E. A. Poe was almost forgotten during his century till the end when the French symbolists – or Decadents – started re-discovering his own world and to translate his stories into French. In the second half of the Victorian period, in England, the writers were attracted by his ideal of beauty, strictly connected with art and with death like many of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites painters and like O. Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Poe was not understood by his contemporaries who confused the author’s wretched private life with his poetical production. The critics of 1800 tried to confine him in a definition, limiting his works under different targets.
A. Grimswold spoke about the writer’s style as dry, but even abundant, composing an epitaph full of envy and defamation.
A poet and a critic like T. S. Eliot saw Poe’s faults, and, even if he knew the power of his writings and admitted his influence on the other poets, observed that ” Poe’s powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty” .
The critics who were devoted to Poe often lacked penetration and did not succeed in enlarging an understanding of his books as works of art, on the contrary they echoed his immaturity.
Mr. Allen Tate spoke about the American writer’s appeal confessing his involvement in his tales, and D. H. Lawrence prizes Poe’s insight into the love-hate relationship defining him as a master of “self-consciousness”.
Patrick F. Quinn in his The French Face of Poe stresses that France responded more positively than America to Poe showing a deep understanding of the American writer’s “ontological Imagination”: “Poe well knew that the everyday world would call his visions fantastic, and so for most of his readers they seem to be. But so deep was Poe’s apprehension of them they took on for him the character of profound truths, grasped by the intuition rather than the intelligence, “upon the verge of the great secret”. To read Poe properly we should realise that the experience which his stories uniquely offer us is that of participating in the life of a great ontological imagination. It is an experience of exploration and discovery that is offered us, a voyage of the mind.”
Besides the critic points to the French interest in Poe as a symbolic writer.
In fact, Poe’s genius was first recognised abroad by writers like Baudelaire and Mallarmè who were influenced by his way of writing, his use of the language and imagination and shared his theory about pure poetry. Mallarmè dedicated a poem to him whereas Baudelaire translated the tales of the “fallen angel” , as he used to call him and entitled his journal with a sentence taken from the American writer’s Marginalia: My Heart Laid Bare.
But also the Aesthetes like Pater and Wilde shared his critical theories about art for art’s sake and in particular the latter took inspiration from Poe’s studies on the duplicity of man and psychotic personalities (such as for example William Wilson, the protagonist of the homonymous short story) for his The Picture of Dorian Gray
The same can be said for Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde which were written following Poe’s precious teaching. The English author owes much of his ability in adventure stories to Poe’s the Gold Bug and The Adventures of Gordon Pym.
The psychologically oriented criticism was concerned with Poe’s unconscious advancing views such as his unproved impotence, his fear of castration or the secret hatred for his wife Virginia.
These critics ignored his conscious mind and assumed that the author and the narrator may be identified, considering his art as self-revelation.
Writers such as E. Hemingway or W. Whitman shared the opinion that in Poe’s tales there was absence of humanity, whereas W. H. Auden observes that the author’s detached heroes are not to be considered as characters in life or in fiction: they are part of the effect Poe wants to reach.
Richard Wilburne summed up his point of view with great lucidity and detailed analysis: “By the refusal of human emotion and moral concern, by the obstruction of logical and allegorical meaning, by the symbolic destruction of material fact, by negating all that he could of world and worldly self, Poe strove for a poetry of spiritual effect which should seem “the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God,” and move the reader to a moment of that sort of harmonious intuition which is to be the purifying fire of Earth and the music of the re gathering spheres. There has never been a grander conception of poetry, nor a more impoverished one.”
For this reason probably D. H. Lawrence defined Poe more a scientist than an artist whose main aim is the disruption of knowledge, of the soul, but he did not consider that Poe’s precision concerned more the language he used than the phenomena that he described. The outrages to morality, the breaking of the rules are applied to art and not to life.