The Poe Centenary
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Poe Centenary is an article published in The Times on 2 march 1909.
The Poe Centenary
Under the auspices of the Authors' Club a dinner was given last night at the Hotel Metropole in memory of Edgar Allan Poe.
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE presided, having on his immediate right and left Mr. Whitelaw Reid, the guest, and Mrs. Humphry Ward; and among the company, which numbered about 250, were Admiral Charles H. Stockton (American delegate to the Naval Conference), Mr. J. Ridgely Carter (secretary to the American Embassy), Captain Poe, Mr. Humphry Ward, Mrs. George Cornwallis West, Mr. E. Marshall Fox, Mr. Herbert Trench, Mr. Douglas Freshfield, Mr. G. Herbert Thring (secretary of the Incorporated Society of Authors) and Mrs. Thring, Mr. Newton Crane, Mr. F. C. van Duzer (secretary of the American Society in London). Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Goose, Mr. R. N. Fairbanks and Mrs. Fairbanks (president of the Society of American Women in London), Sir Arthur and lady Trendell, the Rev. Henry C. de Lafontaine, the Hon. Mrs. Alfred Felkin ("Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler"), Lady Abinger, Lady Lister Kaye, Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dashwood, Mr. A. Laurence Felkin, Mr. Robert J. Wynne (Consul-General, U.S.A.), Mr. J. Arthur Barratt, Mr. Isaac N. Ford, Mr. G. J. Codrington Ball and Mrs. Ball (née Poe), Mr. Justin McCarthy, Mr. Webster Glynes and Mrs. Glynes ("Ella Dietz"), Mr. W. Archer, Mr. E. Price Bell, Mr. George A. Mower, Mr. Thomas L. Feild (president American Society in London) and Mrs. Feild, Mr. Edward Morton, Mr. J. T. Grein, Dr. Ashley Bird, Dr. G. E. Herman, Mr. Francis Gribble, Commander Claud Harding, Mr. John H. Ingram, Mr. Ernest Brain, Mr. J. Newton Beach, Dr. F. Hewitt, Mr. Sidney Low and Mrs. Low, Mr. Kingsley Conan Doyle, Sir John and Lady Brickwood, Captain Acheson, Mr. Franklin Lieber, Mr. Harold Hartley, Mr. James Purefoy Poe, Mr. T. Cato Worsfold, Mr. Charles Garvice (chairman of committee), and Mrs. Garvice, Mr. Algernon and Mrs. Rose, Dr. Bernard Hollander, Mr. Duncan Irvine (secretary of the Arts Club), Dr. P. W. Ames (secretary of the Royal Society of Literature), Mr. Robert Machray, Mr. Henry Longman, Dr. S. Stephenson, Mr. St. John Lucas, Mr. Morley Roberts, Mr. Horace Wyndham, Dr. E. Law, Sir Bruce and Lady Seton, Mr. Percy White, Mr. Albert Gray, K.C., Dr. Stanton Colt, Mr. John Lane and Mrs. Lane, Mr. B. Van Praagh, and Dr. J. Todhunter. In the recess at the rear of the chairman was an enlargement of a medallion portrait of Poe executed by Mr. Albert Bruce Joy, supported by the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. The tables and walls were decorated with American and British emblems, and at the top of the table, in front of the chairman, was the American eagle. The work of organizing the celebration entailed much labour and correspondence, the greater part of which devolved upon Mr. Algernon Rose, the hon. secretary of the club, who is to be congratulated on the success which attended the occasion.
The toasts of "The King" and "The President of the United States of America" having been honoured, Sir A. CONAN DOYLE, who was warmly received, said:— We have met here tonight as a body of English authors to celebrate the centenary of the birth of our great American fellow-worker and master, Edgar Allan Poe. He was a son of America, and yet we can also take some pride in his genesis. Not only was his mother an Englishwoman, but he came from an old Anglo-Irish family, the present head of which is rented at this table. (Cheers). Often when the flower and the fruit is across the Atlantic it pleases us to think that the old roots lie deep in our British soil. When we look at many of the great men who adorn the literary and the political history of the United States too are conscious of the half-proud and half-sad feeling of the man who sees grafts from his own ancestral trees flourishing mightily upon the land which has passed from his family. The name-label still tells whence the tree has come. (Cheers.) It has been a great year of centenaries — Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, and many more. These are names which have been carved far more deeply upon the world than his whom we have met to commemorate. And yet Poe has one claim upon us which these others lack. To all of them there came full fame and recognition in their lifetime. They had their full careers and ended as victors. It was not so with Poe. Fate struck him down before his genius had time fully to mature, before either the man or his work had reached the full development. These others wore their laurel crowns upon their living brows, but his we can only lay upon his tomb. It would be impertinent for me to enter with any detail into the life of Edgar Allan Poe. It is part or our literary heritage, known to you as to me.
A very slight acquaintance with that life will convince that the notion of a moping, brooding nature, a nature which was morbid out of pure wantonness, is not justified by the facts. It is here that the story of his life corrects the impression which might be left by some of his work. Starting with an impressionable and highly sensitive nature, a succession of events which were entirely beyond his own control warped him towards that sadness which is reflected in his writings. Never was there a literary attitude which was less of a pose. Consider the facts. On both sides he inherited the artistic temperament. To such an organization even the smaller evils of life seem formidable. Yet in the very outset, when only three years old, he sustained the loss of both his parents. A nature of a type which is particularly dependent upon love and sympathy was left with absolutely no one to whom to turn. It was a piteous childhood. Adopted by his godfather, he was sent at an early age to England — to him a strange and foreign country — there to endure his schooling under the rough conditions of those days. It was all very cold and loveless, and his soul was driven in upon itself. A little kindness and sympathy brought it out at once with an impetuosity and wealth of gratitude which must have amazed the recipient. It is in this recoil from loneliness that we find the explanation for the fervent, passionate letters which he wrote when a boy of 14 to Mrs. Stannard, the mother of one of his schoolfellows, who had shown him some kindness. It was then, incredible as it may seem, that he wrote those great verses, which end:—
- "Thy classic face
- ... has brought me home
- To the glory that was Greece
- And the grandeur that was Rome.
- Lo, in yon brilliant window niche
- How statue-like I see thee stand,
- The agate lamp within thy hand,
- Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
- Are Holy land."
I do not think that in the whole range of English poetry one could point to anything so mature and so dignified as these verses done at so early an age. (Hear, hear.) His whole nature opened like a flower before the warmth of this kind woman's sympathy. But it was Poe's hard fate that the shadow ever came so quickly upon the little sunshine which broke upon his path. Mrs. Stannard died, and again he was left alone with his own emotions. But even then, after this sad young life, he was not of a morbid type. He was very virile and athletic. When he returned to America and went to college he was noted as a runner, a swimmer, and a boxer. He was no milksop or dreamer, but a proper lad of his hands, full of healthy open-air instincts. Still, a cruel fate bent him to a strange purpose. Everything went amiss with him, sometimes through his own impetuous, ardent nature, but usually through no fault of his own. Surely he had himself in mind when in "The Raven" he wrote of
- "Some unhappy master, whom unmerciful Disaster
- Followed fast and followed faster."
His godfather married again, and having at last a child of his own disinherited the adopted one. Poe found himself homeless. It was shortly after this time that he volunteered to fight for Greece in the War of Independence. It would certainly have been an odd thing if the greatest living poet of England and the most original poet of America had both fought in the same quarrel. However, Byron met his death, and the end of the war prevented Poe from starting.
THE "CROWNING SORROW."
Then came the crowning sorrow of his life, which left him a broken and desperate man. That was his love for his cousin Virginia Clemm, his marriage and her early death after four years of perfect happiness. Even now cannot read of that death scene without horror. The lovely girl of eighteen — she was but fourteen when she was married — the husband chafing the cold feet, the great yellow cat laid on her cheat to supply the warmth which poor food and imperfect covering denied. Even to us, I say, this is grotesque and horrible. What was it to this exquisitely sensitive and deeply loving nature which had to endure it? Is it a wonder that it left him a broken thing, a man without hope or purpose in life, a husk from which the virtue and energy had been taken? I give this short sketch of the successive disasters which darkened Poe's life to show how irresistibly his mind was turned to a sad and sinister outlook. He was no morbid and self-conscious neurotic, but one whose healthy and natural mind had been darkened by the facts of life as he had found them. Had he been the figure drawn by his acrid biographer Griswold, he would have been an object of contempt. As he really lived he was an object for heart-felt sympathy and admiration — sympathy for his sorrows, admiration for lofty view of the literary calling. In that view he was most nobly independent. Never, I should think, did any man under such pressure hold so high a standard. (Cheers.)
A few words now as to this great man's work. It is not, I think, upon his strange and haunting poems that Poe's fame will rest. They are musical to a degree, original, masterful, and yet so aloof from life, so devoid of message, that one feels their limitation. But his tales were one of the great landmarks and starting points in the literature of the last century for French as well as for English writers. For those tales have been so pregnant with suggestion, so stimulating to the minds of others, that it may be said of many of them that each is a root from which a whole literature has developed. The originality of the ideas, unspoiled by redundancy, and told in that restrained, austere, "black-velvet" style of his, produces an impression on the mind which can never be eradicated. In his prodigal way he never repeated himself. When he had done his work he broke the mould. His original and inventive brain was always trying daring experiments, always opening up pioneer tracks for other men to explore. It is the irony of fate that he should have died in poverty, for if every man who wrote a story which was indirectly inspired by Poe were to pay a tithe towards a monument, it would be such as would dwarf the Pyramids. One may glance in a few words at some of those root "The Gold Bug," the obvious father of every cryptogram-solving and treasure-hunting story from that day to this. There are the exploits of M. Dupin. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it? There is the pseudo-scientific story, which has since been so popular both here and under M. Jules Verne in France. It traces back to the "Journey to the Moon" and to the "Case of M. Valdemar." There is the double personality, Jekyll and Hyde, story. Its first appearance was in "William Wilson." This one man's brain was like a seed capsule which scatters its seeds carelessly to every wind. The capsule withers, but the seed spreads and flourishes without end. (Cheers.) I have little more to say. A French philosopher has remarked that "life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." Poe was one who felt acutely, and to him it was a tragedy. Was it all waste? It is possible to construct a scheme of life which would show that a happy life is a wasted one, that all progress and refinement are on the lines of pain. If we who hold it cannot prove it, at least its opponent cannot disprove it. It would at least give some rational and consoling explanation of such a life as this, which must otherwise seem so aimless and so tragic. It was said in his life that he had no friends. That at least we have set right; this room is enough to disprove it. (Cheers.) It was said in his life that he had no friends. That at least we have set right; this room is enough to disprove it. (Cheers.) And so I ask you, as a sign of our feeling, to pledge his memory in silence — a sentiment which I couple with the name of his Excellency the American Ambassador.
An ode written by Mr. Herbert Trench for the occasion was then recited by the author. It included the following verses:—
- When I think of him, comes gliding
- A perfume strange, abiding
- Of a flower I saw when riding
- One summer night
- In the Dolomite
- When stars did all the guiding.
- So 'mid inhuman splendour
- Chaotic, bleak, untender
- To all that skies engender
- In giddy air
- These poems rare
- Do flutter, wild and slender.
The toast having been drunk in silence.
Mr. WHITELAW REID — who was cordially greeted, in response, said:— It is quite true that my countrymen ought to have the first interest in the very noteworthy centenary you celebrate. But this is far from implying that their official representative in this country is at all entitled to the place your partiality has assigned him, or that America in general has shown adequate appreciation in the past for this son of hers whose memory you have met to honour. The celebration to-night is a little late, for reasons well known and quite sufficient, over a month after the actual date, a hundred years ago, on which Edgar Allan Poe entered upon his troubled life. The fact itself is quite in keeping with his career. Everything came to him too late, in life, as in death, especially in his own country. Even when good fortune seemed ready to press itself upon him more than once during his life, his temperamental waywardness, heedlessness, irresponsibility, kept him from appreciating the opportunity until too late. Now, long after his unhappy death, and long after your English and French literary tribunals have accepted him as one of the immortals, his countrymen yet wait even beyond the century, still hesitating to place him with their other literary figures, some surely far smaller, in their Hall of Fame.
POE'S PLACE IN LITERATURE.
Few of them indeed would to-day go so far in his honour as do some of your British authorities. They would pause, for instance, at the decision or one that "Poe is the most interesting figure in American literature"; and they would be almost startled at the further dictum that "few English writers of the 19th century are likely to have a more enduring fame." Americans confronted with that verdict would be apt to recall the great Georgian and Victorian roll of English writers, and would then reflect that they had themselves a writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne, and another named Ralph Waldo Emerson, and another named Benjamin Franklin. In fact, my countrymen for once have been slow (laughter), unusually slow, to think well of the native American product. His genius, so frankly and generously recognized abroad, is of course no longer questioned. But we take pains to remember that it ran within certain narrow and sharply defined channels; that it frequently failed to reach the highest and best human emotions; that it was often morbid and sometimes repulsive.
Yet, with all abatements, Poe's place was surely in the front rank, if not at the very head, among the world's tellers of short stories. (Cheers.) Who has since given us, in such perfect English, the indefinable mystery and the shuddering sense of implacable fate, pervading air, earth, and sky, lake and forest, house and people, which we all recall whenever we think of "The Fall of the House of Usher"? Where has the fiendish perfection of revenge been presented more powerfully or more briefly, or with more artistic reserve, than in "The Cask of Amontillado"? Nay, gentlemen, may I venture to ask in this presence, in view of the generous reference the legitimate and forerunner of the immortal Sherlock Holmes himself, if not the author of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"? And who pointed the way to "Treasure Island" if not the author of "The Gold Bug"? Where indeed are the "Tales of the Arabesque and the Grotesque" to be surpassed in their own in the literature of America, or of England, or of France, or of the world? (Cheers.)
But when his poetry is mentioned, some of you who may have coincided tolerably thus far with what I have been saying will surely dissent. I do not think Poe's place in poetry so high or so secure as his place in the telling of short stories. I admit at once the incomparable rhythm, the mastery of the wonderful music that may be married to English verse, the sad haunting tenderness, melody, and mystery. The technique of Poe's poetry is perfection. The general American public, more generous to him here by far than in any other feature of his work or his life, would probably put "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and "Leonore" among the very finest poems, perhaps the finest, in the literature of the New World; while a judicious few would surely place beside them "To Helen," "Israfel," "Ulalumé," and some others.
HIS DEFECTS AS A POET.
Yet, perfect as they are of their kind, they still seem to me to lack the highest poetic merit — the soul is not in them. How could it be? Here is a man of rare genius who enters the poetical field with the avowed and serious belief that a long poem cannot exist; that the epic is a mania, and the didactic a heresy; that the truth has no sympathy with myrtles; that in fact poetry must be solely and exclusively the rhythmical creation of beauty; that with the intellect or conscience it has a collateral relations, and no concern whatever either with duty or with trust. These are his own expressions, not from some mad extravaganza, but from his soberest and most deliberate effort to define the nature of the poetic art. Not so was conceived the immortal poetry that reverberated through the organ notes of Milton. On no such theory of poetic limitations were written the sonnets and plays, touching human nature with infallible truth at a thousand points, by the myriad-minded Shakespeare. Far different was the inspiration of the great Georgian poet who wrote the "Ode to Duty" — "stern daughter of the Voice of God," or of that supreme master of the didactic and the beautiful, the author of "In Memoriam." Far different indeed the inspiration of that later gallant spirit who from his bed of constant pain set the soul of an Empire to verse in "What have I done for you, England, my England?" (cheers); or of that other, of whom Mark Twain finely said at Oxford that his fame envelops the world like an atmosphere, who put the heart's prayer of that Empire into words in his "God of our fathers, known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle-line."
There have been Americans, too, who thought poetry might relate to truth and duty and country; and broke the withes in which Poe sought, to bind it. I spare you a multitude of examples, from the Concord hymn and the "Building of the Ship" and the "Song of the Camp" and the "Chambered Nautilus" and the "Harvard Commemoration Ode," and the stirring lyrics of our Civil War, and many more. But may I read to you just vagaries as Poe himself, but whose best passions were truth and his country? It relates to a great America, one of the great men of all time, whose centenary fell also in this very year and month, and I take it as the first, not the best, in the short poem:—
- "O Captain, my Captain, our fearful trip is done.
- The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won
- The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
- While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
- But O heart! heart! heart!
- O the bleeding drops of red!
- Where on the deck my Captain lies,
- Fallen cold and dead."
(Cheers.) That because in poetry Poe perversely limited himself, we must not fail to acknowledge how high he rose, within those unreasonable limits. If I say that, considering his work merely in his own chosen light, as the rhythmical creation of beauty, in that sole field not even Swinburne has surpassed him, perhaps I have said enough. We ought not to forget that Poe was also a brilliant critic — if the authors here consider that a merit! (Laughter.) He was more; in the main he was also a just and sound critic. He had, to be sure, an impish dislike of Longfellow, perhaps because of his respectability (laughter); but when that is remembered, it may well be offset with his early and prompt appreciation and his generous praise of his only contemporary rival in his own field of the short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Hear, hear.)
Finally, let us never forget his hard fate in his own choice of a literary executor and biographer. Not till this generation did he get bare justice at home — and then best perhaps in the definitive edition of his works and biography issued a few years ago by two associates professor Woodberry, of Columbia, and the prominent and lately mourned man of letters whom New Yorkers loved to call our banker poet, but who must always live in memory with some of us as among the cheeriest of comrades, and the most chivalric of friends, dear, gallant, debonair Ned Stedman. It was a pathetic story which these editors had to deal with, and we have to remember to-night. I and not going to dwell on it, I am only going to protest against Griswold's version of it. Poe was not a bad man; in many ways he was tender, and lovable, and loyal. Certainly he was not so wicked a he was painted; only pitifully weak. Let those who are perfect cast stones. And, ladies and gentlemen of the Society of Authors, if there is any moral we want to draw for ourselves from the life and death and work of the brilliant creature we have been considering, it can only be the old one that the Bohemianism which is apt to fascinate us in our youth is not a spur to genius, but a clog; and that, after the proper development of such powers as God may have given us, there is nothing in the whole world so surely helpful for us, whether in literature or in life, as character. (Cheers.)
Mr. GARVICE, in proposing "Our Visitors," said that this task was rendered all the more pleasant by the presence of Captain Poe, the descendant of the poet. (Hear, hear.) It was only natural that on the centenary of Poe the voice of the critic should be heard in the land, but not for the first time had he been impressed by the limitations of the influence of literary criticism. In the case of Poe analytical criticism was more than usually futile. To put the matter in a nutshell he would recall one of the obiter dicto of Mr. Birrell — "There is someone greater than Voltaire, wiser than Napoleon" — they would notice the cynical transposition of the adjectives — "it was the world at large; give the world time, and it will be right." The world did not need much time to arrive at the estimate of Poe. The great heart of the people at once took him to it, and he would be enthroned there for ever more. (Hear, hear.) He ventured to offer to Captain Poe and his fellow-visitors this tribute of their welcome as coming from the whole literary body of England, but especially as proceeding from the Authors' Club. (Hear, hear.) They desired to make their club the home of the whole literary world; they especially wanted the American author, when he arrived in England, to feel that it was, so to speak, the Mecca of his journey. If Edgar Allan Poe were living now he would not be homeless and friendless, for his straying footsteps would turn to the Authors' Club, where he would be assured of a hearty welcome and that warm sympathy in his dark hour — the awful hour which, alas! genius, and sometimes mere talent, experienced — and he would go on his brilliant course soothed and encouraged. (Cheers.) He coupled with the toast the name of Captain Poe. (Cheers.)
CAPTAIN POE, who responded, said that by the accident of birth and the vicissitudes of time he stood before them as the senior member of the family to which the celebrated poet in whose honour they had gathered that night belonged. Poe's great-grandfather emigrated to the United States many years before he was born. His centenary had been well and duly honoured in the country of birth, and it was a just and proper thing that also, in the great metropolis, they should join in doing so. No doubt many of those present were much better acquainted with his life and writings than himself. It had taken time and trouble to brush away the cobwebs of inaccuracy that encircled his memory, and to show him in a more accurate light in the later biography published. It was only two days ago that he had placed in his hands an old edition of Poe's poems, and he was singularly struck by the marked likeness it contained, which was introduced also so ably by Mr. Bruce Joy, to some members of the family in Ireland — a likeness more prominent and keen than one often saw in two brothers. He thanked them on behalf of himself, and also of the American visitors, for their kind hospitality. (Cheers.)
The concluding toast was that of "The Chairman," proposed by Mr. FRANCIS GRIBBLE.
During the evening three of Poe's poems, "The Raven," "The Bells," and "Eldorado," were recited by Mr. J. Harry Irvine.