“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
Today is the 165th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Below is the obituary written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold – Poe’s main rival in life and probably even more-so in death, following this written piece:
Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known personally or by reputation, in all this country. He had readers in England and in several states of Continental Europe. But he had few or no friends. The regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one of its most brilliant, but erratic stars.
The character of Mr. Poe we cannot attempt to describe in this very hastily written article. We can but allude to some of the more striking phases.
His conversation was at times almost supra-mortal in its eloquence. His voice was modulated with astonishing skill, and his large and variably expressive eyes looked repose or shot fiery tumult into theirs who listened, while his own face glowed or was changeless in pallor, as his imagination quickened his blood, or drew it back frozen to his heart. His imagery was from the worlds, which no mortal can see, but with the vision of genius.
He was at times a dreamer, dwelling in ideal realms, in heaven or hell, peopled with creations and the accidents of his brain. He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers for the happiness of those who at that moment were objects of his idolatry, but never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned. He seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjected his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow.
He had made up his mind upon the numberless complexities of the social world and the whole system was with him an imposture. This conviction gave a direction to his shrewd and naturally unamiable character. Still though, he regarded society as composed of villains, the sharpness of his intellect was not of that kind which enabled him to cope with villainy, while it continually caused him overshots, to fail of the success of honesty.
Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler. You could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantage of this poor boy, his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudice against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellant cynicism while his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility. And what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.
We must omit any particular criticism of Mr. Poe’s works. As a writer of tales it will be admitted generally, that he was scarcely surpassed in ingenuity of construction or effective painting.
As a critic, he was more remarkable as a dissector of sentences than as a commenter upon ideas. He was little better than a carping grammarian.
As a poet, he will retain a most honorable rank. Of his “Raven,” Mr. Willis observes that in his opinion, “it is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conceptions, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”
In poetry, as in prose, he was most successful in the metaphysical treatment of the passions. His poems are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art. They illustrate a morbid sensitiveness of feeling, a shadowy and gloomy imagination, and a taste almost faultless in the apprehension of that sort of beauty most agreeable to his temper.
We have not learned of the circumstance of his death. It was sudden, and from the fact that it occurred in Baltimore, it is presumed that he was on his return to New York.
“After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.”
And here’s a fitting poem by the man himself:
Spirits of the Dead
by Edgar Allan Poe
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone —
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy:
Be silent in that solitude
Which is not loneliness — for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee — and their will
Shall then overshadow thee: be still.
For the night — tho’ clear — shall frown —
And the stars shall look not down,
From their high thrones in the Heaven,
With light like Hope to mortals given —
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever :
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish —
Now are visions ne’er to vanish —
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more — like dew-drop from the grass:
The breeze — the breath of God — is still —
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy — shadowy — yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token —
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries! —