The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIV. Poe

§ 12. His Creed and Practice of Poetry

Poe’s critical doctrines find their best exemplification in his own poems. He is, first of all, a poet of beauty, paying little heed to morality or to the life of his fellow-men. He is, in the second place, a master-craftsman, who has produced a dozen poems of a melody incomparable so far as the western world is concerned; and he has achieved an all but flawless construction of the whole in such poems as The Raven, The Haunted Palace, and The Conqueror Worm; while in The Bells he has performed a feat in onomatopœia quite unapproached before or since in the English language. He is, moreover, one of the most original of poets. And the best of his verse exhibits a spontaneity and finish and perfection of phrase, as well as, at times, a vividness of imagery, that it is difficult to match elsewhere in American poetry.

But his poems of extraordinary worth are exceedingly few—scarcely above a score at most—in which must be included the earlier lines To Helen, Israfel, The City in the Sea, The Sleeper, The Haunted Palace, Dream-Land, The Raven, Ulalume, For Annie, and Annabel Lee. And most of his earlier verses are manifestly imitative, Byron and Moore and Coleridge and Shelley being his chief models; while much of his earlier work, including all of the volume of 1827, and some of his latest—notably the verses addressed to Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Shew and Mrs. Lewis—are either fragmentary and “incondite” or mere “verses,” or both. It has been justly said that “there is almost no poet between whose best and worst verse there is a wider disparity.” His range, too, is narrower than that of any other American poet of front rank. Consistently with one of his theories already adverted to, he wrote no long poem, save the juvenile Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf, both of them extremely crude performances (though Al Aaraaf contains excellent passages and played a large part in his development as poet), and an abortive play, Politian, which he never saw fit to publish in its entirety; so that he lives as poet solely by reason of his lyrics. And within the realm of the lyric he confined himself to the narrowest range of ideas. Nature he employed merely as ornament or as symbol or to fill in the background; and nowhere in his poems does he deal with the life about him, except in so far as he writes of friends and kindred. His most constant theme—if we exclude the poet himself, for few writers have so constantly reflected themselves in their work—is either the death of a beautiful woman and the grief occasioned thereby, or the realm of shades—the spirit-world—a subject to which he was strongly attracted, especially in his middle years. Hence, although most European critics have accorded him first place among American poets, most American critics have hesitated to accept their verdict.

Much of the excellence of his best poems arises from the never-ending revisions to which he subjected them. The Raven, for example, exists in upwards of a dozen variant forms, and some of his earlier verses were so radically altered as to be scarcely recognizable in their final recast. His melody, especially in his later poems, grows in large measure out of his all but unexampled use of parallelism and of the refrain. Not a little of his charm, moreover, both in his earlier and in his later work, results from his use of symbolism. It is idle to complain that his best verses—as Israfel or The Haunted Palace—are superficial; and it is futile to contend that such poems as Annabel Lee or the sonnet To My Mother are not sincere, or that his poems, one and all, lack spontaneity. But it is not to be denied that some of his best-known poems—as Lenore and The Raven—exhibit too much of artifice; that The Conqueror Worm and passages in still other poems approach too near to the melodramatic; and that, with many readers, his verses must suffer by reason of their sombreness of tone.