Corny or great? Maudlin or masterful? The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe inspires a wide range of judgments.

Translated and admired by Charles Baudelaire, Poe became celebrated as a great writer in France. Like Jack London in Russia, a kind of export-only great American writer. But modernist and contemporary taste has considered poems like “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” as dated or worse, no more than melodramatic jangle. One variation has been to deprecate the poems while admiring the innovative, compressed stories. But that, too, has been doubted, as in the epigram in Thom Gunn’s “Readings in French”:

Though Edgar Poë writes a lucid prose,
Just and rhetorical without exertion,
It loses all lucidity, God knows,
In the single, poorly-rendered English version.

Gunn’s umlaut apparently indicates the pronunciation of “Poe” preferred in the country where his greatness as a poet is most secure.

At this point, I need to name-drop. In conversation, I once alluded to Poe in conversation with Elizabeth Bishop. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it was mildly slighting, in a conventional way. Bishop told me that Poe wrote at least one great poem, “Fairy-Land.” She described the poem, and its impact on her, enough for me to be certain which one she meant of two similar poems with that title:

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read “Fairy-Land.” 

FAIRY-LAND (Edgar Allan Poe)

Dim vales—and shadowy floods—
And cloudy-looking woods,
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over:
Huge moons there wax and wane—
Every moment of the night—
Forever changing places—
And they put out the star-light
With the breath from their pale faces.
About twelve by the moon-dial,
One more filmy than the rest
(A kind which, upon trial,
They have found to be the best)
Comes down—still down—and down
With its centre on the crown
Of a mountain’s eminence,
While its wide circumference
In easy drapery falls
Over hamlets, over halls,
Wherever they may be—
O’er the strange woods—o’er the sea—
Over spirits on the wing—
Over every drowsy thing—
And buries them up quite
In a labyrinth of light—
And then, how, deep! —O, deep,
Is the passion of their sleep.
In the morning they arise,
And their moony covering
Is soaring in the skies,
With the tempests as they toss,
Like—almost any thing—
Or a yellow Albatross.
They use that moon no more
For the same end as before,
Videlicet, a tent—
Which I think extravagant:
Its atomies, however,
Into a shower dissever,
Of which those butterflies
Of Earth, who seek the skies,
And so come down again
(Never-contented things!)
Have brought a specimen
Upon their quivering wings.


I think (but cannot prove) that this poem inspired or informed Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” another eerie, persuasive and lunar imagining. Resemblances include the scope of imagination: in Bishop, a hybrid being suggested by a typo climbs a building; in Poe, a realm of multiple, filmy moons, with the filmiest becoming a dissolving, mountain-beshrouding tent. In both poems, tears matter. Beyond similarities of content, the two poems share a smiling, even jaunty tone that emerges at moments, as though to acknowledge—but not dispel—the gorgeously profligate nature of the imagination. Poe’s poem follows “Videlicet, a tent—/ Which I think extravagant.” That deadpan aside, at a droll remove from the bizarre realm that has just been reported, has a tone like Bishop’s to my ear. The reportorial tone for the surreal tale is one of her principles, practiced, I think, not only in “The Man-Moth.” Another example is “12 O’Clock News.”

Putting aside those matters of inspiration or similarity, I think that Bishop recommended a terrific work of art, a poem that long ago led me to revise, and I hope enlarge, my thinking about Poe.

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read “Man-Moth.” 


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  3. Like many commenters here, I’ve always had many reservations about Poe, not least because when I began to teach, I discovered (like someone else who posted on this thread) that he was one of the very few authors the entire class would have read, or at least heard of; the Gothic and other variants on what seemed to me to be cheap mysteries were very popular among the students at several universities where I worked. However, I learned so much from this discussion that I’m glad I was given a chance to think about Poe again. And about the Man-Moth — the question about whether or not the Man-Moth in giving away his tear would sacrifice his life is a wonderful one to consider. I’ll remember Kathryn Levy’s eloquent phrase about “the unease of the perpetual stranger” in Bishop’s writing. Also, Robert’s references to how “matter of fact and understated [Bishop] keeps the tone” reminded me of what I heard Robert Lowell once say in class, approvingly, about this poem: that there was “no fancy poetic surrealistic writing in it.” T.R. Hummer, thanks too for reminding us that memorizing poetry used to be common. The Favorite Poem Project videos (like the “Nick and the Candlestick” one) show how one can be possessed by and take possession of a poem by memorizing it, and how important that experience still is to so many.

  4. The tear-moon association is good to have noted . . . and is just like the way each imagination has its unique ways, customs, proclivites, goofs and unconscious or semi-conscious or conscious codes.

  5. I appreciate the atmosphere of profligate imagination in the world of Poe’s poem, especially how he heightens the mood through paradox/juxtaposition: “a labyrinth of light” (how can light both clarify and obscure?) in which things are “buried” (buried in non-matter?), “the passion of their sleep” (how can sleep be both passive and passionate?), maybe even the moon that comes “down / With its centre on the crown / Of a mountain’s eminence” (is this an image regally triumphant, or apocalyptic? or both?). And in the poem overall, there’s the great hubbub and violence of the moons’ motions, the tempest, the tumult of outer space and the whole earth (the woods, the sea, every drowsy thing)—and then all of this extravagance distilled into one tiny, calm specimen, borne down to earth on the wing of a fragile creature. (Specimen = Poe’s poem? A mere suggestive hint of his extravagant inner world?)

    I also want to point out that, within the paradox and profligacy, there’s a lot of truth: light really DOES both clarify and obscure, sleep really IS both passive and passionate, etc. And there really ARE worlds in the universe with multiple moons (though I’m not sure if this was known at Poe’s time).

    The poem seems to give itself over to the thrill of literature in the most literal way possible: the establishment of a world that is both more and less than our own. More moons, yet it fits within the printed letters of a poem (a very small part of the world), or in the cranial space of the reader.

    • Yes, Daniel Leonard, I know what you mean– the multiple moons, the pollen on butterfly wings, peculiarities of light and geology: all part of the Poe connection: dual interests or atmospheres familiar from the stories and from the tradition of detective fiction (as with Sherlock Holmes’ creator Doyle). And Bishop, too, liked lore, including scientific lore as it overlaps with the uncanny. (In a way, “The Man-Moth” sets out to make science, or quasi-science, to rationalize a misprint.) Your “the most literal way possible” sounds like something Bishop might have said.

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