The Background of Edgar Allan Poe
− Why he could create such modern art − by Kunio Ando （安藤 邦男）
「英語教育」vol.XVIII no.7 第１８巻第７号 １９６９年１０月号 大修館書店
The first half of the 19th century in which Poe lived was the romantic period in the history of American literature. First of all, we must pay attention to the special conditions in which American romanticism was born and developed. Generally speaking, romanticism in literature originates as a reaction against classicism, traditional authority in the previous age. In the history of American literature, however, there is no classicism prior to the romantic period. American romanticism, therefore, is not of that kind which is born by breaking the bondage of classicism, but of that sort which naturally appears as lyrical poetry when the growth of a nation reaches its stable and prosperous stage. But some people may say that American romanticism is a reaction, if not against classicism, at least against the political, practical literature of the 18th century. Indeed it is so, but the political literature was too valueless to be called a traditional authority. As a result, the romanticism in America was inferior to that in England and Europe in respect of the revolutionary spirit − a revolt against the old tradition and a wish to build up a higher principle.
It is this lack of classical tradition that made the romanticism in America very cheap, easy-going and complacent. The romanticists in this country did not break away from the formal rules of classicism, as the European romanticists had done. They only stimulated the sentimental emotions of the times. And, what was worse, the tones of their lyrical cries were not original, but copies of English romantic literature. Such being the case, it is no wonder that American romantic literature should have a strong English coloring in it. Indeed it is less imaginative or more classical than any other romantic literature in Europe.
It is not lacking, however, in characteristics which distinguish it from English romanticism. For instance, American romanticism had no medievalism in the true sense of the word. There was little love of the past, of the old and decaying things, of exotic atmospheres, in a word, of the beautiful. In its place there was sentimental humanism and puritanical didacticism, both of which were probably the remnants of the previous political, practical and religious writings.
It was no other than Poe himself who stood in opposition to this tendency of the romanticism. He fought in the cause of "art for art's sake," attacking "the heresy of the Didactic." In this sense he was much more under the rules of the English school of literature. And this was ultimately fortunate for him, because, on this account, he could be free from American provincialism and be ranked high among writers in the history of world literature. What many other romanticists did was, after all, no more than the importing of English lyrical literature. But Poe could not be content with that alone. He created his art not only for American, but also for English, literature. Thus he could stand aloof from the general trend of American romanticism − a trend to be behind the current of the world, and consequently to follow it. He lived spiritually in England rather than in America. What, then, was the current of the times in England?
It was in 1819 that romanticism in America was only dawning by the appearance of The Sketch Book. But in England the romantic revival was already declining about that time. And the 1830's and 1840's, when American romanticism reached its peak, were no longer the romantic period in England, but the early years of the Victorian age. The whole land of Great Britain was in those days exposed to the Industrial Revolution which had already begun in the latter half of the 18th century. The development of industry was accompanied by the progress of science, and the progress of science by the diffusion of scientific spirit. Those who had shut themselves up in dreamland were compelled to come out from there and to face the cold, tough world of reality. What was required now was not so much ecstatic passion as objective, self-possessed reason. A time like this is clearly a realistic age which follows the romantic period.
Now, it is worthy of our notice that while breathing the romantic air in his own country, Poe also came in touch with the realistic spirit in England. For that reason he could create his exquisite, unparalleled art that is the rare synthesis of romantic passion and realistic reason.
The scientific spirit is, in itself, an anti-romantic spirit, and when it destroys the various aspects of the romantic spirit, there naturally appears realism. Then, is it possible to call Poe a realist? No! He was not in any sense a realist though he assimilated the scientific spirit. The romantic mind in him was too deeply rooted to be eradicated by the scientific spirit. We can say it was the victory of the romantic mind in him. But the victory was, at the same time, followed by the degeneration of the victor himself − the degeneration to which modern literature owes a great debt of gratitude.
From a general point of view, what if romanticism does not change into realism in spite of the working of the scientific spirit? It may still wonder at the various phenomena in the natural world, and still yearn for the mystic beauty in a visionary world, as it did before. But its objects of wonder and yearning now lie no more among the simple, artless and ordinary things, but among the complicated, artificial and unusual things. For example, the mystic that is found in the romantic literature has been reduced to obvious elements and deprived of wonder by science, a cold, realistic force. In its place, however, there necessarily appears, in the region where the light of science has not reached yet, a new-born mystery − a mystery which is more profound, more attractive than that of the previous romanticism.
Now it is superfluous to say that Poe had this type of romantic spirit. Apparently it bears some resemblance to that of Symbolism or Decadence, the Neo-Romanticism which was revived after the realistic age and consequently based on the scientific spirit. Poe is, in fact, regarded as the first pioneer of the Symbolic movement by not a few historians.