Friday, September 25, 2009

Poe's Poetry: Ascension to Beauty (Part 1 of 4)

The true province of art is not by imitation to make men think that they are contemplating a work of nature.... It is to produce that which shall answer men's ideas of the beauty not yet seen, and awaken feelings that have not yet been roused. - Charles Mayo Ellis, 1842

Mention the name, Edgar Allan Poe, at any gathering and sit back and listen to the variety of reactions. Edgar Allan Poe has the intellect of a pre-pubescent schoolboy. Poe is a mad man. He can only write metronomic poetry that has no meaning. These and similar reactions are typical of what we have come to expect, and for many accept, regarding Edgar Allan Poe. The name conjures images of ravens and black-haired, beautiful ladies, black cats and black, stormy nights. Yet in a way these very reactions are a tribute to Poe's skill, for they are definite reactions. No one can read anything that Poe has written without reacting. This would have pleased him, especially if that reaction includes a sense of the beautiful. Poe's very purpose in writing is to produce an effect in his reader. Through the proper handling of this effect he hopes to guide his reader to the contemplation of the Divine, which, for him, is the contemplation of Beauty. To create this effect, Poe relies on a store of vocabulary and a skill with rhyme and meter which he calls the music of poetry. By combining these two elements, language and music, Poe can produce through an incantatory manner the effect he wishes to produce in his reader. This method is easy to imitate. Levine comments that "Poe is one of the easiest of authors to parody." The skill that Poe exhibits is in combining these elements, not only to produce an effect, but to create a unified whole. This is why passages taken out of the context Poe created for them sound so flat, wordy, or "stagey." Poe's writing must be understood as a whole, otherwise they seem adolescent, nonsensical. It is this very unity of effect that shows the genius of his skill. To some critics, his use of language is "vague, verbose," especially if quoted out of context. But this is exactly the point. Poe constructs his writing in such a way that each part is dependent on every other part, and together all the parts produce one, unified effect on the reader. It is Poe's skill at building sentence upon sentence and image upon image that permits the reader to accept the strangeness of his topics, the "theatrics."

These theatrics serve to get the reader's attention. An understanding of Poe's world view is crucial to an understanding of his work. Poe is a cosmongonist. He has espoused Plato's description of man's progress toward that supernal One toward which every soul feels a compelling attraction. The world as it presently exists is a diffusion from that One and is in a state of expansion and will soon begin to contract towards its original unity. The variety of things, including man, that exist in the universe are fragments of the One, or of God, and as such, each creature contains a part of God. There is a natural, or instinctive, impulse toward regaining the original unity, but there is also an obligation for man to attempt through some counterimpulse to restore the original unity. This counterimpulse takes its form in poetry. "The one true response to the creation, then, is to take an imaginative delight in its beauty and harmony, seen and unseen." The purpose of poetry is to draw man into a spiritual unity through the conemplation of Beauty. As a contemplation of Beauty, the poem becomes more than just a pretty sentiment, it becomes the "world in itself." So Poe writes in his essay, "The Poetic Principle," that "a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul." This excitation is achieved through the senses. In order for a poem to achieve its purpose, the reader must first be awakened from his lethargy to a realization of a higher beauty. Poe does this by choosing original settings or topics for his writing. Once he has attracted his reader's attention, he may proceed to his real purpose, the contemplation of Beauty.

In the writing of Poe's contemporaries, Beauty is explored and defined in depth. From the efforts of the popular writers of the time we learn several things about Beauty. First that there are two forms of beauty: the more tangible and understandable and the "hidden and secret beauties." The first form reaches us through our senses. We know why it pleases us; we can explain our pleasure in its form or color or some other aspect that invokes our sense of beauty. The second form is more elusive. Emerson says that it resides more properly in the mind of man and not in the form of the object. We cannot explain why we find this second form of beauty pleasing; we only know that it is. We are continually searching and longing for it, and occasionally we catch glimpses of it. But the moment we come near it, it leaves the object in which we ahve first glimpsed it and "flies to an object in the horizon." This second form of beauty does not receive its beautiful quality from the perfection of the form or color or shape of the object that we describe as beautiful. This perfection belongs to the first form and the attraction this beauty has for us has more charm as it more closely resembles, or recalls to our mind, the second form, the spiritual form of beauty.

These secret, spiritual beauties are the most remarkable of beauties because they are more complex. Jonathan Edwards declares that "the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden it is." This very complexity adds to the remarkability of the beauty. We may perceive a color as white, or green, or blue, but we have learned that each color has its own particular "harmony" of rays that each strike a different harmonious chord in our souls. It is this kind of hidden complexity that, once known, evokes in us such a sense of the marvelous that we can scarce contain our delight in it. Beauty gives purpose to our existence; without it a man may serve mankind in the most useful way, providing those things which are necessary for life, but he will continually be dissatisfied with his lot. Emerson notes, "But as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value." Jonathan Edwards agrees with Emerson on this pint; a man may lead the most miserable and wretched of lives, yet he will still cling to life as something precious as long as he can perceive beauty in his life.

Man's perception of this second form of beauty evokes a longing in his soul and compels him to struggle for more. That delight which he feels when he is lucky enough to perceive the reward of his struggle leads him to a higher sense, a higher awareness, of reality than he perceived amid the rush and necessity of daily living. While experiencing this delight, man ceases to think of things as he perceives them through his senses and reaches farther toward a contemplation of the origin of all things. It is just this tendency which impels man to prefer beauty as the "form under which the intellect prefers to study the world." This intellectual progression from the perception of beauty in form and color to a higher, spiritual awareness of the origin and relatedness of all things leads man in a gradual ascension until he is finally able to "contemplate the beautiful in itself."

Poe is a firm believer in this struggle, born of delight, to transcend corporeal reality and ascend to the contemplation of Beauty. He agrees with Jonathan Edwards that beauty which is the more remarkable because of its complexity, because its attraction resides not in the form but in our perception of a higher, spiritual reality of that form, is the more desirable. Spiritual beauty is the more desirable because of the intense delight and pleasure it produces in man, and this has the effect of elevating the soul. Poe emphasizes that it is just this effect on man that enables him to contemplate Beauty. This delight which elevates the soul resides in man's perception, not in the form or the object. In this Poe may disagree with Emerson's statement that beauty resides more properly in the mind of man. The perception of beauty, for Emerson, resides in man's mind, his intellect, which enables him to contemplate Beauty itself. Poe's way to the contemplation of Beauty is through the elevation of the soul, and the soul is elevated directly as a response to that intense delight that Beauty excites in man. Contemplation of Beauty must begin with the excitement of the senses and progress to the elevation of the soul. The perception of Beauty, then, for Poe, is a sign of the most heightened sensitivity in man. The reader of poetry who is able to perceive this supernal Beauty becomes the Poet and, in becoming the Poet, he is in a position to save himself. It is the Poet who, by an elevation of the soul, ascends to the original Oneness. Poe insists that it is just this elevation of soul, not of intellect or of heart, that enables man to contemplate Beauty, the original Oneness. He distinguishes Beauty from Truth, which is the "satisfaction of the Reason," and from Passion, which is the "excitement of the heart."

It is this spiritual beauty, "the supernal Loveliness" as he calls it in his essay, The Poetic Principle, that is the object and raison d'etre of poetry. Poe set for himself as a poet this goal of Beauty. The poem which accurately mirrors the longing for Beauty produces a specific response in its reader. That response is an
excess of pleasure...a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever these divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
This longing for joys that remain always just beyond reach may be so intense in Poe because of his constant grasping and searching for happiness in his own life. Whatever the reason for his intensity, Poe asserts that true poetry produces just this response in its reader, but music must be added to the language. A mere repetition of those things which we regard as beautiful is not enough. The initial perception of beauty is through our senses, but a certain inspiration is needed in order to contemplate Beauty, the supernal Loveliness. Poe's goal in writing poetry is to embody this Beauty as he perceived it. In addition to this, the purpose of poetry is to uplift its reader and carry him out of the humdrum routine of daily existence to a supernal awareness of a higher, truer reality, and Poe perceived that reality as Beauty. Through the elevation of the soul which leads to the contemplation of Beauty, man is turned momentarily from his state of diffusion towards a contraction which leads to unity with the original One.

A poem can best achieve its purpose of guiding the reader to a contemplation of Beauty if it is brief, musical, passionless, and melancholy. In his essay, The Philosophy of Composition, Poe explains that a poem must be brief in order to accomplish a totality of effect. For this reason he asserts that a long poem is not a poem by definition. That which is intended as a long poem is merely a succession of short poems leading the reader through a series of alternating emotions of exhilaration and depression. That part of a long poem which seems depressing, will, at a separate reading, seem exhilarating. This is because it is psychically impossible to sustain an intense emotion.

A poem must be passionless because the aim of Poetry is to induce in the reader an elevation of the soul in the contemplation of Beauty. Those things which induce passion excite the heart of the reader and hinder its ascension to this divine contemplation. There is only one emotion that Poe admits to Poetry: a sense of "pleasurable sadness," a melancholy that he maintains is "inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty." It is just this one emotion which "presents an image of that ideal beauty for which the soul yearns yet knows to be unattainable in this life."

A poem guides the reader first through his senses. The poet uses music, or rhythm, to charm the reader by an almost incantatory process. Poetry must embody indefinite sensations since the object of its purpose is itself formless and indefinite, having encompassed all forms. Music is essential in guiding the reader to a sense of this original Oneness since music embodies the most indefinite of our perceptions. In his prefatory letter to his 1831 poems, Poe writes, "Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness." Music is, then, the one thing that can most readily and most directly penetrate to the soul of man. Its very indefiniteness strikes a chord in the soul of man carrying him upward toward a higher realization of Beauty. When music is added to words, images, and symbols, Poetry is the result.

Poe's poetry has the reputation of being very regular in its rhythm, and so it is if he is to accomplish his purpose of charming his reader into a state of mind which admits the contemplation of Beauty. Occasionally, however, there will be irregularities in his meter. The irregularities are "intentional and [serve] a purpose more important, at the moment, than pleasing the senses."

It is the obligation of the poet to awaken in his reader this sense of Beauty through the union of music with imagination. Through imagination the poet chooses those symbols and images which best conjures in the reader an intuition that corresponds with his own. This intuition accompanies that elevation of the soul that is necessary for the contemplation of Beauty. It is imagination which enables the poet to see the relatedness of all things that eventually leads back to the original One. From the union of imagination and music, Poetry is born. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Poe defines Poetry as "The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty."

[To be continued. Sources for this paper will be included at the end of the final post.]


  1. "In order for a poem to achieve its purpose, the reader must first be awakened from his lethargy to a realization of a higher beauty."

    This is such a true statement for me. Poetry is very difficult for me to read and get into. One must really work at it. When one does, the rewards are great.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    How is your new grandbaby? and family?

  2. Poetry has always been a part of my life. I think I was intuitively attracted to it, and my mother and grandmother encouraged it by reading poems to me - a LOT! Including poems by Poe.

    One of my favorites was "Annabel Lee" - go figure! Why a 4 year old would like that tribute to morbid love is beyond me, but I still like it, and find great beauty in it.