POEMS OF YOUTH
by Edgar Allan Poe
INTRODUCTION TO POEMS--1831
by Edgar Allan Poe
LETTER TO MR. B--.
"DEAR B . . . . . . . . . Believing only a portion of my former volume to
be worthy a second edition-that small portion I thought it as well to
include in the present book as to republish by itself. I have therefore
herein combined 'Al Aaraaf' and 'Tamerlane' with other poems hitherto
unprinted. Nor have I hesitated to insert from the 'Minor Poems,' now
omitted, whole lines, and even passages, to the end that being placed in a
fairer light, and the trash shaken from them in which they were imbedded,
they may have some chance of being seen by posterity.
"It has been said that a good critique on a poem may be written by one who
is no poet himself. This, according to your idea and _mine _of poetry, I
feel to be false-the less poetical the critic, the less just the critique,
and the converse. On this account, and because there are but few B-'s in
the world, I would be as much ashamed of the world's good opinion as proud
of your own. Another than yourself might here observe, 'Shakespeare is in
possession of the world's good opinion, and yet Shakespeare is the
greatest of poets. It appears then that the world judge correctly, why
should you be ashamed of their favorable judgment?' The difficulty lies in
the interpretation of the word 'judgment' or 'opinion.' The opinion is the
world's, truly, but it may be called theirs as a man would call a book
his, having bought it; he did not write the book, but it is his; they did
not originate the opinion, but it is theirs. A fool, for example, thinks
Shakespeare a great poet-yet the fool has never read Shakespeare. But the
fool's neighbor, who is a step higher on the Andes of the mind, whose head
(that is to say, his more exalted thought) is too far above the fool to be
seen or understood, but whose feet (by which I mean his everyday actions)
are sufficiently near to be discerned, and by means of which that
superiority is ascertained, which but for them would never have been
discovered-this neighbor asserts that Shakespeare is a great poet--the
fool believes him, and it is henceforward his _opinion. _This neighbor's
own opinion has, in like manner, been adopted from one above him, and so,
ascendingly, to a few gifted individuals who kneel around the summit,
beholding, face to face, the master spirit who stands upon the pinnacle.
"You are aware of the great barrier in the path of an American writer. He
is read, if at all, in preference to the combined and established wit of
the world. I say established; for it is with literature as with law or
empire-an established name is an estate in tenure, or a throne in
possession. Besides, one might suppose that books, like their authors,
improve by travel-their having crossed the sea is, with us, so great a
distinction. Our antiquaries abandon time for distance; our very fops
glance from the binding to the bottom of the title-page, where the mystic
characters which spell London, Paris, or Genoa, are precisely so many
letters of recommendation.
"I mentioned just now a vulgar error as regards criticism. I think the
notion that no poet can form a correct estimate of his own writings is
another. I remarked before that in proportion to the poetical talent would
be the justice of a critique upon poetry. Therefore a bad poet would, I
grant, make a false critique, and his self-love would infallibly bias his
little judgment in his favor; but a poet, who is indeed a poet, could not,
I think, fail of making-a just critique; whatever should be deducted on
the score of self-love might be replaced on account of his intimate
acquaintance with the subject; in short, we have more instances of false
criticism than of just where one's own writings are the test, simply
because we have more bad poets than good. There are, of course, many
objections to what I say: Milton is a great example of the contrary; but
his opinion with respect to the 'Paradise Regained' is by no means fairly
ascertained. By what trivial circumstances men are often led to assert
what they do not really believe! Perhaps an inadvertent word has descended
to posterity. But, in fact, the 'Paradise Regained' is little, if at all,
inferior to the 'Paradise Lost,' and is only supposed so to be because men
do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary, and, reading
those of Milton in their natural order, are too much wearied with the
first to derive any pleasure from the second.
"I dare say Milton preferred 'Comus' to either-. if so-justly.
"As I am speaking of poetry, it will not be amiss to touch slightly upon
the most singular heresy in its modern history-the heresy of what is
called, very foolishly, the Lake School. Some years ago I might have been
induced, by an occasion like the present, to attempt a formal refutation
of their doctrine; at present it would be a work of supererogation. The
wise must bow to the wisdom of such men as Coleridge and Southey, but,
being wise, have laughed at poetical theories so prosaically exemplifled.
"Aristotle, with singular assurance, has declared poetry the most
philosophical of all writings*-but it required a Wordsworth to pronounce
it the most metaphysical. He seems to think that the end of poetry is, or
should be, instruction; yet it is a truism that the end of our existence
is happiness; if so, the end of every separate part of our existence,
everything connected with our existence, should be still happiness.
Therefore the end of instruction should be happiness; and happiness is
another name for pleasure;-therefore the end of instruction should be
pleasure: yet we see the above-mentioned opinion implies precisely the
"To proceed: _ceteris paribus, _be who pleases is of more importance to
his fellow-men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness, and
pleasure is the end already obtained which instruction is merely the means
"I see no reason, then, why our metaphysical poets should plume themselves
so much on the utility of their works, unless indeed they refer to
instruction with eternity in view; in which case, sincere respect for
their piety would not allow me to express my contempt for their judgment;
contempt which it would be difficult to conceal, since their writings are
professedly to be understood by the few, and it is the many who stand in
need of salvation. In such case I should no doubt be tempted to think of
the devil in 'Melmoth.' who labors indefatigably, through three octavo
volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any
common devil would have demolished one or two thousand.
"Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study-not a passion-it
becomes the metaphysician to reason-but the poet to protest. Yet
Wordsworth and Coleridge are men in years; the one imbued in contemplation
from his childhood; the other a giant in intellect and learning. The
diffidence, then, with which I venture to dispute their authority would be
overwhelming did I not feel, from the bottom of my heart, that learning
has little to do with the imagination-intellect with the passions-or age
"'Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below,'
are lines which have done much mischief. As regards the greater truths,
men oftener err by seeking them at the bottom than at the top; Truth lies
in the huge abysses where wisdom is sought-not in the palpable palaces
where she is found. The ancients were not always right in hiding -the
goddess in a well; witness the light which Bacon has thrown upon
philosophy; witness the principles of our divine faith -that moral
mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of
"We see an instance of Coleridge's liability to err, in his 'Biographia
Literaria'--professedly his literary life and opinions, but, in fact, a
treatise _de omni scibili et quibusdam aliis. _He goes wrong by reason of
his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the
contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it
is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray-while he who surveys
it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to
us below-its brilliancy and its beauty.
"As to Wordsworth, I have no faith in him. That he had in youth the
feelings of a poet I believe-for there are glimpses of extreme delicacy in
his writings-(and delicacy is the poet's own kingdom-his _El Dorado)-but
they _have the appearance of a better day recollected; and glimpses, at
best, are little evidence of present poetic fire; we know that a few
straggling flowers spring up daily in the crevices of the glacier.
"He was to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with the end
of poetizing in his manhood. With the increase of his judgment the light
which should make it apparent has faded away. His judgment consequently is
too correct. This may not be understood-but the old Goths of Germany would
have understood it, who used to debate matters of importance to their
State twice, once when drunk, and once when sober-sober that they might
not be deficient in formality--drunk lest they should be destitute of
"The long wordy discussions by which he tries to reason us into admiration
of his poetry, speak very little in his favor: they are full of such
assertions as this (I have opened one of his volumes at random) -"Of
genius the only proof is the act of doing well what is worthy to be done,
and what was never done before;'-indeed? then it follows that in doing
what is unworthy to be done, or what _has _been done before, no genius can
be evinced; yet the picking of pockets is an unw orthy act, pockets have
been picked time immemorial, and Barrington, the pickpocket, in point of
genius, would have thought hard of a comparison with William Wordsworth,
"Again, in estimating the merit of certain poems, whether they be Ossian's
or Macpherson's can surely be of little consequence, yet, in order to
prove their worthlessness, Mr. W. has expended many pages in the
controversy. _Tantaene animis? _Can great minds descend to such absurdity?
But worse still: that he may bear down every argument in favor of these
poems, he triumphantly drags forward a passage, in his abomination with
which he expects the reader to sympathize. It is the beginning of the epic
poem 'Temora.' 'The blue waves of Ullin roll in light; the green hills are
covered with day; trees shake their dusty heads in the breeze.' And this
this gorgeous, yet simple imagery, where all is alive and panting with
immortality-this, William Wordsworth, the author of 'Peter Bell,' has
_selected _for his contempt. We shall see what better he, in his own
person, has to offer. Imprimis:
"'And now she's at the pony's tail,
And now she's at the pony's head,
On that side now, and now on this;
And, almost stifled with her bliss,
A few sad tears does Betty shed. . . .
She pats the pony, where or when
She knows not . . . . happy Betty Foy!
Oh, Johnny, never mind the doctor!'
"'The dew was falling fast, the-stars began to blink;
I heard a voice: it said-"Drink, pretty creature, drink!"
And, looking o'er the hedge, be-fore me I espied
A snow-white mountain lamb, with a-maiden at its side.
No other sheep was near,--the lamb was all alone,
And by a slender cord was-tether'd to a stone.'
"Now, we have no doubt this is all true: we will believe it, indeed we
will, Mr. W. Is it sympathy for the sheep you wish to excite? I love a
sheep from the bottom of my heart.
"But there are occasions, dear B-, there are occasions when even
Wordsworth is reasonable. Even Stamboul, it is said, shall have an end,
and the most unlucky blunders must come to a conclusion. Here is an
extract from his preface :-
"'Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modem writers, if
they persist in reading this book to a conclusion _(impossible!) will, _no
doubt, have to struggle with feelings of awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they
will look round for poetry (ha! ha! ha! ha!), and will be induced to
inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts have been permitted to
assume that title.' Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
"Yet, let not Mr. W. despair; he has given immortality to a wagon, and the
bee Sophocles has transmitted to eternity a sore toe, and dignified a
tragedy with a chorus of turkeys.
"Of Coleridge, I can not speak but with reverence. His towering intellect!
his gigantic power! To use an author quoted by himself, _'Tai trouvé
souvent que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce
qu'elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu'elles nient , ' and _to employ
his own language, he has imprisoned his own conceptions by the barrier he
has erected against those of others. It is lamentable to think that such a
mind should be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyctanthes, waste its
perfume upon the night alone. In reading that man's poetry, I tremble like
one who stands upon a volcano, conscious from the very darkness bursting
from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below.
"What is poetry?-Poetry! that Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations
as the nine-titled Corcyra! 'Give me,' I demanded of a scholar some time
ago, 'give me a definition of poetry.' _'Trèsvolontiers;' _and he
proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr. Johnson, and overwhelmed me
with a definition. Shade of the immortal Shakespeare! I imagine to myself
the scowl of your spiritual eye upon the profanity of that scurrilous Ursa
Major. Think of poetry, dear B-, think of poetry, and then think of Dr.
Samuel Johnson! Think of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all
that is hideous and unwieldy; think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and
then-and then think of the 'Tempest' -the 'Midsummer-Night's Dream'-
Prospero Oberon-and Titania!
"A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its
_immediate _object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having, for its
object, an _indefinite _instead of a _definite _pleasure, being a poem
only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible
images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end
music is an _essential, since _the comprehension of sweet sound is our
most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea,
is poetry; music, without the idea, is simply music; the idea, wi thout
the music, is prose, from its very definitiveness.
"What was meant by the invective against him who had no music in his soul?
"To sum up this long rigmarole, I have, dear B-, what you, no doubt,
perceive, for the metaphysical poets as poets, the most sovereign
contempt. That they have followers proves nothing-
"'No Indian prince has to his palace
More followers than a thief to the gallows.
* GJL*4@J"J@< 6"4 N48@F@M46@J"J@< (,<@.
~~~~~~ End of Introduction ~~~~~~