Edgar Allan Poe is popularly taken to be a genius nut, or a nut
genius, a weird, dark, disturbed, bad boy preoccupied with the dark
side of the psyche in ways that make Stephen King seem like Mr.
Green Jeans. This view in fact stems less from his writings - though
to be sure, some of his stories seem outright perverse - but more
from an obituary in which Rufus Griswold stained Poe's name, and
whose general sense got absorbed into the literary gossip of the
time, shaping Poe as choleric, envious, arrogant, irascible, cynical,
honorless, selfishly ambitious, despising the world, and possessing
passions made of "the worst emotions which militate against human
happiness." This got handed down as sort of generally accepted
literary biography. Later biographers made efforts to salvage Poe's
personal reputation, but studies like Marie Bonaparte's Freudian
reading, Life and Works of Edgar Poe: A Psycho-Analytic
Interpretation, probably reinforced the negative sense of Poe rather
than alleviated it.
This is not to say that Poe did not make a nuisance of himself.
James Russell Lowell, a sympathetic correspondent, described him
in verse as being "three-fifths genius and two-fifths pure fudge," and
Poe attacked the much-loved Longfellow as a plagiarist, ridiculed
the transcendentalists, quarreled constantly with editors, and at
times drank way too much.
But this is hardly the whole story. Poe was deeply devoted to his
young wife and her mother. He cared about what was happening in
American culture, and much of his reputation for irascibility comes
from his impulse to expose the debilitating hypocrisies of his age,
which always makes such people more enemies than friends.
Admittedly, he was not particularly delicate about it. He also was
thinking in aesthetic terms at least 60 years ahead of his time, a
tendency which rarely gains many admirers. His ideas had to cross
the ocean, be translated and milled in France by Baudelaire and
others, and only then return properly established to America, where
Eliot, Williams and some others recognized what he had done.
What he had done, I want to say here, is to incorporate mystical
sensibilities into modern aesthetics. The term "mystical" is also
problematic when associated with Poe because its nebulous
connotations conjure up, not the mysticism associated with what
William James meant when he spoke of religious feeling, but more
the popular sense of "the occult" or "the supernatural," and this
happens because so many of Poe's stories concern themselves with
apparently gratuitous supernatural events. Poe's mysticism is often,
and frustratingly, seen as mainly a preoccupation with dead
beautiful women who either come back to life or whose image has a
death-grip on some weak and bent-minded male character. In other
words, the supernatural element in Poe's writings, when taken
seriously, is usually seen as a Gothic device that exposes
But even though all this does have interpretive validity, there is a
much larger and generally neglected underpinning to it: that Poe
had, in fact, a deeply mystical sense of reality - mystical not in the
sense of a preoccupation with the supernatural, but mystical in the
sense of James' "religious feeling."* Along these lines, Barton Levi
St. Armand explains how Poe's mysticism is Gnostic. But in this
reading, St. Armand emphasizes the Gnostic disdain for the material
world, which I think is not present in Poe; the horrors depicted in
Poe's stories spring not from a disdain for the material, but from an
interest in the reality of human psychology. Instead, it seems more
accurate to place Poe's mysticism in, not the Gnostic, but the
Platonic and Neoplatonic strand of the perennial tradition.
Once again, it's important to remember that Poe, though not
perverse in the popular sense of him, was nevertheless quirky; and
by Dana Wilde
so his mystical sensibility shot off from, or was based in Platonism,
but does not match it exactly. His effort was less to work out a
coherent logic of the unity of the cosmos, and more to try to give
form to his intuition - his religious feeling - of its vastness,
strangeness and wholeness. It happens that Platonic/Neoplatonic
descriptions of the way of the universe provide a good deal of the
The evidence recurs in his writings, but it can be seen in two places
in particular. One place is in his aesthetic theory, and the other is in
his long essay on cosmology, Eureka: A Prose Poem.
The central element of mysticism, if such a thing can be named, is
the idea of unity. In all mystical writings, efforts to describe or
characterize the divine always come down to expressions of the
unity of the cosmos, the oneness that is either the source or the
common reality of all. As members of this audience know well,
Plotinus in particular comes at this principle in an astonishing
variety of ways; his one message, really, is that all is One.
Obviously, also, Plotinus' teachings derive principally from Plato.
Plotinus refines the Platonic description of reality into the
hypostases, which from the top down are the One, the
Intellectual-Principle and Soul, with the material world scattering
at the fringe. In Plato, the One is referred to in various contexts as
Beauty, Truth, the Good. The Intellectual-Principle is the realm of
the forms (interestingly for us, the Greek word is eidolon, which in
English has a connotation of ghostliness or disembodiment) and
emanating from that formative phase is Soul, or in Plotinus,
Aphrodite, or Love. From that hypostasis emanates nature. It is of
course inherent in the cosmos that these are not really separate
layers of reality; all is in All, and in Plotinus, all is seeking to return
to the All.
Now the same structure, with some quirks, underlies Poe's
aesthetics. In "The Poetic Principle" and his "Review of
Hawthorne," and elsewhere, Poe analyzes the functions of literature
and art into three, sometimes four inner psychic areas: Beauty,
Truth and Duty, and also mentioned is Passion. He parallels Beauty
with the Soul, whose faculty is Taste; Truth with the Intellect,
whose faculty is Reason; and Duty with the Moral Sense, whose
faculty is Conscience; Passion is given as parallel to our sense of the
Poe insists that the aim of poetry is Beauty, and the aim of prose is
Truth. This is significant because Beauty and Truth are two
different kinds of reality. Truth is an intellectual, or rational
activity - a truth can be expressed in words, as in a way an object
that the rational mind can comprehend. But Beauty is not rational; it
has to do with the Soul whose realities cannot be expressed, in Poe,
but can be experienced.
Because of these psychic divisions, Truth comes through prose,
while Beauty is evoked through poetry. A short story (in Poe's eyes)
can express a truth, and when well done as in Hawthorne can give
the feel of that truth. A poem, however, does not aim at Truth; it is
not "didactic." For Poe, poems have nothing to do with Truth; they
have to do with Beauty which is experienced, not understood or
expressed. Poems evoke or create an experience of Beauty. They
create the conditions for a glimpse of divine reality, in fact.
Specifically, Poe says that "It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul
most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired with
Poetic Sentiment, it struggles - the creation of supernal Beauty"
(Poe Great Short Works 548). He then essentially equates poetry
with music, defining poetry as "the rhythmical creation of Beauty"
whose "sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the
Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it
Reading Forays home
* See James. p. 36: "Personal religion" in his use of the phrase means: "the feelings,
acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend
themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."
"Poe's Mysticism" was first given as a lecture at the Conference on Platonism,
Neoplatonism and Literature, at theUniversity of Maine in June 2002.