In my last post, I suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was essentially a practical joker. That is, although he remains best known today for tales of terror and mystery, of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe in his own time was very much a satirist or humorist. Not infrequently, the joke is on us, the readers, who are duped into believing the most incredible things, as becomes embarrassingly clear in “The Balloon-Hoax” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” for example. After all, Poe was the philosopher who was able to explicate “diddling” – that is, tricking or swindling – as “one of the exact sciences.” In his various hoaxes, satires, and “diddles,” Poe proved himself to be an accomplished prankster, which unsurprisingly stood him in good stead in the bumptious literary marketplace of his era.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the way that Poe the Poet might also be considered a practical joker. Poe’s poetry, unlike his more well-known prose tales, is generally thought to represent the Romantic ideals of supernal beauty. In the best poems, Poe’s mastery of sound and sense helps to produce poems of haunting loveliness, as in “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” But, then, it should also be observed that many of his poems appear to be crudely imitative; Poe concedes that his earlier poems were essentially attempts to reproduce Byron, for instance. Some might be labeled failed experiments, while others appear to be downright awful. Who can listen to “The Bells” more than once without going mad? The pealing repetitions are so intensely jangling to the nerves that one can only conclude that such was the poet’s intention. The point of the poem is to drive us crazy! But even in Poe’s most successful poems, there is a lurking sense that Poe is putting one over on us. The reader of Poe’s poems must always be on guard, as one cannot shake the vague suspicion that the poetry may be an ornate armature upon which to hang a joke in poor taste. However, we can identify at least one poem in Poe’s corpus that is unquestionably also a practical joke: “O Tempora! O Mores!”
“O Tempora! O Mores!” is one of Poe’s earliest poems, although it was not published until years after his death. Its title, deriving from Cicero’s famous lament and translated “Oh, the times, Oh, the manners [or customs]!,” is already suggestive of humor in a modern context. The phrase is generally reserved for those satirizing the jeremiads of the era. Studying the poem more closely, we see that the jaunty doggerel appears to lampoon a single character, a handsome salesman or clerk who has charmed his lady customers, but who the poet recognizes as an unintelligent and unworthy “ass.” The poem was written sometime in 1826, when Poe was only 17 years old, and in my own reading I had taken it to be a satirical critique of the crass, commercial culture of the United States in the nineteenth-century. That is, like the biographer Kenneth Silverman, who noted the poem’s “scorn toward the clerk as a plebian vulgarian, and its contempt for the world of merchandising,” I saw the young poet in “O Tempora! O Mores!” as a Romantic bemoaning the unrefined, boorish, middle-class values of the day. Like nearly everyone else, I was perplexed about the final word of the poem, in which the speaker names his object of ridicule, “Pitts.” But, in the end, I was able to file this away as mildly interesting juvenilia.
However, I heard a fascinating talk by renowned scholar Richard Kopley at the 2014 MLA convention, which shed light on the backstory of the poem. (An abstract of the talk appears in The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 [Autumn 2013]: 250–251.) Alas, I can offer only a teaser here based on my faulty memory of the presentation, but Professor Kopley is currently working on a scholarly biography of Poe, which I have no doubt will be well worth the wait. For now, let me just say that the poem “O Tempora! O Mores!” was the acid coup de grâce of an elaborate practical joke.
Indeed, it seems to have been a rather cruel prank. Robert Pitts worked as a clerk in a general store in Richmond, and in the rigid social hierarchies of antebellum Virginia this would have placed him in a class beneath the quasi-aristocrats with whom Poe – as the foster son of the wealthy merchant John Allan – would have been consorting. Pitts, apparently, was a good looking chap, and he attracted his share of attention from the young ladies who shopped in his store. These otherwise harmless flirtations undoubtedly bred some resentment among Poe and the other young men, who were probably already disdainful of the working-class Pitts. The poor beau seems to have been largely unaware of all this, and there followed a scene that could have come from some “mean girls” episode of our day. The perpetrator of the prank was, you guessed it, a young Edgar Allan Poe.
Pitts was invited to the home of a lovely Richmond belle whom he planned to escort to a picnic or some such affair. Once he arrived at the house, he found the whole coterie of upper-class Richmonders, including Poe, waiting for him. Poe had arranged to have an urgent letter delivered to the house, and, upon opening the letter, the hostess discovered a poem. Naturally (and according to plan), the group insisted that their resident poet, Poe himself, read this poem aloud. One can only imagine the young clerk’s awkwardness, embarrassment, and ultimate humiliation as Poe rhymingly ridiculed the “frisky counter-hopper,” a “brute” whose brains were located in his feet, for thinking he could dance in the evening with the same girls to whom he earlier that day sold tape and ribbons. As if this weren’t insulting enough, the final stanza names him “a proper ass” and “a stupid elf,” before actually identifying the clerk by name: “And, lest the guessing throw the fool in fits, / I close the portrait with the name of Pitts.” Poe had not only composed the devastating poem, but also carefully arranged a dramatic scene in which it would be performed, strictly to put this aspiring social climber and would-be peer in his place. A mean-spirited, but no doubt effective prank.
Thus, what might be considered Poe’s first poem is itself a practical joke. Not all of Poe’s early poetry fits that description, but when he published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), he misleadingly asserted that the poems included “were written in the year 1821–2, when the author had not completed his fourteenth year.” This admission is an act of both defensive distancing and youthful braggadocio, inasmuch as Poe peremptorily informs the reader that, if the poems be deemed inferior, they are merely the product of youth and not to be judged too harshly, but if they are found worthy, then the poet himself must have been a real genius to have produced such poetry at so young an age. The author is listed only as a “Bostonian,” the irony of which is all the more delicious for Poe scholars, who know that – while Poe was indeed a native of Boston – he came to feel nothing but loathing for the place he would habitually refer to as “Frogpondium” in later life. The 18-year-old Poe writes that he is conscious of “the many faults” which he could have easily corrected, but that he “has been too fond of his early productions to amend them in his old age.” In retrospect, Poe appears to have been quite the impertinent punk.
Poe’s juvenile poetry seems marked by a prankster’s spirit, but judging from his delight in hoaxes and diddles it seems that the adult Poe maintained a similar attitude. Even Poe’s mature and “serious” poetry carries with it an aspect of the joker’s wiles. It is not always clear whether we should be taking any of this stuff seriously. For instance, as I mentioned in my earlier post, even so evocative and moving a poem as “The Raven” is, at its core, a narrative about a fellow talking to a bird, after all. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe describes how the basic premise of “The Raven” required a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself.” I imagine that reading “The Parrot” by Edgar Allan Poe would produce rather different effects, and if the bird were still “emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance,” we might find the symbol’s emotional power to be leavened with an element of the absurd. But, then, this too is typical of the prankster poet, who does not let us rest easy in our interpretations, but always leaves us feeling a bit foolish, vaguely surmising that the joke’s on us.
[coming soon, Joker Poe, Part 3: Horrific Humor]
© 2014 Robert T. Tally Jr.
Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. His books include Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism (forthcoming); Poe and the Subversion of American Literature; Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom); Utopia in the Age of Globalization; Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel; Melville, Mapping and Globalization; and, as editor, Geocritical Explorations; Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights; and the forthcoming Literary Cartographies. Tally is also the general editor of Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies, a Palgrave Macmillan book series.