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Just back to civilization tonight. I am hoping to get back into a regular publishing groove soon, so in the meantime here’s a thing I wrote way back when about Poe.

Another free throw, this time a response to a question that intrigues me about Edgar Allan Poe. Personally, I think he’s having a bit of a laugh at his readers’ expense and I can respect an author who doesn’t take himself too seriously. I am certain there are Poe scholars out there who will rip my meager meanderings below to shreds. This is another post originally written for a course, just so we’re on the up and up here on WordPress.

In reading through the Penguin collection of select Edgar Allan Poe writings, I noticed a strange thing occurring every so often in the gloss: Poe, at times, seems to have fabricated a quote or invented names of books and, in one case, an Egyptian deity. The obvious question is “why has Poe done this?” Of course, each putative fabrication must be taken on a case by case basis and examined, but I have left this to our editors for the time being and so will take them at their word. I am more interested in the kinds of things Poe included that are of questionable veracity rather than the why.

The most immediately interesting things are the quotes Poe allegedly creates from Seneca, Chamberlayne, and Joseph Glanvill in “The Purloined Letter”, “William Wilson”, and “Ligeia”, respectively. These epigrams appear at the beginning of each story and, according to our editors, are not to be found in any of the respective authors works, apocryphal or otherwise (there is the chance that the Glanvill quote is misquoted or from an apocryphal work, but this is, again, unverified). I note that this type of invented epigram is found in Poe’s short stories and not in any of the poetry or essays in the Penguin edition, though I cannot claim any authority beyond the present volume of Poe’s inventions and additions. Suffice it to say, then, that Poe has a tendency to invent things for his stories to, perhaps, add an air of sur- or hyperrealism to the tale being told.

That Poe would simply forge a quote from authors whose works are readily available and fairly easily proved inauthentic might baffle the reader – those who decided to check, anyhow. Befuddlement may lead to anger should any gentle reader find that Poe, who is supposed to be an authority in a tale he has written, has duped her into believing that such pithy epigrams as “Nothing is more detestable to wisdom than too much subtlety” (281) from “The Purloined Letter” is not actually from its stated source, Seneca. In truth, this is the sort of authorial dishonesty that would get Oprah’s knickers in a knot. The thing is, however, that even though Poe attributes these quotes to certain personages, he writes fictions. Where is the rule that states any and all outside contributions in manifestly fictional tales must be non-fictional? Is it not possible that Poe had the best intentions of using a real quote from Seneca but one did not exist that quite portrayed what needed to be said?

But I have strayed from my main point: the type of thing that Poe might make up rather than the why. In addition to epigrams from various reputable authors, Poe also invents objects such as the non-existent medieval volume the Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning (105)and the “quarto Gothic…manual of a forgotten church – the Vigilae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae” (101) from “Usher”. Poe also invents, in “Ligeia”, an Egyptian deity called Ashtophet who “presided…over marriages ill-omened” (63). What I find most interesting about these inventions and additions is that they appear alongside “authentic” allusions to verifiable quotes, books, cults, and deities. Poe’s additions are thrown into the mix as a kind of flavouring particle to continue the aesthetic of what occurs around them. The fabrications are believable and want to be believed. After all, why would we not trust our author in his own stories? This inevitably has brought me back to the why, and that’s okay. In practicing a bit of armchair psychology, I like to think that Poe is challenging readers (of his fiction, anyway) to be vigilant in assessing the contents of a work. It is far too easy to fall into idolatrous worship of an author and to stop questioning the authority of what is written on the page if one has been pleased with the product in the past. We should find faults with authors, not because we are jaded grad students but because we are all, in some way, susceptible to the temptation of romanticizing certain works and authors until they reach the pinnacle of awesomeness (in the biblical sense) only to fall into a bathetic state of affairs when we find out they are, indeed, flawed. By inserting calculated lies into some of his works Poe, to me, sends a message about not only what we are reading but how one ought to read it.

Appendix

  • Unverified and possibly invented works of Poe’s the ‘Mad Trist’ of Sir Launcelot Canning (105) and the “quarto Gothic…manual of a forgotten church – the Vigilae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae”in “Usher” (101).
  • Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio (Nothing is more detestable to wisdom than too much subtlety) in “The Purloined Letter” (281) Poe attributes to Seneca, but the gloss of the volume asserts that this epigraph is “not to be found in Seneca” (481)
  • In the story “Ligeia” Poe possibly fabricated the epigram by Joseph Glanvill (62) “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, no unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” (62, 67) Poe also invents an Egyptian deity called Ashtophet who “presided…over marriages ill-omened” (63).
  • “What say of it? what say [of] CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path?” (110) which Poe attributes to Chamberlayne’s Pharronida but the editors of the Penguin do not find in that work.
  • The editors of the Penguin edition have also listed a number of Poe’s misquotations, which I will not elaborate on here, though it should be noted that Poe has not appeared to have invented any quotations or works in his non-fictional essays but instead has misquoted at times. I have not done an exhaustive study of Poe’s entire oeuvre – relying as I have solely on the aforementioned Penguin edition – and therefore I cannot claim any authority beyond the present volume of Poe’s inventions and additions.
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