whitman world is the individual man, the “strong person,” imperturbable in mind, athletic in body, unconquerable, and immortal. Such individuals meet in comradeship, and pass together along the open roads of the world. No one is excluded because of his poverty or his sins; there is room in the ideal America for everybody except the doubter and sceptic. Whitman does not linger over the smaller groups of human society, like the family. He is not a fireside poet. He passes directly from his strong persons, meeting freely on the open road, to his conception of “these States.” One of his typical visions of the breadth and depth and height of America will be found in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.” In this and in many similar rhapsodies Whitman holds obstinately to what may be termed the three points of his national creed. The first is the newness of America, and its expression is in his well-known chant of “Pioneers, O Pioneers.” Yet this new America is subtly related to the past; and in Whitman’s later poems, such as “Passage to India,” the spiritual kinship of orient and occident is emphasized. The second article of the creed is the unity of America. Here he voices the conceptions of Hamilton, Clay, Webster, and Lincoln. In spite of all diversity in external aspects the republic is “one and indivisible.” This unity, in Whitman’s view, was cemented forever by the issue of the Civil War. Lincoln, the “Captain,” dies indeed on the deck of the “victor ship,” but the ship comes into the harbor “with object won.” Third and finally, Whitman insists upon the solidarity of America with all countries of the globe. Particularly in his yearning and thoughtful old age, the poet perceived that humanity has but one heart and that it should have but one will. No American poet has ever prophesied so directly and powerfully concerning the final issue involved in that World War which he did not live to see.

Whitman, like Poe, had defects of character and defects of art. His life and work raise many problems which will long continue to fascinate and to baffle the critics. But after all of them have had their say, it will remain true that he was a seer and a prophet, far in advance of his own time, like Lincoln, and like Lincoln, an inspired interpreter of the soul of this republic.


Chapter I. The Pioneers  •  Chapter II. The First Colonial Literature  •  Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation  •  Chapter IV. The Revolution  •  Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group  •  Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists  •  Chapter VII. Romance, Poetry, and History  •  Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman  •  Chapter IX. Union and Liberty  •  Chapter X. A New Nation  •  Bibliographical Note

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