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Walt Whitman Shares the Experience of Reading (and Dreaming) Edgar Allan Poe


Whitman, the mastermind behind innumerable lists of light and symbiosis, retells the process of acceptance of Poe’s dark figure, in a world at the threshold of change.

In 1880, an encounter between to markedly different voices took place. Two eternal voices which resound throughout the world, each one with its tremendous character, whether luminous or nocturnal. Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, the first reading the latter’s verses, were united for three days in the same place —a pond, to be precise—and naturally, something happened. Whitman, the bard of the winds, who used to shout poems at the passing trucks to counteract their noise, found himself in the realm of a sombre literature, of the likes he had never experienced before. His first reaction was to condemn it as anti-moral and contradictory, but that, however, did not mean he could simply put the book down and stop reading.

For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe’s writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe’s genius has yet conquer’d a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him.

While trying to diagnose humanity through his poets, Whitman found in Poe more than a ghost that serenaded terror, a symptom of the world; an undercurrent that moved below the river whose flow we must all watch, in which the dimensions of the paranormal would overlap with human reason. “The exuberant and strange have taken an extraordinary possession of the nineteenth century lovers of verses”, he noted with concern, unveiling in Poe’s work one of the great songs to darkness that would later infatuate France and then the world thanks to the discovery made by Baudelaire.

Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page—and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.

Lastly, and perhaps what is the most significant of descriptions, the bard retells a beautiful and dark dream in which he understands Poe to be an enormous metaphor for the natural forces of the underworld. (Where, if not in a dream, were these two poets of the currents of the world to face each other in complete honesty?)

In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg’d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem’d one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor’d, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island sound—now flying uncontroll’d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—themselves all lurid dreams.

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