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Had Edgar Allan Poe a sense of humor?

Poe was both a man of inspired genius and the master of the supernatural and the terrible, and his Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque represent the best of his prose work. Poe was around 30 years old when became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, where  he  published many amazing articles and lyrics, astonishing his readers with his fertile imagination and beyond one’s wildest dreams in a few years.  His work, culture and genius honored his country. His fame has grown since his death, not only in America, but among all foreign countries, and he showed extraordinary genius that elevated him above all his contemporaries.

Poe’s poems like The Raven and The Bells are good specimen of his poetry.  Poe’s idea of poetry is the result of the supreme power of the word, with which the poet creates any emotional effect on his reader. The Raven is the symbol of poetry, as a synthesis of Greek beauty (Pallas) and Romantic sadness:

The raven sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas.

The transient time was also well expressed in The Bells (1849), and like in Leopardi’s poetry,  life and death were inseparable words in Poe’s poems:

Oh, the bells, bells, bells ! What a tale their terror tells Of Despair!

The sadness of The Raven always floated on his life. It accompanied him: he was found lying on a bench by the wharf at Baltimore in a state of insensibility. He was taken to a hospital,  and there he ended his infernal life.

“If it be the office of poetry to intimate the divine, it must be confessed these works of Poe intimate the infernal; they are variations struck on the chord of evil that vibrates in all life, throbs of the heart of pain, echoes of ruin that float up from the deep within the deep.” (1).

Excellent. But, as far as we know, Poe seems to move among ruins, hells, ravens and death knells. Strange to say, but someone wondered if such a man also had a bit sense of humor. Apparently Poe had a surprising amount of humor, which had been noticed by some of his contemporaries.

So C. Alphonso Smith  wrote:

“A quality inseparable from personality and almost inseparable from Americanism is humor. Did Poe have a sense of humor? Did he ever smile or make others smile? There is little evidence of it in his poems and better known stories. Hence we find James Hannay  saying and others saying with him, Poe has no humor. But Poe’s best work did not call for humor; it excluded it.” C. Alphonso Smith  wrote a persuasive argument.

Then he added:

“ ‘Humor,’ [Poe] says, ‘with an exception to be made hereafter, is directly antagonistical to that which is the soul of the Muse proper; and the omni-prevalent belief, that melancholy is inseparable from the higher manifestations of the beautiful, is not without a firm basis in nature and in reason. But it so happens that humor and that quality which we have termed the soul of the Muse (imagination) are both essentially aided in their development by the same adventitious assistance — that of rhythm and of rhyme. Thus the only bond between humorous verse and poetry, properly so called, is that they employ in common a certain tool.’” (2).

For all these reasons, C. Alphonso Smith  handed down to us a few examples of Poe’s sense of humor:

“Poe was very far from being the stark, solemn, unsmiling figure that so many picture him. He could even laugh at himself. When he had won the hundred-dollar prize in 1833 and Mr. Latrobe, one of the committee of award, asked the unknown young writer what else he had for publication, he replied that he was engaged on a voyage to the moon. ‘And at once’ says Mr. Latrobe, ‘he began to describe the journey with so much animation that for all I now remember, I may have fancied myself the companion of his aerial journey. When he had finished his description, he apologized for his excitability) which he laughed at himself.’ Indeed Poe’s smile – it is not likely that he ever laughed boisterously — was a noticeable and memorable characteristic of his manner and expression.”

Poe  in his Marginalia wrote:

‘The Swedenborgians inform me that they have discovered all that I said in a magazine article, entitled Mesmeric Revelation, to be absolutely true, although at first they were very strongly inclined to doubt my veracity— a thing which, in that particular instance, I never dreamed of not doubting myself. The story is a pure fiction from beginning to end.’”

A born humorist!

 

Notes

1)      George Edward Woodberry, Edgar Allan Poe, Houghton, Mifflin, 1885,  p. 257.

2)      C. Alphonso Smith, Edgar Allan Poe. How to Know Him, Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merril Company Publishers, 1921, pp. 50-51, pp. 55-56, and footnote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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