THE POEM AS FELONY
“Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstances-or say the necessity-,” writes Poe of “The Raven,” “which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.” Poe can summarily dismiss this matter of necessity in the composition of his poem, as well as in the writing of “The Philosophy of Composition,” but I cannot. Indeed, it is Poe’s necessity in both instances that is my very subject. But first should I not investigate the circumstances-the necessity-that gave rise to my own intention of composing an essay on this subject?
Unfortunately, my dreams episode did not deal with the circumstances of that necessity. It dealt with solutions to the mystery of the necessity behind the writing of Poe’s poem and the writing of his explanation of how he constructed his poem. I did not write down the details of my dream at the time, consciously because I both saw no point in the dream and knew that if it did become useful to me at any future time I would recall enough of it to put it to use. I did not set it down because, semiconsciously I know, I’m unduly skeptical about the meaningfulness of dreams and the utility of interpreting them.
I recall vividly, however, that the dream culminated in a phrase, two words, capitalized perhaps, a name changed but not beyond understanding. And those ultimate words emerged suddenly from a rather uneasy consideration and reconsideration of Poesque themes revolving over and over again hypnogogically that morning just before-or was it just after? -daybreak. It was Poe, the many Poes, who plagued my sleep: the Poe who theorized, who practiced, who composed, who criticized, who attacked, who hoaxed, who sneaked around. It was the Poe who rationalized about poetry but who undercut his own fictional rationalizing, the Poe who bruited theories of the musicality of verse, the Poe, the succubus, who attached himself to notions of the beauty and the melancholy in the death of young women, the Poe who lifted and borrowed at will for his art and his commodity even as he lashed out with reckless abandon at supposed and real plagiarists, the Poe whose darkly monastic attraction to sometimes prematurely buried beautiful women resulted in tales like “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”-the Poe, in short, who was priest, musician, and thief. I no longer remember the phrases and quotations that swirled toward culmination that morning and would not, I suspect, repeat them here even if I did. I put that stuff out of my head almost immediately. But I was curious as to what precisely had brought me to such a pass, to such an encoded solution (which was no solution of course) to the daylight matter of writing an essay entitled “The Poem as Felony.”
I had been reading toward this essay for a few days, I recalled. What had I been reading? Well, there was S. Foster Damon’s 1930 book on Thomas Holly Chivers, in which Damon had, with sweet reason, answered Chivers’s charge that Poe had plagiarized “The Raven” from him by looking at the matter from the vantage of a twentieth-century historian. It was only a matter of creative usage and literary influencing. There was no crime involved. “Stung by neglect, urged on by his friends,” wrote Damon:
As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg forever-
So shall this dark heart of mine!
Which, though broken, is still breaking,
And shall never more cease aching
For the sleep which has no waking-
For the sleep which now is thine!
I recalled that when I read Damon, I nodded with full assent. But that was when I was awake. Oneirically, however, I had insisted on Poe the felon. No genteel explaining away of such criminal charges, not at daybreak. I had also been reading, as I recalled, Daniel Hoffman’s 1972 book-Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe-an essay much about various Poes, including the priest, the poet, the necrophilic lover of love, the master thief of the words of others.
When Hoffman’s book first appeared I had dipped into it with skepticism. I put it down-for over a decade, as it turned out. But now I had returned to it; and when I did, I discovered that my copy contained a small card signifying that the book had been presented to me by the author; and I noticed further that the imprint of a paper clip on the dust jacket where the card had been affixed originally still showed clearly. I had clean forgotten that the author of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe had undoubtedly included my name on his list of those to whom complimentary copies were to be sent on publication. My old teacher-at Columbia University in the not yet dim reaches of nearly a generation ago he had supervised my master’s thesis-had had remembered me. And I had forgotten my manners, for I’m certain that I never acknowledged receipt of the gift and, as I’ve already confessed, I did not read it, at least not much of it. Why had he sent it to me, when he had never sent any of his earlier books on Stephen Crane, on Yeats, Graves, and Edwin Muir, on folklore and myth in nineteenth-century American fiction, not to mention the several volumes of his own accomplished poetry? It’s true that just after (or was it just before?) his book on Poe appeared, at the Modern Language Association meeting in 1971 held in Chicago, I had run into the author, who was there, he told me, solely to see if his publisher had fulfilled his promise to publicize the book. Maybe I had already received my complimentary copy, for I recall asking him whether the black-and-white author’s photograph reproduced on the back of the dust jacket was intended to add an eighth Poe to the seven Poes reproduced on the front of the dust jacket. It was his wife’s idea, he said, to use that photograph in just that way. What I did not realize then but soon noticed was that the photographer was Elizabeth McFarland, the long-haired woman who haunted the mail box in the downstairs hall in the building on West 116th Street in which I lived for a while when I was a student beginning my graduate work in English and American Literature, including participation in a proseminar conducted by one who, as the most recent nominee in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, had just had a poem printed in the New York Times Book Review. Need I tell you that the author of the fine poems in An Armada of Thirty Whales turned out to be the husband of Elizabeth McFarland, that haunter of locked mailboxes, that a waiter of the mailman, that protector (I now see) against the purloining of letters?
description of the captain of the ship, and him we must inspect if we’re to know whose ship
this is, and what her itinerary: “… a feeling of irrepressible reverence and awe mingled
with the sensation of wonder with which I regarded him.
In stature, he is nearly my own height; that is, about five feet eight inches. He is of a
well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust, nor remarkably otherwise…”- that
actually was Edgar Allan Poe’s height. It is also my own stature exactly-.