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.” 


  1. Alfred Corn in a post yesterday afternoon supplied so much that usefully supplements my introduction that I’ll copy and paste it here–for that reason, and to encourage readers to scroll down through the many acute “Older Comments” below. Including Alice Webber’s link to the Darby Conley comic strip. Here is Alfred:

    Yes, I remember in one of her interviews, EB said she liked that poem. Among other 20th c. poets who visited his work, even if they didn’t stay long, there is Hart Crane, who put Poe in his “The Tunnel” section of =The Bridge=. Richard Wilbur also wrote a persuasive essay about Poe. My sense is that all the night-moon poems of Bishop have some DNA from “Fairy-Land”. In “Varick Street” we get, “See the mechanical moons,/sick, being made/to wax and wane/at somebody’s instigation.” Or “Love Lies Sleeping,” where the speaker commands, “Hang-over moons, wane, wane!” Or “Insomnia,” with its mirror-reflected mirror, Dreamwork in early Bishop is a prevalent feature, and we know that she ardently admired Surrealism. The moon, needless to say, has always been associated with dreams, the irrational, and even lunacy. So, sure, “The Man-Moth” owes something to Poe. Myself, I don’t object to seeing it as an allegory for the artist, especially if the artist is (Bishopian term) “queer.”

  2. Thanks Robert. I did not know the Poe poem. A kinship I notice involves the restless persistence in Poe’s “butterflies/Of Earth, who seek the skies,/And so come down again / (Never-contented things!)” that parallels the force driving Bishop’s antihero: “what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.”

    Poe’s qualification—“Like—almost any thing—/Or a yellow Albatross”—is another one of those oh-so-Bishop-like asides, no?

    I trust this forum permits digressions? I’ve long thought Bishop had Coleridge’s “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison” somewhere in mind when writing “Poem (about the size of an old-style dollar bill. . .”). Both are “conversation poems” journeying from “home” along an imaginative circuit back to “home”; both exclaim when memory and imagination fuse (Coleridge’s “Yes!” and Bishop’s “Heavens!”); for both, imagination forges a human-to-human bond; and (a stretch?) Coleridge’s rook, seen as a “dim speck,” rhymes with Bishop’s “flyspeck” on the painting she observes.

    Thanks for getting us talking about these two poems talking to each other.

    • Steven, your first point should have been in my introduction: the climbing and descending butterflies at the end of Poe’s poem set the standard or expectation for the light-seeking man-moth in Bishop’s poem. Somehow I didn’t attend to that physical (and entymological?) parallel.
      The “Bishop-like asides” like “videlicet” and “I think extravagant” and the one you mention are maybe the main thing that impelled me to present the poem she recommended next to this one of hers.
      And Coleridge (!) digressions of this kind are welcome. Bishop in a way not a literary writer, but in another way, quite likely to allude, ring changes (the not-quite-remembered Wordsworth word that her Crusoe strives to recall) and incorporate.

  3. I am calling this a great learning experience. I have read all comments and I choose to be a silent participant for now. :)) It is great to see what others point out, that I did not see at first. I love to read and write poetry, but I am not an academic on the subject, so this forum is my classroom for now. Thank you Robert for the opportunity to expand my understanding.

    • Marcela, what you say here is important to me because I want this forum to be inclusive and helpful: many kinds of readers should be welcome. For many of us professionals that is desirable: high standards of intelligence and manners in a conversation about poems, in a setting wider than our customary settings.

      So thank you. And I hope when you have something to say or ask you will not hesitate.

  4. I guess I’d say “who may likely be female, Bishop herself or a projection of her” . . . this somewhat quibbling thought, Bethany, my way of preserving a kind of tactful deadpan in this passage, and in EB’s work generally.

    Since I’ve presented both poems as imaginative, extravagant fireworks, it’s good to have you pointing out that both also direct attention to the neglected, the marginal, the often-unattended detail: the pollen on the wings of an ephemerid, the doll-stand, etc.

  5. Happy to just read along this time. The surrealism is so far from where my own timid imagination is able to go, I don’t always know how to read it, that is, to enjoy it. The conversation helps. Thanks.

    • Thanks for registering this appreciation, Robin. A remarkable quality in Bishop’s surreal narratives, with this poem and “The Weed” only two examples, is how matter-of-fact and understated she keeps the tone. The surprise in “Fairy-Land” is to find glimmers of that, for me unexpectecly, in Poe.

  6. So interesting. EB referred to Poe pretty often (in letters to Lowell, comparing Wm Burroughs and WD Snodgrass to him!) In considering Robert’s excellent comparison, I am struck with her tussle with Poe’s theory of composition (written perhaps parodically to elucidate another anthropomorphosed creature, “The Raven”):
    —how long does the music burn?
    like poetry, or all your horror
    half as exact as horror here?

    Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box

    half creatures indeed.

  7. Thanks for the posting-tip, Robert! I was most taken, in both poems, with the way that the poets found significance in the easily dismissed. By the time Poe came around fairies had begun to lose their teeth in terms of cultural significance and so placing that word in the title could be interpreted as a signal of frivolity which the rest of the poem plays with and, the slight aside aside, dismisses. Bishop’s moth-man takes an extremely close look at a creature that is more often used As a prop to generate an atmosphere than examined on it’s own merit. I think that, in terms of the poem’s connection to Poe, her words and the lunar imagery are the threads that bind it. Threads enough to hold together, I’d say.

    Speaking of gender in Bishop’s poem, Alice, i thought it was significant that in a way the man-moth makes a moon himself that he will consume if he is not watched! Otherwise, he will give it (as a weapon or a gift) to the observer who we must assume is female, being Bishop herself.

    • Bethany, I guess I’d say “who may likely be female, Bishop herself or a projection of her” . . . this somewhat quibbling thought, Bethany, my way of preserving a kind of tactful deadpan in this passage, and in EB’s work generally.
      Since I’ve presented both poems as imaginative, extravagant fireworks, it’s good to have you pointing out that both also direct attention to the neglected, the marginal, the often-unattended detail: the pollen on the wings of an ephemerid, the doll-stand, etc.
      (Clumsily, I’ve posted this as a Post above and a Reply here . . still blundering after all these years . . . )

      • That is probably the safer assumption to make. God knows a man can write a female narrator and a woman can write a male one.
        Part of the magic of fireworks are in the details, no? Each small combustion adds its portion to the whole… I think that in this case the details supply the burst and boom of colour.

    • The tear as moon? Fascinating. It’s the other way round in “Sestina”: “the little moons fall down like tears / from between the pages of the almanac…”

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