There he is on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, tottering between Carl Jung and Fred Astaire, breathing fumes over Marilyn Monroe’s bare back and William Burroughs’s bald pate. Edgar Allan Poe, the original Man in Black—before Johnny Cash, before the Beatles in Hamburg, before the bohemians in Paris. The first American rocker, the steampunk wild man, bound for death or glory, and getting both.
The Sgt. Pepper cover is a pantheon, a countercultural sibling of the Valhalla Memorial at Regensburg. The Beatles and designer Peter Blake placed Poe in the center of the back row. If this were a genealogy, he would be the founding father, the unquiet ghost of the pop unheimlich. This is the Poe whose “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” Bob Dylan included in the pop pantheon of Highway 61 Revisited, along with the names of those other moody entertainers, Ma Rainey and Beethoven; the Poe that Lou Reed set to music in The Raven; the Robert Johnson of the Romantic blues, martyred at the crossroads of art and commerce.
Sgt. Pepper confirmed Poe’s victory in the popular vote. He remains a winner, one of the few 19th-century names known to most, and one of the fewer read by many. No other American writer has an NFL team named for one of his poems. The republic of letters has honored his memory, too, with praise from aristocratic poets and prose entertainers alike. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry saw Poe as an homme sérieux, an aesthetic pioneer who heard “supernal ecstasies” in verse, the swish of modern horror in the raven’s wing. Arthur Conan Doyle admitted that Poe invented the detective story. H. G. Wells admired his science fiction. Guy de Maupassant adopted Poe’s translation of the Gothic supernatural into the modern psychological. William Carlos Williams credited him with a greater translation: Poe created a “New World” of American verse.
There were carpers, however. Emerson dismissed Poe as “the jingle man,” and T. S. Eliot, in his essay “From Poe to Valéry,” accused Poe of “slipshod writing . . . puerile thinking . . . haphazard experiments.” But Eliot also called him the “directest, the least pedantic, the least pedagogical” critic of his age. Poe, he said, was “both the reductio ad absurdum and the artistic perfection” of Romanticism, a founder of modern “poetic consciousness.”
Jerome McGann believes that Poe has been underrated as a poet. McGann teaches at the University of Virginia, where Poe briefly studied, and his appeal is not to the mob, the reading public, or the circus performers, the practitioners of verse. His jury is the clergy, not the laity, the imperial souls for whom reading is a “textual event.” It is as difficult a brief as defending Bob Dylan as a novelist, or John Lennon as a nice person.
Poe is an acquired taste, like whiskey or opium. He was a poet in the way that William Blake was an artist: idiosyncratic and obscure, a commercial adventurer who lacked business sense, a marginal antagonist who became a national treasure, an etcher of sharp and violent lines with a dazzled eye for overdone color. His hero was Byron: a first-rate celebrity but a second-rate poet; really, a debauched Augustan. No less conventionally, Poe called Tennyson the greatest living poet. If Poe’s biography is Byron’s catastrophe on a budget, his poetry is Tennyson unhinged by Thomas de Quincey. As heroic Romanticism slides into boggling horror, meter becomes an avalanche.
Poe was a peerless self-destructor: He was a liar and a plagiarist, a drunk in the office and a beggar in the street, who pandered to a public he despised and married his 13-year-old cousin. McGann skirts the biographical disaster and concentrates on Poe’s writing. But without the tragic setting, Poe’s verse wilts into melodrama, and as McGann forgoes context, he takes Poe at his own assessment, which Poe, a chronic self-publicist, supplied in his marginalia and essays.
It is true that in “The Poetic Principle,” posthumously published in 1850, Poe describes a Modernist theory of poetry as purely subjective—a refined private music, an art for its own sake. It is also true that, like the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the same period, Poe’s 1846 essay on “The Philosophy of Composition” replaces the Romantic pose of “inspiration” with the Modern virtue of technical expertise. Poe, the child of two actors, denies that poetry is the “spontaneous creation” of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The aesthetic sublime is a matter of craft and special effects, of levers and pulleys. Poe, says McGann, was an actor in the “theater of post-Romantic artifice,” named for Edgar in King Lear.