Yeats called Poe’s poetry “vulgar and commonplace”; Henry James called it “decidedly primitive.”

Alien_AngelJerome McGann THE POET EDGAR ALLAN POE Alien angel
256pp. Harvard University Press. £18.95 (US $24.95)
978 0 674 41666 6

In October 2014, the city of Boston unveiled a statue in honour of a native son it had long neglected. During Edgar Allan Poe’s short lifetime (1809–49), most of it spent in Virginia, Baltimore and New York, there was little love lost between Boston’s poète maudit and his contemporaries. Ralph Waldo Emerson, as Jerome McGann reminds us in his powerful revisionist study, The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien angel, referred to Poe as “the jingle-man”, and told a friend he could “see nothing in ‘The Raven’”. Poe, in his turn, dismissed the reigning Boston poets as “Frogpondians”, croaking their moral fables. The new bronze statue near Boston Common, which presents us with a striding Poe, a huge raven at his side, who carries under his billowing cloak a suitcase bulging with manuscripts, is thus a telling index to a shift in poetic taste. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Poe’s poetry is now very popular among college students: “When you repress something”, Peter Jeffreys, an English professor at Suffolk University, writes, “it eventually returns to haunt you – and quite often with a vengeance”.

The “repressed”, in this case, may well be the unique sound structure of Poe’s verse – a sound structure built on the very particular rhythms and rhyme that so enchanted French poets of the nineteenth century from Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé to Paul Valéry, but which early Modernists rejected almost en masse as superficial and histrionic. “An enthusiasm for Poe”, Henry James declared, “is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Walt Whitman called the poems “electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat”. Yeats wrote to his artist friend William Horton, “I do not know why you or indeed anybody should want to illustrate Poe . . . . I admire a few lyrics of his extremely and a few pages of his prose, chiefly in his critical essays, which are sometimes profound. The rest of him seems to be vulgar and commonplace . . . .” Poe parodies were legion.
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