Poe, "Simplicity," and 'Blackwood's Magazine.' (Edgar Allen Poe)

By Dameron, J. Lasley | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Poe, "Simplicity," and 'Blackwood's Magazine.' (Edgar Allen Poe)


Dameron, J. Lasley, The Mississippi Quarterly


Almost everyone has heard or used the hackneyed phrase that something is "elegant in its simplicity." We often use the word simplicity in a variety of contexts, but we make little effort to explain it, assuming that the concept is so very elementary it needs no further amplification. Yet in one synonym finder, Rodale's The Synonym Finder (1986), the editors list sixty-six separate definitions for "Simplicity."

Paradoxically, the subject of Simplicity is very complex, and in order to keep it as concrete as possible, I will offer a generic definition of the term as Edgar Allan Poe would have likely understood it, and then show how this conception expanded or contracted according to the context in which the word appeared. My theses is that simplicity as used by Poe and the Blackwood's critics becomes a concept of the utmost complexity, well nigh impossible to nail down, despite the critics' assumption that it was a term they and their audience understood without need for qualification. The following definition I have abstracted from Professor Robert Jacobs's book Poe: Journalist and Critic (1969) with particular reference to Hugh Blair's definition (1783) of "simplicity" as one form of written composition:

Simplicity, as opposed to affectation, is "virtually the same thing

as unity," having a design of "relatively small number of parts" in

"contrast to gothic modes." Opposed to too much ornament, or "pomp

of language," a simplicity of style manifests an "easy and natural manner"

of expression.(1)

My intent is to demonstrate that throughout his criticism, Poe and some critical essayists contributing to Blackwood's from 1830 to 1840 relied upon simplicity as an all-encompassing critical standard. To Poe and the British critics who contributed to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine between 1830 and 1840, simplicity is an appropriate and vital requisite of literary composition. It is not surprising, moreover, that Poe and the Blackwood's critics would in their reviews and critical essays focus upon salient examples of simplicity within the context of literary genre, including poetry, the prose narrative as well as other forms of prose, and drama. Unlike Poe, Blackwood's critics often judge the fine arts, even architecture by a standard of simplicity.

Poe was not always convinced that simplicity is a desirable aesthetic. Even though he consistently points to evidences of simplicity within the literary compositions of others throughout his reviews, he was apparently reluctant to cite evidence of simplicity in his own work. Nearly a month before he died, however, Poe, in an unfinished, unpublished essay--supposedly composed by another author--wrote that his own writing style has the "rare merit" of simplicity. No doubt he knew that simplicity was a current literary standard of his day. Yet in a letter to Thomas White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, dated April 30, 1835, Poe disparaged simplicity as "the cant of the day."(2) In the same letter, Poe argues that Blackwood's "articles" (his own word) "similar in nature--to Berenice" (one of his early tales) had attained "celebrity" (p. 57), that Berenice had complexities opposed to the standards of simplicity. Years later in a review of Antigone in the Broadway Journal of April 12, 1845, Poe stated, "Simplicity is, indeed, a very lofty and very effective feature in all true art...,"(3) a declaration I will again refer to later.

In spite of his pronouncement to White in 1835, Poe obviously relied upon simplicity as a critical standard throughout his criticism and, most likely, in composing some of his own poems and tales. There are clear contrasts between the written styles of Poe's first "To Helen" and his later "Ulalume," between The Fall of the House of Usher and his angelic colloquies like "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," between "Ligeia" and Pym. But a few of Poe's most critical detractors do not acknowledge the various modes of Poe's creative compositions. …

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