In a typical act of hubris, I have volunteered to lecture on the Edgar Allan Poe component of our syllabus. I ascend the scaffold in April; however, having little or no experience with either Poe or lecturing, I am already nosing about the required texts. They include: "The Raven," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Purloined Letter," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado."

I read all of these as an undergraduate, and of course I can recite a few of the stanzas of "The Raven" from memory, thanks largely to The Simpsons and James Earl Jones. I have referenced "The Imp" on occasion, wrote a term paper on the author's use of architectural symbolism in "Usher" (and "William Wilson"), and have had a least one dram of amontillado. Beyond that, my knowledge of gothic literature, and particularly American gothic, is very little.

Not on the syllabus, but well worth reading and certainly a necessary part of my lecture will be "The Philosophy of Composition," a lecture Poe wrote to capitalize on the success of "The Raven." In it, he gives a rather idealized explication of the composition process and a brief explanation of how he conceived of Pleasure, Beauty, and Art. Though participating in the discourse of the sublime, Poe did not appear to think much of Burke or Kant; he links terror to Beauty rather than the sublime, and suggests (in "Usher") that though we are obviously affected by natural objects, "the reason, and the analysis, of this power, lie among considerations beyond our depth." If I were to chart it--and I would--the relationships might look like this:

Poe is the least clear on the element of Passion -- "the truly Passionate," he claims, "will comprehend" what he means by "homeliness." Truth and Passion might be equal in impact, but Poe clearly elevates Beauty as the most pure form of pleasure, a construction represented here by the heavy black bar. I have divided the branches because although truth and passion may be brought to serve the elucidation of Beauty by contrast, the precision and homeliness upon which they depend are "absolutely antagonistic" to it. This chart, I should say, is no more precise than Poe's brief treatment in this piece, and might benefit from different ordering. I think perhaps the placement of the Soul after Beauty might want tinkering. In essence, though, it is the contemplation of beauty that elevates the soul, which elevation is the effect of Beauty. Likewise, precision satisfies the intellect, which is satisfaction is the effect of Truth, and homeliness excites the heart, which excitation is the effect of Passion. All of these effects are pleasurable.

Of still more interest are Poe's thoughts on genre and form. As I am focused (and shall continue to write about, again and again) on what I am for the moment calling the problematic of the durability of knowledge (a term itself deserving of more unpacking than it will suffer here), I could not overlook Poe's consideration of the subject with respect to genre. He addresses this quite clearly in "The Poetic Principle":
A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Beranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.
I have bolded "enduring" because it's a variant of my dissertation buzzword: durable. Poe suggests that neither a work too long nor too short can sustain a unity of effect; too short, as above, and it fails to impress. Too long, and it fails to cohere. We retain only those parts or moments that elevated our souls, and therefore have imperfect memories of the text (I am convinced I shall have to have a chapter on memory). Poe does not in this text define the soul beyond its being that entity subject to elevation by Beauty.

Unfortunately, Poe is both too late and of the wrong nation to find a home in my dissertation, but his work has informed my thinking, particularly as he uses Paradise Lost as his example of a poem too long properly to call itself such. I have very mixed emotions regarding these discoveries. They make me wonder if I'm working in the wrong period.

More on Poe to follow.

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