….even if you never wrote another [poem] I should still be in favor of publishing it. It would be the phoenix of modern poetry. (Allen Tate to Cleanth Brooks, September 17, 1944)
…the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism.
(Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)
Although nothing is more common in McLuhan research than to suggest Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom as a, or even the key to his work, there is general ignorance about just when and just how this story came to his particular notice and about the place it was to have in his project.
When McLuhan left Cambridge in 1936 to begin teaching English, first as a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin and then in a faculty position at St Louis University, he was a dedicated distributist and a follower of the F.R. Leavis-Scrutiny line of the Cambridge English school. Both of these attachments were anchored in his conviction that rigorous thought necessarily enacts (or re-enacts) a bond with the social and cultural tradition.
Both of these commitments led him to seek out association with the American ‘new critics’. On the one hand, the American distributist movement led by John Rawe, SJ, a colleague of McLuhan at SLU in 1937 (but soon to be assigned elsewhere, apparently on account of a serious illness which would eventually claim his life), had sought common cause with the Agrarians at a combined convention in Nashville in 1936. On the other hand, the distinguished southern poets and so-called ‘new critics’ who participated in the Agrarian movement and who attended this convention (like Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate) saw themselves as allied with the Cambridge English school and especially (though not without reservations similar to those of McLuhan) with the work of I.A. Richards.
On both counts, McLuhan sought out intellectual and personal association with the new critics and by the middle 1940s was close enough with Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate that he visited them at their homes in Baton Rouge and in Sewanee (Tennessee) in 1945 from Windsor. As Brooks recorded to Tate (June 27, 1945):
Marshall McLuhan has written of seeing you and the pleasant time that he had at Sewanee. We were delighted with him here.
The association with Tate, then the editor of Sewanee Review, provided McLuhan with an outlet for the majority of his early publications. The friendship with Brooks was closer on a personal level and would lead to a very frequent correspondence and an exchange of students between the two in the 1940s and 50s.
Now Poe held a special place for the new critics in a series of respects. He was a southerner who was yet prized for his modernity by the symbolists in France, particularly by Baudelaire, the translator of Poe’s works into French. (The idea that the tradition could be defended and re-energized by the ultra-modern would, of course, be central to McLuhan following his second conversion after 1950.) Poe’s high valuation of Coleridge agreed with their own. And Poe’s popular works were prized by them both as imaginative reactions to industrialism and as attempts to reach beyond the literati to the world at large.
It was in this context that McLuhan wrote his essays, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ (Sewanee Review, 1944) and ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’ (Sewanee Review, 1946). He had been led to Poe around this time through his work and association with the new critics, and this, in turn, would lead to his engagement with the symbolists and to his reengagement, via the symbolists, with Eliot, Pound and Joyce.
Now just when McLuhan was writing his first essay on Poe, Brooks was writing a poem (not one of his usual occupations) on Poe’s Maelstrom:
“At first I could not make out what he meant — but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run down at seven o’clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Strom was in full fury!” — From Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”
Then when the terror is at its height, you hurl
The useless watch away, fling time away,
Having no more to do with time, and watch
The scudding circles of the empty spray
That are not empty — are competent and clutch
The abandoned rudder, and firm it to their whorl.
Geared to the whirlpool now, destruction’s dial,
The fool can read — the fool that runs, that speeds
On the dial’s hurrying face, knows what’s o’clock,
Himself the second hand, at first hand reads
The timepiece Braille-wise past strained eyes’ denial
Like the scared mouse that climbed inside the clock.
The gleaming funnel into nothing shines
As black as mahogany, as brittle as ice,
Down which the fluid moonlight steadily pours
Past spinning flotsam, past concentric lines
Of ordered wreck, to spill on what far floors
Beneath. You wipe the spindrift from your eyes.
But now, committed to time’s enterprise,
Your boat itself can teach the sought-for poise,
As, neatly tilted to the spinning walls —
Adjusted in an instant to hell’s laws —
It rights itself before your dazzled eyes,
And like a delicate water-fly clings and crawls.
And tranced by the murderous organ-roar, or cleared
By the monstrous centrifuge, the chilling brain
Is hardened to a screen across which run
The pretty patterns: spar, green branch, broached tun,
Smashed dory, orange-crate, each carefully steered
And keeping like a racer, each his lane.
And you, the railbird, loll and eye the track
That’s lightning fast, the field of wreck that’s slow.
You back the rakish derelict to beat
The bluff Dutch brig
And lose! But win the heat,
For your own boat, now on her easiest tack,
Creeps past both downward toward the spume below.
And then you see! Prepare to abandon ship,
Explain to the frantic brother, your clumsy hands
Futilely gesturing physics. But the leap
Asks too much of his mind; the tilting boat
Is the sole formula he understands.
He shouts you down with screams from the mute throat.
But hands keep up their argument until
Your brain, now tingling like the rat’s gray fur
Alive with prescience, hauls them from the craft
Onto the polished water that does not spill
Or foam like water, is darker and thicker far
Than the thinned blood that rides your crazy raft.
But is the expedient desperate enough?
You have abandoned everything but hope
That scuds too fast — that would anticipate
The last gyrations down the nether slope
And after, when the spent vortex shall slough
Its fury off, and like a flower dilate.
Yet hug hope to you like the empty cask
And strictly purge the brain as dry as cork
That it may bob, dry-shod, outside the gates
Of the abyss, may bob, and dip, and lurk
Above the false rainbows of spume that mask
The final gyres of Dante and of Yeats.
Who knows the whirlpool’s season or the hour
That ripens it to peace? Who thinks to catch
Time’s phoenix on her nest? Not even the fool
With the fool’s luck. Yet stare; prepare to watch —
Since nothing’s left but staring — the calm floor
Ascend, the surge become the stagnant pool.
Brooks’s poem appeared in the Sewanee Review, volume 54, issue 1, 1946. It was later that same year in volume 54, issue 4 of the Review that McLuhan would first appeal to the Maelstrom in ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’.