Thirty-Two Stories

By Edgar Allan Poe; Stuart Levine et al. | Go to book overview
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THE POWER OF WORDS

Carlyle's essay on "Boswell's Life of Johnson" dates from 1832, and Poe's "The Power of Words" appeared in print in 1845. The essay could well provide a motto for the tale: "Nothing dies, nothing can die. No idlest word thou speakest but is a seed cast into Time, and grows through all Eternity!" Poe knew Carlyle's work well, and this particular idea is consistent with Poe most frequently held philosophical stance. The quasi-scriptural tone of the Carlyle passage also may have its echoes in Poe.

For the reader who wants to understand Poe's metaphysics, this is his most important story. The last two paragraphs are the center of the story and in a sense the center of the Romantic movement in literature. Modern critics generally make the mistake Oinos makes. Seeing a literary symbol, they interpret it as simile--it is "like" what it represents. Even when they interpret it as a metaphor, they assume that it merely "represents." But Romantics of Poe's sort, artists as different as Blake, Shelley, and Whitman, were attempting to restore to art its ancient properties of science, magic, and prophecy. Oinos is about to learn that the flowers are not like "a fairy dream"; the volcanoes are not like "the passions of a turbulent heart." They are literally "unfulfilled dreams" and "passions." That Romantic authors intend such meanings is hard for us as Western rationalists to grasp, but Poe, even when in an ironic mood, is unusually consistent in the matter. There have always been important literary artists who have taken him seriously. This is the basic reason, for example, for the enthusiasm for Poe among French symbolist poets. If the idea is hard to grasp, your editors recommend John Senior's admirable book The Way Down and Out: The Occult in Symbolist Literature ( Cornell University Press, 1959)as a reliable introduction to the field.


PUBLICATIONS IN POE'S TIME
United States Magazine and Democratic Review, June 1845
The Broadway Journal, October 25, 1845

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