“DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN.”
Edgar A. Poe.
From the Old Guard, for June, 1870
A recent writer in a southern periodical complains of the unfair treatment of Poe by Rufus W. Griswold, in the biographical sketch prefixed to the poems of the former, asserting that he was dead. But, though Griswold spoke of those pecadilloes [sic] of Poe best known, he softened those he noticed, and omitted much he might have said. Still, had Griswold reflected, he might have put in an ingenious plea in behalf of the poet, and have assumed that Poe’s frequent violations of the code of morals and honor, was from the lack of a thorough appreciation of right and wrong.
Poe’s mind was not well balanced. Certain of the intellectual faculties were in excess, while some of the moral ones appeared to be deficient. I doubt, indeed, whether, with all his undoubtedly fine genius, he was not a moral idiot. Griswold has himself reason to know –If I may credit Poe’s statement. The latter came to me one day, chuckling over “a neat little trick” he had just played upon Griswold.
“I told him that I thought he had made a capital book of his ‘Poets and Poetry of America,’ and I’d like to write a favorable review of it; but I was hard pressed for money and couldn’t afford the time. He bit at the bait like a hungry pigeon, and told me to write the notice, and, as his publishers could use it, he would pay me for them my price. So I wrote, and handed it to him, and he paid me.”
“Well,” I asked, for I saw nothing in that but one of the traded tricks of the publishing trade.
“I knew he wouldn’t read it until he got home,” continued Poe, “but I should like to have seen his face when he got to the middle.”
“Wasn’t it favorable, then?”
“Favorable? Yes! to the amateur in scalping. I abused the book and ridiculed him, and gave him the most severe using up he ever had, or ever will have, I fancy. I don’t think he’ll send that to the publishers, and I’m quite sure they wouldn’t print it if he did.”
“It is a good joke—of its kind,” was my answer. “You did not keep the money?”
“Keep it? No, Indeed! I spent it at once.”
Now, no amount of argument would convince him that he had not obtained money under false pretenses in the matter, there was no intent of wrong itself.
Another case occurs to me which will put the matter in an even clearer light. Poe came into my office one day, looking especially haggard. He had evidently just got through one of his drinking bouts and looked very much the worse for it. I commenced to lecture him a little, but he interrupted me with—“Oh, you needn’t say a word on that. I’ve made up my mind on that subject, and I have given my word as a gentleman and a man of honor never to drink anything but cold water again. But I’m in a terrible straight. I promised the Bostonians to read them an original poem this week, and I got on this beat, and never wrote a line. I haven’t time now, and what to do I don’t know.”
I suggested that he should write, postponing the delivery two weeks; and he might say that circumstances, over which he had no control—for he had no control over himself in the matter of drink—had prevented him, and so on. “Better still,” I said, “plead simply that you would explain when you come, and then tell the truth frankly to some member of the committee.”
“Yes,” he answered, “but they’re to pay me for it, and I want the money.”
“You can’t expect to get it unless you earn it.”
“Can’t I? Well, you’ll see. I’ve just thought of a way.” And off he went.
He appeared in Boston on the night set and read a juvenile poem, written before he was of age—he used to say when he was a child, but that was an exaggeration. He had a critical audience, who were dissatisfied and disappointed, but they treated him with courtesy. On his return, finding his work was criticized sharply in the Boston papers, he wrote a series of paragraphs for “The Broadway Journal,” vehemently assailing the Bostonians, and asserted that he had planned the thing deliberately; and that he had selected the greatest trash possible to test their literary acumen; that they had gone into raptures over it; that they were asses and noodles—I think he used those very words—and claimed it as a great triumph. It never entered his head to think there was anything wrong in this.
I could name a dozen other instances of this same lack of appreciation. To h old such a man to a strict responsibility for his acts is unfair. You might as well convict a raving lunatic of murder. It was not his fault that he had no sense of honor, and no feeling of shame. The fact of which Griswold speaks, transcribing a copy of Captain Brown’s work on Conchology, and selling it to a Philadelphia publisher as his own original production, would have been a crime in another; but Poe had no idea that he was obtaining money on false pretenses. He thought it all fair and a clever piece of diplomacy. The unfairness of Griswold did not consist in mentioning facts that were necessary to be known, but in not stating the one great fact that would explain, and, in some measure, excuse them.
I could tell some very curious anecdotes about Poe; but as they would not add anything to his good reputation, and as what I have said will be enough to palliate a good many of his shortcomings by showing his irresponsibility, I refrain. But one thing should be noted. Some fool critic, a few years since, charged him with stealing “The Raven” from the Persian, with which language Poe was familiar. The charge is utterly false. Poe knew no more of the Persian than he did of the Chocktaw, and nothing of either. In two places in “The Raven,” there is a line taken from the “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”—a quite unconscious borrowing; but the spirit, recurring refrain, general idea and mode and management of the poem, are all Poe’s own. Perhaps the charge was retributive justice, however. Poe was very fond of charging others with plagiarism; accusing Longfellow, for instance, with having stolen from him and others. But in either his prose or poetry Poe was the master of his art. Some one has compared him with a Savage. In his private life there a few points of resemblance, and in ingenuity and the inventive faculty, he was Savage’s infinite superior.
For those that would reject the offerings of The Old Guard on the grounds of prejudice against Poe, it should be here stated that this same periodical, in 1866, printed an article most unflattering to myself in the wretch's defense; thus charges of prejudice have no merit.