It is difficult to recite “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe without sounding like an idiot. The first line is navigable without much trouble; the two lines near the close (“From the bells, bells, bells, bells/Bells, bells, bells --”) are just vocal calisthenics. But they return at the same point in the following stanza, with an additional three “bells” for good measure. By the fourth and final stanza, the word repeats twelve times in five lines, and dignity is just a memory.
In one of the harsher evaluations of Poe, the critic Yvor Winters complained about “such resounding puerilities as ‘the pallid bust of Pallas’ ” in “The Raven,” which he called “that attenuated exercise for elocutionists.” That may be, but “The Raven” invites and almost demands oral performance, which in part explains how quickly it became part of American vernacular culture following its publication in 1845. If ever a poem were destined for recitation by James Earl Jones, it is “The Raven.”
In his new book The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel (Harvard University Press), Jerome McGann points out that “The Bells” once served as “an experimental challenge for one of the [Victorian] period’s favorite pastimes, spectacular recitation.” That to some degree mitigates the impression that “The Bells” is, as a poem, a disaster: sufficient grounds for Emerson’s brutal dismissal of Poe as “the jingle man.” It is possible “The Bells” was Poe’s effort to make lightning strike a second and more financially rewarding time (“The Raven” was wildly successful, but he’d sold it for $9), but more important for judging the poem is knowing that it embodies a performative and even competitive aesthetic that simply isn’t part of how we read it now.
Assuming, that is, that we read his poetry at all, beyond middle school. Poe’s fiction looms much larger in contemporary literary culture, and it remains a significant part of popular culture as well. Quantifying such things is hard, but it’s telling that for every book-length study of his poetry that has been published, there are three analyzing his fiction. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman figure as the American poets of his era whose influence continued and deepened over time. By contrast Poe’s language and form appear conventional, even when his poetry ventures into realms of madness and erotic obsession – like Longfellow, except morbid. (And to that degree, perhaps, more interesting.)
McGann, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia, rejects that assessment, root and branch. McGann’s early criticism focused on Lord Byron, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Algernon Swinburne, but over the past couple of decades he has been a thoughtful advocate for the digital humanities; his most recent book on that front, published earlier this year, is A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction, also from Harvard. Besides advocating digital scholarship, McGann has been a practitioner of it, as exemplified by his work on The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Archive.
So it comes as a surprise that in his book on Poe’s poetry McGann returns to a vein of critical writing that seems, if not old-fashioned, at least indifferent to today’s modes of focusing (or splintering) attention. The Poet Edgar Allan Poe is, among other things, a response to that take-down by Yvor Winters mentioned earlier – an essay appearing in the journal American Literature, all the way back in 1937.
Winters was comprehensively dismissive of Poe’s work as a whole, calling it “an art to delight the soul of a servant girl” and professing “astonishment that mature men can take this kind of thing seriously.” But the expression of chauvinistic snobbery was incidental to Winters’s more basic objection to Poe’s sensibility – his understanding of what literature was, and should be. He charged Poe with believing that “the subject matter of poetry, properly considered, is by definition incomprehensible and unattainable; the poet, in dealing with something else, toward which he has no intellectual or moral responsibilities whatever … should merely endeavor to suggest that a higher meaning exists – in other words, should endeavor to suggest the presence of a meaning when he is aware of none. The poet has only to write a good description of something physically impressive, with an air of mystery, an air of meaning concealed.”
Winters quotes passages from Poe’s correspondence and literary criticism that seem to corroborate this portrait of Poe as a shallow dandy -- babbling about Beauty and contemptuous of Truth, turning out literature at a self-trivializing remove from any concern with real life or meaningful values.
Winters calls this attitude “obscurantist.” And clearly Poe is not the only offender he has in mind. T.S. Eliot is a likely example of who he’s implicitly attacking -- and Winters makes the overt suggestion that Poe’s outlook was also typical of Hart Crane, who had killed himself just a few years earlier. Aestheticism yields nihilism, then suicide.
Talk about a symptomatic reading…. Jerome McGann goes over many of the same passages Winters adduced in his bill of complaints against Poe, considering them alongside numerous lesser-known writings as well as Poe’s literary models, especially Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge. From a close reading of Poe’s rhetorical tropes and careful reconstructions of context, McGann draws out a much richer understanding of Poe’s perspective on art and life than Winters’s polemic allows.
“Affect is summoned into and then driven from the poems,” McGann says, “and, like an exorcised demon, set free to enter and take possession of the reader. … His poetry does not propose a compensation for the loss of loved and cherished things, it tells a double truth about those losses: first, that they lie beyond redemption; and second that they need not — indeed, must not — lie beyond a ‘mournful and never-ending remembrance.’ For memory is called to cherish even the factitious world.”
For it’s the only world the reader’s got – and not for long, at that. Those losses, and mournful recollections, take place against the backdrop of a teeming and bustling 19th-century America, with no prospect of anything but acceleration ahead. “That,” McGann says, “is the ultimate meaning of Poe’s mortally immortal word ‘Nevermore’….”
Unlike the figure Winters portrayed, McGann’s Poe doesn’t settle for poetry as delicate noises composed somewhere beyond real life; he doesn’t shirk the effort to find and express meaning. The argument is compelling, although McGann’s enthusiasm for “The Bells” seems pushing things too far.
About “The Bells,” I think the best thing you can do is repeat Mark Twain’s considered opinion of Wagner’s music: “It isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
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