The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel. By Jerome McGann. Harvard, 2014. 256p. HB. $24.95.
I hadn’t read any of Edgar Allan Poe’s verse in decades. So when Jerome McGann’s new book landed on my desk, I decided to reacquaint myself with Poe before reviewing the volume. Good heavens, how those poems take off! I had only to read one or two lines—“It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea” and “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”—and all the rest came tumbling into memory. In addition, I began making various associations—still vivid after so long—some from popular culture, others deeply personal. Among the former is The Waltons episode (“The Statue,” 1975) in which Grandpa, played by the actor Will Geer, movingly recites “Annabel Lee,” much to Grandma’s (actress Ellen Corby) disapproval; one of the latter is a witty parody of “The Raven,” complete with sketches, penned by a dear friend’s grandfather, a struggling architect during the depths of the Depression who pined for work just as Poe’s narrator pines for his lost Lenore.
It would be difficult to name another American poet who has achieved anything like Poe’s level of recognition and sustained popularity. There are museums in Baltimore and Richmond and a National Historic Site in Philadelphia all dedicated to preserving and interpreting his legacy. A National Football League franchise is named for his most popular poem—the Baltimore Ravens. A striking new sculpture was recently unveiled in Boston, and the Mystery Writers of America pay annual homage with a prestigious slate of awards dubbed The Edgars. Add to all of this repeated references and interpretations in art, music, theater, television, and film too many to name down the years. If that doesn’t make for a national poet, it’s about as close as anybody will ever come in this unlettered republic.
Despite all this, or maybe in part because of it, critical opinion of Poe’s verse has been mixed. Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed him as “The Jingle Man,” Jorge Luis Borges called him “a miniature Tennyson,” and Henry James grumbled that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive state of reflection.” T. S. Eliot conceded that Poe possessed a powerful intellect but asserted that it was “the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.” W. B. Yeats liked a few lines but thought most of the oeuvre “vulgar and commonplace,” and E. L. Doctorow compared “The Raven” to Ravel’s “Bolero”: “rhythmic and hypnotic on first hearing, a mere novelty everafter.” There are a few unreserved raves out there; Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé were admirers. Most notably on these shores, William Carlos Williams declared that American literature was anchored in Poe, “in him alone, on solid ground.”
Comes now Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of over a dozen books on romanticism and criticism, to put matters to right. In his elegant new study, McGann grants that “Poe’s poetry has had a rough ride,” and he’s quick to recognize its shortcomings. But he also notes that even if occasionally vulgar, Poe’s verse is also “theoretically advanced, even pretentious” and that this “fundamental contradiction” is something that “fastidious spirits like Emerson, James, and Eliot” could never fathom.
One of McGann’s greatest services is to introduce lay readers to Poe’s critical writings. He excerpts several longish selections from Poe’s correspondence and reviews as well as the Marginalia, sundry magazine pieces he authored between 1845 and 1849. What emerges is an Edgar Allan Poe who thought profoundly about poetry and literature and who was able, mostly, to express his ideas and theories in clear prose. “I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language,” Poe opined in March 1846. But, he continued, there was by contrast “a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language.” He went on to term these fancies “psychal impressions,” and if words seemed useless, Poe kept working nonetheless to find the right ones so that readers of “certain classes of intellect” could at least grasp “a shadowy conception of their character.”
It is all too easy when considering Poe to let the biographical details cloud one’s critical judgment. McGann admits that Poe’s life was “fraught with misery and a chaos of misfortune.” This is, if anything, an understatement. Poe was orphaned at an early age, was taken in but not loved or financially supported by a wealthy family, dropped out of both West Point and the University of Virginia, married his 13-year-old cousin, and suffered grinding poverty, bouts of heavy drinking, and depression. He further complicated his lot by frequent lies, plagiarism, and nasty spats with powerful foes like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the Transcendentalists, whom he labeled the “Frog-Pondians.” According to McGann, all of that messiness has led many to assume “that the work is confused as well.”
McGann acknowledges that an “angel of the odd hovers over Poe’s work.” But his argument is—though he doesn’t put it in these words—that there was method behind the madness. Poe’s poetry isn’t about meaning or ideas, McGann insists, but rather “an event of language.” When the reader realizes that “Poe’s poetry is a performative demonstration of his theoretical ideas,” fuller appreciation will ensue. “It cannot be too emphatically stressed,” McGann writes, “that the speakers in Poe’s poems are poetic devices and not the poems’ subject of attention. The reader is Poe’s subject.” And what are readers to take away from all those musically resonant lines? Two things, says McGann—the god-awful permanence of personal loss and the ongoing need for, to quote Poe directly, “mournful and never-ending remembrance.”
For the most part, McGann advances his arguments in logical fashion, but at one or two points indulges in a little overcooking. In discussing “The Raven,” for example, he asks: “Did we think we understood the title of Poe’s poem? Did we know when we first read it that it also meant ‘The Raving’? Or most beguiling of all such transformations, when do we realize that raven is virtually never spelled backwards?” I half expected him to follow this up with the assertion that if the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album is played backward under a black light—Poe is on the cover, after all—we’ll discover the skeleton key to Poe’s “Eldorado.”
Granted, it’s hard to know where to stop with someone like Poe. His life and his verse, wreathed as they are in so many intriguing mysteries and puzzles, invite imaginative speculation. The scholars and literary connoisseurs for whom The Poet Edgar Allan Poe is mostly intended will certainly know better than I do whether McGann has gone too far. “Jingle Man,” or gifted theoretician and versifier deserving of a place in the canon equal to Whitman and Dickinson? McGann resoundingly argues the latter.