Edgar Allan Poe isn’t read much as an essayist, which is too bad. His essays reveal a quick and ironic cast of mind where his dark poetry and stories often mark him as a single-minded hypersensitive, “like a peony just past bloom.” Where Poe the poet can be lugubrious, Poe the essayist is brisk, incisive, and, well… kinda catty. Take the following aphoristic witticisms from his 1846 “A Few Words on Etiquette”:
Never use the term genteel — it is only to be found in the mouths of those who have it nowhere else.
Green spectacles are an abomination, fitted only for students of divinity.
Almost every defect of face may be concealed by a judicious use and arrangement of hair.
Are these casual bon mots or serious prescriptions? Why not both? An editor at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore notes that the etiquette essay “bears much the same humorous tone and mixture of genuine and satirical commentary as Poe’s essay ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’ from 6 years earlier.” Indeed, in that earlier critical work on interior design, Poe makes confident judgments, leaps from point to point with delightfully specific examples, and employs a mix of levity and gravity.
Poe begins “The Philosophy of Furniture” with “a somewhat Coleridegy assertion” from Hegel then launches into a pitiless critique of various national styles. His last point—“The Yankees alone are preposterous”—is the basis for what follows, a disquisition on the sad state of American interior design, brought about by “an aristocracy of dollars” in which “the display of wealth” takes the place of heraldry. His critique recalls (and perhaps alludes to) English poet Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Burlington,” whose satirical target makes such a tasteless mess of his villa that his neighbors cry out “What sums are thrown away!”
In Poe’s case, the offending estate is “what is termed in the United States, a well-furnished apartment.” He decries the injudicious use of curtains, the poor display of carpets (“the soul of the apartment”), and the problem “of gas and of glass.” Poe deliciously details the decorating habits of a parvenu American aristocracy, whose defects are discernable by even the “veriest bumpkin.” But he offers more than snark. “Like any good critic,” writes The Smithsonian, “Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions.” In the final, lengthy paragraph of “The Philosophy of Furniture,” Poe turns his talent for vivid description to a portrait of his perfect boudoir. Above, you can see a 1959 recreation of Poe’s “small and not, ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found.” But this may be redundant. Poe furnishes us with sufficient fine detail that we can better create his ideal room in our imagination. See the excerpts below, and read Poe’s complete essay here.
The proprietor lies asleep on a sofa — the weather is cool — the time is near midnight: I will make a sketch of the room ere he awakes. It is oblong — some thirty feet in length and twenty-five in breadth — a shape affording the best (ordinary) opportunities for the adjustment of furniture. It has but one door — by no means a wide one — which is at one end of the parallelogram, and but two windows, which are at the other. These latter are large, reaching down to the floor — have deep recesses — and open on an Italian veranda. Their panes are of a crimson-tinted glass, set in rose-wood framings, more massive than usual. They are curtained within the recess, by a thick silver tissue adapted to the shape of the window, and hanging loosely in small volumes. Without the recess are curtains of an exceedingly rich crimson silk, fringed with a deep network of gold, and lined with silver tissue, which is the material of the exterior blind. There are no cornices; but the folds of the whole fabric (which are sharp rather than massive, and have an airy appearance), issue from beneath a broad entablature of rich gilt-work, which encircles the room at the junction of the ceiling and walls [...]
The carpet — of Saxony material — is quite half an inch thick, and is of the same crimson ground, relieved simply by the appearance of a gold cord (like that festooning the curtains) slightly relieved above the surface of the ground, and thrown upon it in such a manner as to form a succession of short irregular curves — one occasionally overlaying the other. The walls are prepared with a glossy paper of a silver gray tint, spotted with small Arabesque devices of a fainter hue of the prevalent crimson. Many paintings relieve the expanse of paper. These are chiefly landscapes of an imaginative cast — such as the fairy grottoes of Stanfield, or the lake of the Dismal Swamp of Chapman. There are, nevertheless, three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty — portraits in the manner of Sully. The tone of each picture is warm, but dark [...]
Two large low sofas of rosewood and crimson silk, gold-flowered, form the only seats, with the exception of two light conversation chairs, also of rose-wood. There is a pianoforte (rose-wood, also), without cover, and thrown open. An octagonal table, formed altogether of the richest gold-threaded marble, is placed near one of the sofas. This is also without cover — the drapery of the curtains has been thought sufficient.. Four large and gorgeous Sevres vases, in which bloom a profusion of sweet and vivid flowers, occupy the slightly rounded angles of the room. A tall candelabrum, bearing a small antique lamp with highly perfumed oil, is standing near the head of my sleeping friend. Some light and graceful hanging shelves, with golden edges and crimson silk cords with gold tassels, sustain two or three hundred magnificently bound books. Beyond these things, there is no furniture, if we except an Argand lamp, with a plain crimson-tinted ground glass shade, which depends from the lofty vaulted ceiling by a single slender gold chain, and throws a tranquil but magical radiance over all.
Again, the Edgar Allan Poe Society editor helpfully notes that “Poe, in this article, has adopted an intentionally humorous tone.” Should we take this seriously or treat is as Poe-ean satire? Why not both?