THE MASTER OF TERROR HAD A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF AESTHETICS
THIS WEEK CELEBRATED Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, conjuring images of the founder of modern mystery and horror, dark as dark can be. He was born on January 19, 1809, and died destitute at age forty-one in Baltimore, where there’s been a long tradition of leaving cognac and three roses on his grave—in the dead of night, by a mysterious visitor.
It is therefore a surprise to learn that Poe loved traditional beauty, even “loveliness,” in art.
Poe was not a novelist, though he did write one. And the topic of art is virtually absent from his many short stories. The exception is a quick reference in “Landor’s Cottage” (1849), where Poe describes a building as being like the paintings of Salvator Rosa, the seventeenth century Neapolitan painter. (Rosa’s images of stormy skies and ruins were a guide to American landscape artists in the literary age of Romanticism, the age of Poe’s writing).
Poe’s views on art came out in his articles. It is a side of him that many would not expect, given the way he pioneered a genre that culminated in noir detective fiction and the celebration of the macabre, typified by Stephen King.
Poe was born in Boston. He came of age in an adoptive family in Virginia. He spent his adult life between New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. Poe wanted to be a poet. But in need of a livelihood, he catered to the new sensational writing of the 1830s and 1840s. During a three-year stint in New York, he achieved success with his 1845 narrative poem “The Raven.,” It appeared in a newspaper and then his first book, The Raven and Other Poems.
We might think that from here Poe descended into his terror mania, but quite the opposite, it seems. He lived two lives, one in his horror stories and the other in his truer self, a rather traditional aesthetic thinker.
In New York he was exposed to a revival in visual arts. Those decades saw a flourishing of the National Academy of Design. It was the arbiter of taste in painting, what it called “contemporary American art,” painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand and others. Thousands attended the exhibitions. Poe lived among the Manhattan painters and art organizers. He wrote on the visual arts for periodicals.
His writings disparaged what today we call kitsch, and he urged ordinary people to elevate their tastes. Such is the tone of his 1845 magazine article, “The Philosophy of Furniture,” a guide to home decoration. Good design required an overall effect. Unfortunately, he wrote, most domiciles were “blindly subservient to the caprices of fashion,” cluttered with glass bobbles and mismatched colors.
All this was offensive to the eye. As an alternative, he argued, the designing of a room is “amenable to those undeviating principles which regulate all varieties of art; and very nearly the same laws by which we decide on the higher merits of a painting.” Paintings have a focal point, a mood, and a harmony of color. Such a room would give even “the veriest bumpkin” pleasure.
Poe also wrote on landscape gardening. In his essay “The Domain of Arnheim,” he reveals his thoughts on painting, art, and art criticism. The best landscape paintings present nature as “exalted and idealized.” A painter must arrange elements in a quest for “true beauty.” In later years, as Poe drifted inexorably into his reputation as a literary purveyor of dread, he nevertheless said his sentiment in “The Domain of Arnheim” still “contains more of myself and of my inherent tastes and habits of thought than anything I have written.”
Some have said that both Poe’s Gothic stories, and the Gothic spirit of many paintings of this period, with their dark ruins, for instance, reveal the cultural elite’s terror at America’s rampant democracy. Just as likely, though, this darkness was all about visual and literary entertainment. It was the so-called Romantic Age, and it needed a look and feel that was commercially interesting.
As the bard of the macabre, Poe dropped that mask often enough. He spoke of “physical loveliness” in nature. Great painters created “paradises.” He admired Titian and the French neoclassical landscape artist Claude Lorraine. Good art produces pleasure: “The only test . . . by which we should try a work of art is the delight it gives us.” And he extolled craftsmanship, not only in the art of writing (see his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” 1846), but in all artistic endeavor.
At the end of Poe’s short life, his short stories and poems were translated into French. Thereafter, the modernist poet Charles Baudelaire championed Poe as the man who made beauty out of what was horrible, even evil. In his first book of poems, Flowers of Evil (1857), Baudelaire hoped to give modernity a new definition of beauty, one that justified every man’s dark and hedonistic impulses. As he famously said, “all pleasure lies in evil.”
Many of the fin de siècle painters of England, Spain, Germany, and France took the spirit of Baudelaire to heart on the eve of the twentieth century. Death, insanity, decadence, and melancholy were all the rage in painting. These artists not only created radical new visual forms—from Expressionism to Cubism—they adopted a licentious lifestyle, the new and dark bohemianism.
And yet, here is Edgar Allen Poe, a muse to Baudelaire, addressing his American magazine articles to “all lovers of the true and beautiful in art.”
Beauty has always been a tough definition for art. Today it tends to go by the wayside as being old-fashioned, bourgeois, or elitist. Poe wouldn’t agree with that fate. And when we consider the dark world of literature he invented, it’s just the more surprising to think about his light-filled visual aesthetics of “loveliness.”
Poe seemed to know beauty when he saw it—a very traditional form. Even if the black raven is saying, “Never more!”