Edgar Allan Poe: "The Heresy of the Didactic" and "The Courtship of Poe"
with an intro by Michael R. Burch
I promise to get to Edgar Allan Poe's essay "The Heresy of the Didactic" soon,
or perhaps eventually, considering how I tend to ramble when I find topics
as interesting as I do Poe and his work. But first I would like to discuss Poe's
importance as a writer, and what I perceive to be the unfair treatment he sometimes
receives these days, from literary critics and even his fellow poets.
I believe we should judge artists by what they attempt to accomplish. We should
not judge the Marx Brothers for not being serious actors, like Sir Laurence
Olivier. Nor should we judge Ogden Nash for not being a writer of tragedies,
like Shakespeare. And in the same way, we should judge Poe by what he attempted
to accomplish, not by what he didn't attempt. So how does Poe rank as a writer
of hypnotically-rhythmed, darkly humorous ghost stories, like "The Raven"? How
does he rank as a writer of mysteries, detective stories, horror stories, psychological
thrillers and supernatural fare? If he judge him by what he attempted, I think
Poe is one of the modern masters of his chosen genres, if not The Master, as
in the one who led the way.
But if Poe was a genius, he is surely one of the most maligned
geniuses in the history of literature. Poets on the left—i.e.,
modernists who often damn rhythmic, rhyming poems on sight, unless they
were written by someone properly canonized, like Shakespeare—frequently
dismiss Poe because he wrote highly musical rhyming poems such as "The Bells"
and "The Raven." Many arch free-versers seem to believe that only poets of the
distant past can write such poems and get away with it. But many poets on the
right—i.e., formalists who tend to be conservative, sometimes to the point of
seeming reactionary—also dismiss Poe for being too (take your pick) romantic,
sentimental, escapist, emotional, juvenile, silly, or just plain insane (with evidence of his
"insanity" either being contrived or greatly exaggerated).
Here's an example of the kind of rough, unfair treatment Poe can receive from
contemporary formalists. I once belonged, very briefly, to an online community of poets called
Eratosphere, until I was banished for making ironic statements about certain critiques I received in the forum's aptly named
metrical "Deep End." (I had
posted a love poem there only to be told by certain resident "experts" not to
use the word "love" in a love poem, never to mention the South because some
Southerners are bigots, to avoid abstractions like the plague, and
other such nonsense.) Since my banishment I have come to think of the more
irrational Eratosphereans as the Erratics. A friend of mine who sometimes lurks
in the Deep End recently informed me that the Erratics were discussing Poe,
and emailed me a link to the thread. Unfortunately some of the formalists were
defending and even wildly applauding a poem entitled "Poe on Courtship," which portrayed Poe
as a necrophiliac, saying, for instance, that he liked his girls "inert."
However, that is the opposite of what Poe said himself, when he
wrote that the death of a beautiful woman was the most melancholy, and thus the
most poetical, of all topics. Thus it seems Poe
didn't like beautiful women "inert," but mourned their passing, like any sane
lover of beautiful living women.
Here are three dubious defenses of "Poe on Courtship" from the
highly erratic thread:
"... the dead cannot be libeled. Making intelligent fun of their eccentricities?
Where is the harm in that?"
"I see no harm here unless one was to denigrate another member writer. Poe has
long been dead. He is fair game."
The poet who wrote the poem said: "... the poem is a joke. Jokes don't try to be
fair; they try to be funny."
Was Poe a necrophiliac? The poem's author offered the following
lines as "evidence," calling them "Exhibit A." The lines comprise the
last stanza of Poe's "Annabel Lee":
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Is Poe confessing to being a necrophiliac? No, because “Annabel Lee” is a
work of imaginative fiction. The story is not real. It never happened. I once
wrote a poem in which the speaker was a vampire. I wrote the poem in the first
person, as if I was the vampire, but I have never had the slightest interest in
drinking anyone’s blood. Rather, I hate the sight and smell of blood and the
idea of drinking it revolts me.
In defense of her poem, the poet also said: "To any who object to this poem 'Poe
wouldn't really have done this,' my response is 'That is what makes it a joke.'
There is a huge gap between a writer's unconscious, which is on display in much
that he or she writes, and the actions the writer takes in reality."
Here, the poet seems to not understand works of pure imagination. She seems
to think that if Poe wrote about necrophilia (which is debatable), he must have had
an unconscious desire to have sex with dead women, so if he didn’t consummate
his desire, it was out of some sort of cowardice or lack of resolve. But there
is no reason to believe that Poe had any conscious or unconscious desire to have sex with
dead women. I can write about doing all sorts of things that I have no desire to
The following comment by Poe was also discussed as “evidence”:
"I asked myself: 'Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal
understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?' Death, was the obvious reply.
'And when,' I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?' From what
I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious: 'When it
most closely allies itself to Beauty, the death then of a beautiful woman is
unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond
doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.'"
But nothing here suggests necrophilia. Many poets are lovers of beauty. For
many men, the apex of beauty is a beautiful woman. So for them the death of a beautiful
woman is incredibly sad. Being sad about a beautiful woman dying does not
normally create a compulsion to have sex with her corpse.
One of the moderators opined: "With all due respect to the other commentators
I'm not sensitive at all to a joke at Poe's expense. If anything we need more.
Richard Wilbur says he spent his life (meaning his work) rebutting Poe's
If I’m not a fan of the moderator’s aesthetics, do I have the right to call
him a pedophile? Of course not. If I disagreed with Richard Wilbur’s aesthetics,
I wouldn’t make up lies about him. And to be fair, Wilbur's main disagreement
with Poe had to do with Poe's then-Romantic-but-now-commonly-accepted notion
that poetry should be pure art, an escape from reality into a realm of
intellectual beauty, "art for the sake of art." And this is precisely what many
contemporary formalists now say about poetry. So if Wilbur has a life-long
disagreement with Poe, he has exactly the same disagreement with many of the
Another poet in the thread cautioned: "... though I admit this may sound
like making an unnecessary colossal fuss, I think it’s good to consider that
some day the joke may be on ... not just you, on all of us."
I believe the last poet is the only one who makes any sense. To me the thread
seems like a tribe of Lilliputians pricking a Titan with tiny, ineffective
Poe’s place in the literary canon seems
secure, with poems like "The Raven," "The Bells," "To Helen" and "Annabel Lee" and short
stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death,"
"The Purloined Letter" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe was a leading figure of
modernism, symbolism, surrealism and the American Romantic
movement, and is considered to be one of the main pioneers of the short story,
mystery writing, detective stories, horror stories, and science fiction. He was
one of the first American writers to earn worldwide praise, often from other
at the head of classes he helped create.
For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of
Poe's detective stories: "Each is a root from which a whole
literature has developed ...Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the
breath of life into it?" Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published
in 1841, featured Auguste C. Dupin, the world's first fictional detective. Poe's
"tale of rationation," as he termed it, inaugurated a highly popular new genre
Poe also greatly influenced science fiction, notably Jules Verne, who wrote a
sequel to Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
(Verne's sequel, An
Antarctic Mystery, is also known as The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.)
Poe's tale of a lost world rediscovered predated and quite possibly influenced
Doyle's The Lost World, since Doyle had obviously read and admired Poe.
Another science fiction icon, H. G. Wells, noted, "Pym tells what a very intelligent mind could imagine
about the south polar region a century ago." Poe’s "Eureka: A Prose Poem," an essay written in 1848, included a cosmological theory
with a universe-originating singularity or "primordial particle." His essay presaged the Big Bang theory by 80 years.
Poe considered it his greatest work Albert Einstein said that Poe's essay was "eine
schöne Leistung eines ungewöhnlich selbständigen Geistes" (a very beautiful
achievement of an unusually independent mind).
How influential was Poe in the realm of science fiction? In Hugo Gernsback's
first editorial for Amazing Stories in April 1926, he said: "Edgar
Allan Poe may well be called the father of "scientifiction." It was he who
really originated the romance, cleverly weaving into and around the story, a
scientific thread. Jules Verne, with his amazing romances, also cleverly
interwoven with a scientific thread, came next. A little later came H.G. Wells,
whose scientifiction stories, like those of his forerunners, have become famous
and immortal." By way of example, Poe's 1835 short story "The Unparalleled
Adventure of One Hans Pfaal" is about a man who used compressed air and a
balloon to travel to the moon. It predates Verne's classic From the Earth to
the Moon by 30 years. "The Masque of the Red Death" describes a plague that
devastates mankind, and predates similar stories in the apocalyptic and
post-apocalyptic genres. "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" describes the
destruction of Earth by a passing comet, predating Wells' In the Days of the
Comet and Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's When Worlds Collide.
Poe was also a major influence on French symbolism and surrealism. For instance,
Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet, translated a number of Poe's writings
into French over a period of 14 years. And in his essay "The Poe Mysteries,"
Richard Wilbur raised the question of whether Poe may have also inspired one of
Russia's greatest writers. Wilbur mentioned "Dostoevsky’s notice of 1861, in
which he praises Poe’s 'marvelous acumen and amazing realism' in the depiction
of 'inner states.' (It is interesting that this last piece, published in
Dostoevsky’s magazine Wremia five years before Crime and Punishment,
stood as introduction to three stories by Poe, two of which—”The Tell-Tale
Heart,” “The Black Cat”—are accounts of murder, conscience, and confession.)"
Poe is so esteemed as a writer of mysteries that The Mystery Writers of
America named their awards for excellence the "Edgars."
Poe was the first well-known American writer to make a living strictly from writing. And he did it the very hard way — for instance, making only $9 from the
initial publication of his most famous poem, "The Raven." But to demonstrate how
highly Poe is regarded today, a copy of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, sold at
Christie's for $662,500, a record for a work of American
Poe was also highly esteemed as a literary critic. James Russell
Lowell called Poe "the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic
upon imaginative works who has written in America," claiming
that Poe sometimes used prussic acid rather than ink. Poe's caustic reviews
earned him the epithet "Tomahawk Man." One target of Poe's criticism was
Boston's then-much-acclaimed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Poe
accused of "the heresy of the didactic" (i.e., writing poetry that was
preachy or more instructive than poetic). Poe correctly predicted that
Longfellow's reputation would decline, concluding: "We grant him high
qualities, but deny him the Future." Poe also correctly predicted that the best
future prospects for poetry lay in its fusion with popular music. Today the most
famous and best-paid poets are singer-songwriters. And many of them are fans of
Poe. Musicians who have included or mentioned Poe in their work include the
Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jim Reeves, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Stevie Nicks,
Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, Green Day and the Yardbirds.
A professional football team, the Baltimore Ravens, are named after Poe’s
most famous poem. One wonders if all the Erratics combined will ever come close
to rivaling just one of Poe's major accomplishments. I will go out on a limb and
confidently predict, "Not a chance."
And so it's amusing to hear the Erratics
speaking dismissively of Poe, while lining up in the parade he helped start:
"Art for the sake of art." But unlike contemporary formalists who claim that
truth doesn't matter in poetry, and that poets can lie through their teeth (Joe
Salemi comes to mind), Poe didn't say that truth didn't matter. Rather, he said that the beauty (i.e.,
the ability to
please) of a poem should come first, and that beauty should be the primary measure
of a poem's worth. I don’t agree with Poe about the oil and water bit in his
essay below; I think
poems can organically incorporate beauty and truth, the way flowers incorporate
water and light. But what probably matters most is where we end up, and if we
end up saying that the art of a poem matters most, but that the best poems
incorporate both art and truth, that seems right to me. I like to paraphrase
Horace and Frost and say that poetry delights readers into wisdom. It they
don't please readers, poems fall flat and are rendered ineffective. But when
readers are pleased by poems, they become open to whatever information the poets
wish to transmit.
In his "moth to the star" passage, Poe seems to be thinking of Plato’s perfect
forms, seen through Saint Paul's glass, darkly. While not everyone will agree
that poets are reaching for the stars of a perfect heaven, I think many of us
can agree that poets are reaching for something elevated, and at the same time
trying to communicate their vision of the truth, or questions about the truth,
The Heresy of the Didactic
by Edgar Allan Poe
. . . . It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that
the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should
inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be
adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we
Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into
our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge
such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in
the true Poetic dignity and force:—but the simple fact is, that, would we
permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there
discover that under the sun there exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly
dignified—more supremely noble than this very poem—this poem per se—this poem
which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake.
With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of man, I
would, nevertheless, limit, in some measure, its modes of inculcation. I would
limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by dissipation. The demands of
Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so
indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever
to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and
flowers. In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of
language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm,
unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible,
is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who does not
perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and poetical
modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of
these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate
oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.
Dividing the world of the mind into its three most immediately obvious
distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place
Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it
occupies. It holds intimate relations with wither extreme; but from the Moral
Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to
place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find
the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the
Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while
the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches
the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with
displaying the charms:—waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her
deformity—her disproportion—her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate,
to the harmonious—in a word, to Beauty.
An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense
of the Beautiful. This is what administers to his delight in the manifold forms,
and sounds and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily
is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere
oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors,
and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not
poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with
however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and
colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say,
has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the
distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst
unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This
thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an
indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the
star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to
reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic presence of the glories beyond
the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts
of Time, to attain a portion of Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps,
appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry—or when by Music, the most
entrancing of the Poetic moods—we find ourselves melted into tears—we weep
then . . . through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant,
impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once
and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or
through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness—this struggle, on the part of
souls fittingly constituted—has given to the world all that which it (the
world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.
The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes—in
painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance—very especially in
Music—and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition of the
Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has regard only to its
manifestations in words. And here let me speak briefly on the topic of rhythm.
Contenting myself with the certainty that Music, in its various modes of metre,
rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely
rejected—is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who
declines its assistance, I will not now pause to maintain its absolute
essentiality. It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the
great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles—the
creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is,
now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel with a shivering
delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been
unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union
of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for
the Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we
do not possess—and Thomas More, singing his own songs, was, in the most
legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.
To recapitulate, then:—I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The
Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or
with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it
has no concern whatever with Duty or with Truth.
A few words, however, in explanation. That pleasure which is at once the most
pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the
contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it
possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which
we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from
Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from passion, which is the
excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore—using the word as inclusive
of the sublime—I make Beauty the province of the poem, simple because it is an
obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as
possible from their causes: no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that
the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the
poem. It by no means follows however, that the incitements of Passion, or the
precepts of Duty, or even the Lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a
poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways,
the general purposes of the work:—but the true artist will always contrive to
tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is at atmosphere and
the real essence of the poem.