The Annotated Poe
Edited by Kevin J. Hayes
Foreword by William Giraldi
Harvard University Press – £29.95
One of America’s most renowned of writers, Edgar Allen Poe’s vast body of works have been adapted many times over for both stage and screen; the trajectorial inspiration of which has unsurprisingly influenced numerous illustrators and graphic artists – the latter of whom, this altogether glorious book acknowledges.
As William Giraldi writes in the Foreword of The Annotated Poe: ”With Whitman you get the searing soulfulness, with Melville the fixed intransigence, with Thoreau the contented sedition […]. But in S. W. Hartshorn’s famous 1848 daguerreotype of Poe, so much of his work is somehow perfectly there, myriad threads from the poems and tales. In this pallid photo, Poe’s face speaks the dread truth of his depth.”
In all honesty, this most inspired of books should come as no surprise, other than the degree to which it really has been stupendously well conceived and compiled. Inspired being the key word here, for that’s how best to describe these 395 pages (excluding Appendix, Further Reading, Illustration Credits and Acknowledgements).
Other than traversing what can only be described as a superlative assimilation of work(s) by way of photographs and colour illustrations, The Annotated Poe comprises in-depth notes that are conveniently placed alongside the tales and poems to further elucidate the American writer, editor and literary critic’s biographical, historical and own literary allusions (not to mention sources, obscure words and passages).
Like Poe’s own marginalia, Kevin, J. Hayes’s marginal notes do much to accommodate ”multitudinous opinion,” wherein he divulges his own views and interpretations; as well as those of other writers, critics and that of the man in question.
Moreover, of particular interest is Hayes analysis of Poe’s work and all-round approach to writing in the book’s spirited Introduction: ”Along with the good, he was consuming a lot of bad writing – but he found ways to learn from whatever he read. Poe divided books into two basic types: those that allow readers to immerse themselves in the author’s thought; and those that encourage readers to develop their own thought. The second category, which he labelled ”suggestive books,” Poe subdivided into the positively and the negatively suggestive. The first type suggests what it says, the second by what it could have or should have said. Whether positively or negatively suggestive, a book could fulfill its essential purpose: to provoke the reader’s (or writer’s) thought […]. Though Poe would not fully articulate his theory of novel combinations until later in his career, his short stories exemplify novelty from the beginning of his fiction career. Poe was a shameless magpie, borrowing and appropriating freely. In ”Morella” (1835), for example, one of the tales that appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, he combines aspects of sentimental fiction, supernatural tales, German metaphysics, and folk legends to create a challenging and original tale about death, resurrection, and the power of the will.”
Along with an abundance of captivating (predominantly colour) artwork that does much to lure the reader into investigating further, are the many opening, idiosyncratic and irresistible, sparkling sequences – of which there many.
Be it ‘Metzengerstein’ (”Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell? I will not. Besides I have other reasons for concealment. Let it suffice to say that, at the period of which I speak, there existed, in the interior of Hungary, a settled although hidden belief in the doctrines of the Metempsychosis. Of the doctrines themselves – that is, of their falsity or probability – I say nothing. I assert, however, that much of our incredulity (as Bruyere observes of all our unhappiness,) vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls”); ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (”I was sick – sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence – the dread sentence of death – was the last distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution – perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more”); and/or of course, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (”During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit”).
Let it be said then, that this is a terrific book in more ways than one can possibly imagine – primarily because it’s so very inspiring.
As Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University has written on the dust-cover: ”Poe startles and enchants, but he springs traps for the unwary. There is no better guide through Poe’s magic house of mirrors than Kevin Hayes, who brings a wealth of expertise to his annotations. This handsomely produced edition is a treasure-house for Poe novices and initiates alike.”
Can’t (and won’t) argue with that.