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Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy.

Jeffrey Meyers. John Murray. 25.00 [pounds].

0 7195 5023 8.

Recalling how Arthur Symons drew Ernest Dowson brilliantly out of focus in his epicedial essay, standing memorial as preface at the gateway to the posthumous edition of his works, and thus fathered a legend, one is disturbed to wonder how much to accept of the received legend of Poe, derived from his friend and literary executor (or executioner!) Rufus Wilmot Griswold's smudged picture, and filtered by the hoodwinked down the years.

The Griswold obituary (pseudonymous) and the biographical memoir (acknowledged) present alike a tatterdemalion, albeit nicely romantic, figure, pallid, emaciated relict of bouts too frequent and too lively with alcohol and languorous dalliances too many with opium, ragged frock-coat concealing absence of shirt, ruins of boots disclosing more than want of stockings, walking the streets in madness and melancholy.

The view of modern scholarship is that Griswold deliberately exaggerated Poe's neurotic debility and hereditary dipsomania in order to invest him with interesting' Satanic and corrupt qualities. For all such distorted vision, Mr. Meyers well-balanced biographical corrective is to be prescribed.

In his study of Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, 1978, Julian Symons complained that almost all of the then existing biographies fused, and confused, the life with the work. Believing that interrupting an account of what the man was doing in any given year by |long analyses and discussions of poems and stories' can be positively misleading in relation to Poe, he divided his book into two parts, dealing separately with the man and the writings.

Mr. Meyers' biography makes no such distinction, but does not on that account seem in any sense misleading On the contrary, the biographical narrative is brisk and the intromitted criticism far from confusing or holding things up is, in its appropriate place, helpful and enlightening. Let it be admitted, however, that even as one closes the book at the 304th page--exclusive of notes and index--the Poe enigma remains unsolved. That is no fault of the author's. The truth is that Poe is a special case. His Americanism, for instance, seems somehow merely incidental. It was surely this Boston-born great, great grandson of Ireland who scattered the seeds of monstrous, fleshy, flesh-eating, blood sucking and succoured, plants, destined to bloom putrescent in the forcing-house of the fin de siecle, tended by head gardener Baudelaire, watching over his own secret hotbed of les fleurs du mal.

Long after Baudelaire's accouchement of Poe as a member of the founder stock of French Symbolism and Europe's recognition of his importance, America, paying lip-service to the genius of the artist, was McCarthyishly preoccupied with the bad citizenship of the man. Research for excusatory factors led into the all-the-go Freudian-Jungen pastures of the 'twenties. A socio-psychological field-day was had by one and all. Dr. J. W. Robertson put it all down to typical alcoholism. J. W. Krutch, attempting to push forward with greater aetiological sophistication, delivered himself of the absurdity that the whole realm of moral ideals is excluded from Poe's work. Scarcely surprisingly, Poe and his psychopathology remained Gordian-knotted. His taxonomic place was defined as romantic, linked with Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Moore, De Quincey, Chateaubriand, and de Guerin -- and left at that.

Mr. Meyers sharply descries the doppel-ganger element. The portrayal by Poe of his divided (which is not to say schizophrenic) personality -- |the impressive force of his rational mind and the overpowering strength of his irrational apprehension' -- in the autobiographical William Wilson, wherein the narrator stabs his tiresome other self to death. It is the destruction of his conscience.

Born in poverty, child of a broken marriage, orphaned aged two, unable -- through his own foolishness -- to complete his university career, unable -- through his own foolishness -- to complete his West Point training as an army officer, traumatised by the deaths of the women who loved, and were loved by, him, Poe's descent into the maelstrom was by no means unpredictable. Like Corvo, of whom it was said, |Friendship with him was like undertaking an experiment in demonology', he quarrelled with nearly everyone he ever met and alienated everyone who was capable of helping him.

This haunted man died a gutter-press death which, as Mr. Meyers points out, extraordinarily parallels the last days of that other poete maudit, Dylan Thomas. A single mote in the wide-scanning beam of Mr. Meyers' well-practised biographer's eye is his omission of the fact that, although buried in the Poe family plot in the Presbyterian Cemetry in Baltimore, Poe, like one of his own restless dead, was resurrected and buried again in Westminster Presbyterian Churchyard at Fayette and Greene. It was here that, during the first half of the century, H. L. Mencken and some cronies of the Saturday Club would make their way, taking a cab to what was then |a rundown church in the slums of Baltimore' and |the grave in a corner, overhung with weeds', to pay their respects in a spirit the decedent would have truly appreciated. They would, in solemn inebriation, pour a bottle of whisky on top of his earthen bed.

Of such fine body is the distillation of careful scholarship that Jeffrey Meyers brings to the used up man's bier.
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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