Autumn Longing: Edgar Allan Poe
First, my standard proviso: If you haven’t already read the first installment in this series of posts, then please do so before reading this one, since the first one lays the groundwork for what I’m going on about.
I assume Poe needs no introduction to most readers, seeing as he — or at least a caricature of him: the alcoholic, opium-addled pedophile who wrote a few bizarre horror tales and a weird poem about a raven — has been a staple of high school literature classes for a very long time now. It still shocks me when I discover literature anthologies dated from only a very few years ago which, in their biographical sketches of Poe, perpetuate the smear campaign that was engineered against him after his death by editor Rufus Griswold and Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.
But that’s tangential. As many people know, Poe was a brilliant literary critic in addition to being a poet and fiction writer of genius. He was particularly interested in the ways that various forms of literature achieve their peculiar effects, and in this regard he wrote a couple of passages in his fine essay, “The Poetic Principle,” that touch on the subject of this ethereal longing that interests me so deeply. The essay’s purpose is to identify as nearly as possible the essence of poetry, that is, the principle that motivates poets to write and infuses words with that veritably alchemical ability to affect the reader. Poe ultimately identifies this principle as “simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty,” and says its “manifestation. . . is always found in an elevating excitement of the soul, quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart, or of that truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason.” So obviously he’s talking about something sui generis, something that falls into a special category all its own.
In elaborating his ideas about the appeal of the Beautiful — note its elevation to iconic status via the capital “B” — he writes a couple of passages that focus directly on what I am here calling the autumn longing or sehnsucht. As you’ll see if you’ve read my earlier posts in this series, what Poe says interfaces wonderfully with the words of C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of whom, perhaps not incidentally, once called Poe his “god of fiction” and remained a lifelong devotee of this fellow resident of Providence. In the first of these passages I’m quoting, Poe pursues the idea of the “sense of the Beautiful” and, like Lewis and Lovecraft, opines that beauty itself generates the impression of a supernal, transcendent reality lying behind the concrete forms that we call beautiful — the Platonic Form of the Beautiful, we might suppose. In the second passage he lists some of the things “which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect.” Although I do not personally, in my own affective experience, follow him when he turns in typical Poe-ish fashion to dwelling upon the supernal “beauty of woman” (not because I don’t find women beautiful, but because I’ve never encountered this particular longing in that connection), I do find it most fascinating that the first half of his catalog mentions many poignant natural beauties that echo similar items listed in Lovecraft’s letters.
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“An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet faded to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
“The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted–has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.”
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“We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect. He recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven–in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Aeolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far-distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter, in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.”