Friday, February 20, 2009

By the dismal tarns and pools / Where dwell the Ghouls - Poe the poet

Poe, in his reviews of poets' books, always included an enormous quantity of the verse he was reviewing. A ten page review might contain four full pages of poems. I don't know of anyone who reviews poetry like this today, and for all I know it would violate copyright. Then again, how many books of poems get ten page reviews now?

Poe would print an entire poem, or a selection of stanzas, and italicize the best parts. "Best" = most beautiful, and most original. For example:

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,-
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,-
By the mountains - near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,-
By the grey woods,- by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp,-
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls

That's from Poe's "Dream-Land," magnificent and ludicrous. The italics identify my notion of which bits are best. Yesterday, I emphasized Poe's concern for effect, but he was equally interested in originality, to an excessive degree, as we shall see next week when I brush against Poe's habit of flinging charges of plagiarism at other poets. As a result, Poe's verse is, in fact, highly original, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility. In his best poems, though - "The City in the Sea," "Dream-Land," "Annabel Lee," "The Raven" - he created something that was truly new. Sometimes, as with "The Bells," one fervently hopes that the poem is and remains one of a kind ("Of the bells, bells, bells!-/ Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells-" and so on).

Poe never went so far as to pull out his favorite lines from other poems without the surrounding stanza. I don't know why not:

from The City in the Sea

Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.

from The Conqueror Worm

An angel throng, bewinged, bedight,
In veils, and drowned in tears,

Out - out are the lights - out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm

more from Dream-Land

From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE - out of TIME.

There the traveler meets, aghast,
Sheeted Memories of the Past -

from The Raven

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by Horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -

Ah, I could include almost every line. No quibbles here with the fame of "The Raven." Would you believe that Poe first thought of the word "Nevermore," and then decided it should be repeated again and again. Who would be likely to obsessively repeat a single word. Logically, obviously, a parrot. This poem was almost "The Parrot." Or so says Poe. I can never quite tell when he is putting me on.

Since I have nowhere else to do it, I will use this space to recommend the excellent four part essay on Algernon Swinburne, one of Poe's poetic descendants, hosted by A Journey Round My Skull. It's long, but the various portraits of Swinburne are worth a click or four all by themselves.


  1. This is standard practice for nineteenth-century reviewing in both Britain and America--mostly to enable the reviewer to reach his or her designated word count, I'm afraid! Novels are treated the same way.

  2. Word-count - yes. So many things are explained by that. When tradition bearers realised they were being paid by the page by the Irish Folklore Commission, there was a sudden insurge of pages with very large writing. But there's a truth too that reviewers really need to quote from the books they are reviewing. It's true for prose and poetry, that you as the reader of the review can only really grasp the worth of the work under review by sampling the writer's use of language. And now I want to see a poetry anthology with all the "best bits" italicised. What fun.

  3. Can I view thee panting, lying
    On thy stomach, without sighing;
    Can I unmoved see thee dying
    On a log,
    Expiring frog!

  4. To reach the word-count, well yes, obviously. Obvious now that you've told me, I mean. That explains another occasional feature of Poe's reviews, when he provides a comment on every single poem in a book, even when he has nothing to say about it, e.g.:

    "'The Statue-Love' is not very good... 'Summer' is quite feeble."

    review of The Coming of the Mammoth by Henry B. Hirst, LOA, p. 604.

    The virute of this approach, as Neil says, it that it does give a lot of attention to the actual poems. How many poets today enjoy reviews of such depth?

    T. Femme is correct in pointing out the enormous, inescapable influence of Mrs. Leo Hunter on the verse of Edgar Allan Poe (and, of course, on all of his contemporaries). To quote Mr. Pickwick on the subject: "Beautiful!", "Very," and "Finely expressed."