Poe and the Natural World

The way in which a text is presented on the page—or, more and more often, on the screen—has a profound impact on how we perceive it. The proposed edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Sphinx” is oriented toward the general reader, who may be familiar with Poe’s more popular tales and poems, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven,” but who is by no means a Poe Scholar. Despite being a master class in economy and suspense, “The Sphinx” remains one of the author’s lesser-known works, I suspect, because it lacks many of the horror elements that we have come to associate with Poe’s fiction. Instead, it is highly concerned with nature questions of perception. My aim as editor would be two-fold: First, I would want to make the tale more accessible for a general audience by incorporating annotations that place it in a “real-world” context, and second, I would want to honor the legacy of Poe by using a format, base-text, and layout that facilitate a natural reading experience.

One of the first decisions that a modern editor must make regards format. Publishing is moving increasingly toward digital media, but the printed book retains a physicality that an e-book or website does not, and there is, of course, a literal connection to nature in the production of paper from wood pulp. It seems appropriate, given the tale’s involvement with the natural world, that this particular tale be distributed in print.

As for the base-text, there are three known versions of “The Sphinx,” the first of which, published in 1845, is lost. A second version was published in 1846, in Arthur’s Lady’s Magazine, the literary venture of Poe’s friend Timothy Arthur Shay. The third version was printed after Poe’s death in Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, and was used by Thomas Ollive Mabbott for The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Although this final version may seem an obvious choice—Mabbott’s edition is widely considered a comprehensive collection of Poe’s oeuvre—it seems important to me to use a version that Poe published during his lifetime. I am also wary of the “several auctorial changes” that Griswold made in his collection (though I was unable to locate them in a cursory comparison of the texts), because it is not certain that Poe would have been pleased with them. For more about the troubled relationship between Poe and Griswold, see my previous blog post. Under these considerations, I would use the version published in Arthur’s Lady’s Magazine as a base-text.

Gill - Sample Layout
A sample layout for the proposed annotated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Sphinx.”

For the annotations, I would opt for shoulder notes (shown above), as Kevin J. Hayes does in The Annotated Poe. These strike me as the most “natural” method of annotation, because they do not require the reader to flip back and forth, as endnotes do, or move up and down the page, as footnotes do.

In keeping with my goals for the edition, I would place the events of the story in historical, cultural, and literary contexts. Annotations would include information about the time period and setting, definitions of foreign or otherwise obscure terms, biographical information, and references to other works. I believe that photographs alongside the text are similarly important in placing the tale in the “real-world.” For instance, the photographs of the cottage orné and the Hudson River (below) would help the reader to visualize the setting, and the photograph of the death’s-head hawkmoth is particularly significant because the narrator goes to such great pains to describe the “monster.”

P.g.champion. “The Hermitage – Hanwell W7.” Wikimedia Commons, 15 Aug. 2008, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hermitage_-Hanwell_W7.jpg.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Hudson River Virtual Tour.” http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/25606.html.
Hyde, Alex. “A death’s-head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos).” BBC Earth, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150805-terrifying-squeak-of-death-moth.

Although “The Sphinx lacks the drama and violence that are present in Poe’s most popular works, I feel that it evokes a subtler sort of horror. If the proposed edition were to be published, my hope is that it would garner a more widespread appreciation for this deserving tale.

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