But to return to my lecture course in the late sixties…. It was limited to nineteenth-century American fiction, it will be recalled. And in Poe’s case that should have posed no problem, and on the first day it did not. After the perfunctory nod in the direction of literary, cultural, historical, and biographical background, I got down to the brass tacks of analysis of texts. “The Fall of the House of Usher” came first (curiously in Hoffman’s Poe it is the last work considered). A showpiece of narrative method in which the narrator summoned by his friend to witness the disintegration of the self and house never discovers that he has himself engaged in a descent into the self. Good talk of doubles, succubism, spiritual desiccation. A good lead in to “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” and other tales. The next meeting (after the reading of Bonaparte mentioned above) a consideration of the ratiocinative tales beginning with Poe’s ur and, in some ways, proto tale of detection, “The Man of the Crowd.” Again talk of the double, the descent into the self, the projection of culpability onto the “other,” and the final failure of the narrator to discover either the secret of the “other” or the awful truth about himself. That he, with his handker¬chief over his mouth, wearing caoutchouc overshoes (that enable him to “move about in perfect silence”), sees “through a rent” in the old man’s “closely-buttoned and evidently second-hand roquelaire” both what a thief would want to see, “a diamond,” and what he wouldn’t want to see, a “dagger.” I recall that I made much of the discrepancy in the story’s title as given in the body of the book, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque-“The Man of the Crowd”-and as it appears in that volume’s table of contents -” The Man in the Crowd.” Something about type and individual, about, in those thriller days, essence and existence. Surely, this is a story of detection manqué in which the detector-narrator, malgré lui, is guilty of criminal-like behavior exceeding that of the man of the crowd; in which it may well be that it is the narrator, not his quarry, who “is the type and the genius of deep crime.”
Then on to Monsieur Dupin in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” tales of detection that between them very nearly exhaust the major possibilities-straight and parodic- f the detection tale as we have come to know it. More, much more about doubles and detectors who function like criminals and about ratiocinators who, placing themselves within the minds of orangutangs and even prefects of police, outthink their ratiocinative quarry. “Murders” was published in 1841, “The Purloined Letter” in January 1845; and on 29 January 1845, in the New York Evening Mirror, “The Raven.” And that poem, taken as a pretext for “The Philosophy of Composition,” became the subject, once removed, of my third and final day of lecturing on Edgar Poe’s fiction. And how did I try to justify my decision to include a poem and an explication of the poem in this course of fiction? I simply took a page from Poe’s own book. Hadn’t he started out his own essay as an excursion into the “mode of constructing a story”? If the “story” he chose to examine turned out to be a poem of his own authorship, so what? Well, I’ll tell myself what.
First of all, “The Raven” tells a story: a retrospective narrative in the first person, which tells more and less directly a tale of loss, grief, and self-torture. Even in Poe’s time this was a twice-thrice told tale, but one in which the maiden’s death seems not to be surrounded by the usual mystery or the customary rumors of complicity and guilt. So, it is enough of a story for Poe to focus on it for his own purposes in “The Philosophy of Composition” and enough of a story, therefore, to justify including it in my course in nineteenth-century American fiction. But what kind of a story is it? A better question: what kind of Poe story isn’t it? It is not, I think, either a hoax (a “sendup,” in Hoffman’s terms) or a grotesque, that is to say, not a bit of satire. It is, as I read it, a straight rendering of the death of the beautiful young woman theme once removed with a strong emphasis on the forlorn mourner. Had Poe left the matter at that, we should not have been tempted into looking for more. But in writing and publishing “The Philosophy of Composition,” pretending to explain once and for all how “The Raven” was constructed-that is to say, committed, for its writing was an act of commission-Edgar Poe created an undeniably more complicated context for the poem. Indeed, I shall insist that Poe had to write” The Philosophy of Composition” and that his analysis had necessarily to focus on “The Raven.”
Let us recall that of “The Raven” Poe had written: “Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance-or say the necessity-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.” I’m not sure I should venture into this area. What was necessitous about the writing of the poem might not be recoverable. I suspect, however, that Poe’s decision to present the poem not over his own name but over a pseudonym was a subterfuge to deflect blame from himself, if blame were to arise. The poem was susceptible to criticism, perhaps to blame. And Poe knew it. In choosing “Quarles” as his nom de plume on this occasion, moreover, he may well have been pointing to the emblematic nature of his poem. But he was doing more. His imp of the perverse led him to announce that he was ready to “quarrel.” That he was ready to fight for his poem. And so the poem appeared in the American Review for February 1845. But even before the February issue was out, Poe had arranged for the poem to appear under his own name in the New York Evening Mirror for 29 January 1845. The poem was widely reprinted and extensively dis¬cussed. There was, of course, much praise; but there was also-and this, I suspect, fulfilled Poe’s fears and justified his original decision to hide behind the pseudonym of “Quarles”-much speculation as to Poe’s sources and (unacknowledged, hidden) borrowings. There was, in short, much talk that added up to charges of plagiarism. Poe knew all about that, having himself played that blackguard’s game rather well over the years, and, if my guess is close to the mark, he felt an increasingly urgent need to answer the scattered gunfire of the plagiarism charges. He got his raven from Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, his poetic rhythm from Elizabeth Barrett’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” and, it would be asserted later, his refrain from Thomas Holly Chivers’s “Lament on the Death of My Mother.” And there were other charges identifying other instances of the kind of borrowing Poe himself was so quick to deplore in the work of others. Apparently the charges, piling up, called for refutation. And this was the necessity for Poe’s concocting “The Philosophy of Composition”: to prove the originality of his poem by showing step by step how it had been constructed. Deep in his mind there appears to have occurred early on, I conjecture, a determination of equations: the poem is a crime; its creator (or maker, or perpetrator), a poet, is a criminal; the criminal’s identity is unknown (or in question) but it can be known (or established) through a reconstruction of the background of (criminal motivation, etc.) and the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime itself. Ergo. “The Philosophy of Composition,” a poet’s confession as to how he has written his poem, works best as a ratiocinative tale in which the poet/detective cracks the poem/crime. “The Philosophy of Composition” is Edgar Poe’s last ratiocinative tale. The necessity for its composition is clear. Poe’s good poetic name can be established only by nailing down the originality of “The Raven” and that can only be done by Monsieur Du-poe persuading Edgar Poe’s readers that he, a felon, is guilty of the felony we call “The Rav
en.” No wonder he starts out with a reference to Edgar Poe’s own original unlocking of the mechanics of what else but Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge; and no wonder that starting out to examine the mode of constructing a story he settles at once on the corpus of “The Raven.” Here again we encounter Poe as the familiar double: poet and critic, criminal and detective, constructor and deconstructor, Edgar Poe and Monsieur Du-poe.
What I have just been saying was once to me an original perception not found in any of the books or essays I’d ever read when I lectured to my class of 250 in nineteenth-century American fiction. But reading toward this essay, as I’ve admitted, I set myself the task of reading cover to cover my old teacher’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe; and give a point or a nuance here and there, I can only say the teacher and maturated (marinated?) student are riding almost the same rails. O.K. I’ll settle for influence, from teacher to student, even if the teacher spoke, on the subject of Edgar Poe, only to denigrate. But one question remains. What was the necessity behind Daniel Hoffman’s writing of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, a book that “turned out so differently,” as he said in his apology to his patrons, “from the study I thought I was going to write”? I comb the pages of his book and find an undercurrent of post-new critical mea culpa, a late 1960s release and surcease from the formal uprightness of the previous generation, and an embracing of the new critical romanticism of the French-of Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan (though neither is mentioned by Hoffman). To this I would add the possibility that a complete answer to what made Poe to the Seventh necessary would take into account the handful of poems deriving from Hoffman’s Fulbright year in Dijon, poems that, having just dropped the middle initial, the “G,” from his name, he collected in his third book of poems, The City of Satisfactions. As earnest, I offer only one, “A Letter to Wilbur Frohock”:
Neither my explication
of “Le Dernier Abencérage”
nor the almost-fluency
at quip and badinage
attested by your A minus
a decade ago
in “Oral Intermediate
French” suffices now;
a beret is not enough.
Je puis acheter du pain
mais, when I go to the coalyard
as I do, again and again,
my first word or gesture’s
“JE SUIS ÉTRANGER.”
Sell you coal? My poor mother
Burns faggots in her mountain hovel-
you’ve la bombe atomique in your country-
Our children go barefoot in winter.
La marchande rails, distrait-
Besides, her coalyard’s bare;
but, as you’ve said, the structure
grammar reflects the logic
of the French mind. We’ve been here
two months. By now the neighbors
say “Bonjour, Monsieur”;
in our village there are two eggs
for sale each second day,
reserved for the toothless aged
or a sick bébé
and when our boy got queasy
and couldn’t take his meat
at l’épicerie they sold me
un oeuf for him to eat-
My accent’s improving.
In this letter to a “Master,” a teacher of French doubling as the author of The Novel of Violence in America, I detect, beyond quotidian functions of langue and parole, the presence of the poet’s other “Master.” A snapshot of the poet as paterfamilias and another of Poet as food-gatherer evoke the truths about Poe, the Poet who was too long wifeless, always childless, so improvident at times for himself and his own that he could neither bring home food nor provide fuel. Even the memorate of the single egg purchased for a sick boy-does it hark back to Thomas Chivers’s charge of plagiarism, to his unfortunate conceit of the crushed egg and dead child-son? If another poet always saw Poe in the subterranean hollows of the New York subways, this poet found him in the near-empty coal-yards of Dijon (“acheter du pain”?). In the familiar words of T. S. Baudelaire, “Hypocrite lecteur”? “Mon semblable”? “Mon frère”? By now we have reached conclusion, but not before I reveal-no, confess-that the encoded two words of my dream-never before heard in this context-were none other than “Felonious Monk.”
George Monteiro, “The Poem as Felony,” Antioch Review, 44 (Spring 1986), 209-19.