Edgar Allan Poe is an author who is perhaps unfortunately pigeonholed because of the fame (or indeed notoriety!) of his horror stories. Tales like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, poems like “The Raven”, fall squarely into the kind of writing which is normally read at this time of the year. And I have to confess that I do love his dark, troubling stories and his melodramatic verse! However, his writing does range more widely than this and he’s been responsible for journalism, essays, a scientific prose-poem and of course some of the earliest examples of detective fiction.

I’ve read a lot of his work over the years, but my eye was caught recently on Twitter when someone mentioned a little collection called “The Unknown Poe”. An anthology initially published in 1980 by New Directions, and gathered together by Raymond Foye, it brings together not only some of what they call ‘fugitive wiritngs’ by Poe, but also some marvellous writings on the man by luminaries such as Andre Breton and Charles Baudelaire. The result is a most wonderful collection which I devoured and absolutely loved!

And so, being young and dipt in folly
I fell in love with melancholy

The Poe section contains some fascinating pieces, from a selection of letters, through some poems rarely seen and extract from his ‘Marginalia‘. There are also prose pieces, “Prose, Essays & Reviews” and these were particularly interesting; ‘The Imp of the Perverse‘, which explores that inexplicable human trait of perversity, is perhaps the best known, but it was fascinating seeing him give his thoughts on authors such as Shelley and Shakespeare. After reading all of these pieces, I really feel I want to dig out what Poe I have, and then check out whether there’s any kind of collected edition available; the diversity of his writing is impressive.

OUR PRESENT EXISTENCE

It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.

The icing on the cake for me, though, was the supporting material collected in the second section, entitled “The French View“. Here, Foy brings together some writings by Baudelaire on Poe which are exemplary, and as well as throwing light on Poe, also demonstrate the influence the older writer had on the younger. These two substantial pieces were, I believe, forewords to translations of Poe’s work which Baudelaire made into the French, and his enthusiasm and reverence for Poe are clear.

It will always be difficult to exist, nobly and productively, as a man of letters, without facing defamation, slander by the impotent, the envy of the rich, that envy which is their punishment! – or the vengeance of bourgeois mediocrity. But what is difficult in a restrained monarchy or in a regular republic, becomes nearly impossible in a kind of lumber yard where every town sergeant polices his own opinions to the profit of his own vices – or his own virtues, for they are one in the same; – where a poet or novelist in a slave society is a detestable writer in the eyes of an abolitionist critic, where one does not know which is the greater scandal, sloppy cynicism or imperturbable Biblical hypocrisy. (Baudelaire)

The other pieces, by Huysmans, Valery, Lallarme and Breton, are much shorted but equally fascinating and, in their references back to Baudelaire and then Poe, they clearly demonstrate the lineage of influence down from an American author much misunderstood in his own country but revered in Europe. Baudelaire in particular is very harsh about America and its (lack of) culture, chastising the country for not recognising the genius they had in their midst; and, in fact, he goes on to berate society in general for trying to produce a bland and homogenised literature. It’s bracing and fascinating stuff!

As you can see from the amount of post-its sticking out of my book, this small volume (117 pages) was absolutely packed with writing which had my brain buzzing. (It also has a few very nice illustrations…) I’ve tended with Poe to read mainly his stories, but I definitely want to explore the rest of his writing more after reading this. As for Baudelaire, again I have volumes of his prose non-fiction lurking on Mount TBR and they really do need to come off it sooner rather than later! “The Unknown Poe” was an utterly wonderful read, and thank you to whoever happened to mention it on Twitter – I’m so glad I read it! 😀