By Wilbur Dee Case | Edited by Kent Van May Now I can see why T.S. Eliot disliked Edgar Allan Poe's verse; Eliot was trying to write a different kind of poetry; and it is no surprise that, for Eliot, Poe was no kindred spirit. Yet it was unwise for Eliot to consider "Poe as a man who dabbled in verse and in kinds of prose, without settling down to make a thoroughly good job of any one genre" when Eliot could easily be likewise judged. Are there any astute critics who regard Eliot's poems or dramas as pieces of polished perfection? Yet Eliot's contention that "an irresponsibility towards the meaning of words is not infrequent with Poe" is correct. His examples from “Ulalume” and “The Raven” emphasize the slipshod elements in Poe's writing; but Eliot overlooks Poe's nice turns of phrase, his fine diction, his technical virtuosity, and his metaphoric achievement. Nevertheless, Eliot is right about Poe's use of words, as in the unbearably repetitive “Ulalume.” Eliot quotes, "It was night, in the lonesome October Of my most immemorial year." and shows Poe's poor usage of the word immemorial. Tennyson's lines, "The moan of doves in immemorial elms And murmur of innumerable bees." he points out, are clearly superior to Poe's; but the above lines are also superior to much in Tennyson's writing, in “The Princess” and elsewhere, and in Eliot's writing too. Tennyson could not sustain the humming beauty everywhere in his work any more than Eliot, or any writer, could. That is not a sufficient reason to discount a writer. Take Tennyson's “Ulysses,” for example. It is one of the finest poems in English in the early 19th Century, even though the poem's first sentence flounders about awkwardly between first person and third person with loose pronouns. "It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me." Though the meaning here is clear, the grammatical ambiguity shows a moment of irresponsibility on a level akin to Poe's in the examples Eliot gives. Except for its recognitive value, and the alliteration of the i’s and l's, Tennyson's first sentence of “Ulysses” could be nicely cleared up by attending to the first line. But when it comes to grammatical ambiguity and poor diction Eliot is a master; and Tennyson and Poe can't hold a candle to him. Take the following lines from Eliot’s “Wasteland”: "A woman drew her long black hair out tight And fiddled whisper music on those strings And bats with baby faces in the violet light Whistled, and beat their wings And crawled head downward down a blackened wall And upside down in air were towers Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells." French Renaissance poet and grammar stickler Francois de Malherbe may have had no patience for Poe's use of the word craven in “The Raven,” but what would he made of the surreal dadaesque excerpt above? It reminds me of Poe (or Dante), but how much sloppier is it, in a slapdash manner stuck together with a series of ands. Though “The Raven” contains that which is absurd, ridiculous, and substandard, still there is that within it, which, in its own way, seems superior to most of the poetry Eliot wrought. Take the opening stanza. "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door— ''Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'rapping at my chamber door— Only this and nothing more.'" The famous, opening words are exceptional; instead of a run-of-the-mill fairy tale, we are going to hone in on a specific "midnight dreary," much in the same way that Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with a specific simile: "Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized on a table." It is interesting how both the narrator of “The Raven” and Prufrock display similar passive frustrations. The placing of the adjective dreary after the noun supports both the trochaic meter and the internal rhymes weary and curi-ous, but at the same time, ever so cleverly, foreshadows the narrator's mental imbalance. Another excellence is Poe's use of alliteration. The obvious n's in line 3 each echo elsewhere as well: nodded with the on of line 1; nearly with the aforementioned internal rhymes; and napping with the following internal rhymes of lines 3 and 4. The quick, short clipped i sound at the beginning of line 5, helps add to the dead-panned attitude that the narrator ironically insists upon before he meets the bird, something I would have thought Eliot could have admired. Whereas the repetition in “Ululame” grates, in “The Raven” Poe shows a more subtle handling of it. The first repeated phrase in the poem, “While I,” is far enough apart to not impinge on that which begins line 3. And lines 4 and 5 in all the stanzas have just enough variety to increase the cadence of the poem and not bog it down by drawing too much attention to them. Eliot likewise uses repetition; the fragments of Jesus' prayer in “The Hollow Men” comes to mind immediately. Another example, from “Prufrock,” is the following six-lined stanza, where the repetition is as overt as Poe's. "For I have known them all already, known them all: I have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a further room. So how should I presume?" It is interesting to compare it to the next stanza in “The Raven.” "Ah, distinctly, I remember it was in the bleak December, And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow—vainly I had sought to borrow From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore— For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— Nameless here forevermore." Both stanzas have fine qualities and less than brilliant qualities. Eliot's rhyme scheme (abbacc) is more subtle than Poe's (abcbbb), but Poe's rhymes are more lush. Certainly the argument could be made that they are too lush, too rich, like those in Tennyson's “The Lady of Shalott.” Still Poe's handling of them marks a literary technique Eliot never handled as well. Eliot's repetitions coincide with the tedium he is striving after, while Poe's add to the growing tension he is moving toward; but whereas Poe's repetitions strike one as melodramatic, so too do Eliot's, particularly of overwrought ennui. Ironically they both excuse their sloppiness through the trick of first person narrators; but, as readers, we are still left with the writing. Both stanzas have striking imagery: lines 1 and 2, in Poe; and line 3, in Eliot; but both also contain jejune writing: Poe's overt alliteration, "surcease of sorrow" and "rare and radiant maiden"; Eliot's droning "...all already, known them all." In meter, both stanzas are awkward; but Poe's attempt is the more daring. Poe remains true to his trochaic octameter lines, while Eliot vacillates between iambic hexamter and pentameter. Each sixth line is one-half the dominant line. Some examples of Poe's striking diction include the passion contained in the opening word, his animated use of adverbs and adjectives, the imagery found in the ashes of the dying fire, the hissing of the s's in line 4, the assonance of the long a sound in line 5, the continuation of or, even in words like sorrow, the further delineation of the setting, bleak December, and echoic words, like wrought and sought. Eliot's double use of dying is nicely nuanced; but Eliot's diction is less dramatic than Poe's, and the stanza is as listless as “Prufrock.” Even when Poe's alliteration runs amok, as in stanza 3 of “The Raven,” it still possesses a strange fascination. "And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating ''Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door— Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:— This it is and nothing more.'" One of my favorite techniques of Poe's style is how his lines run on past his rhymes, as, for example, in the above stanza, all the opening adjectives modify the verbal rustling, that is, moving past the rhyme uncertain. The s's of line 1 also instill a sense of disturbance. That the narrator stood repeating, actually allows Poe to get away with repeating phrases like entreating entrance at and ‘Tis some visitor, much in the same way that Eliot excuses a breakdown in language while he writes about the breakdown or emptiness of civilization. I cannot, in justice, excoriate Poe for his flaws, unless Eliot is equally attacked. At least Poe was aware of some of his clumsiness. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes: "Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of 'The Raven'”; later, the arrival of the raven has "an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible"; and finally, "however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye." Could clerkly Eliot be as critical of his own works? I think not. Indeed, at times, Poe was as critically perspicacious as Eliot, as, for example, when he points out that "it is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists." Indeed, despite its far flung title, Poe's “The Philosophy of Composition” is filled with remarkable statements on the importance of working from the denouement, working for an effect, detailing how a work is wrought, and drawing out the conflict in poetry of too long vs. too short. One can take issue with Poe on all these stands; but they do show an active mind thinking. One could have a field day discussing how Poe thinks poems should be written; but his ordered choice of length, province, tone, refrain, climax, graduation , rhythm, and locale reveal a ratiocination worthy of serious consideration. Nevertheless, I do agree with Boston poet James Russell Lowell's assessment of Poe, "There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge, Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge..." Yet, despite that fact, I can also agree with French poet Stéphane Mallarmé that Poe's strange voice "Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu." At least, Eliot, despite all of his swipes at Poe, looking "at Poe through the eyes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and...Valery," did himself, in the end, become "more thoroughly convinced of his importance, of the importance of his work as a whole." Wise choice. Wilber Dee Case is a poet living in Washington State. Featured Image: A portrait of Poe (left) and a photograph of T.S. Eliot.