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bruckmann-poe-portraitWhitman’s precursor as a poet, and indeed as the first renowned literary figure of North America, was Edgar Allan Poe. He is now seen as a somewhat eccentric figure, known best for his tales of mystery. These are pretty remarkable, and his ability to convey suspense, horror and monomania, which can lead into each other but are also each of them powerful literary devices in their own right, is quite distinctive.

I am here concerned however only with his poetry, which is also pretty remarkable. Perhaps because of my affection for extravagant rhythms, I find some of his poetry bears constant rereading. Amongst a few favourites, most memorable to me, perhaps because of the wonderful comic horror film of the thirties of that name, starring Boris Karloff and Vincent Prices, is The Raven. As the rival magicians sit at either side of a long table shooting fireballs and other dangerous devices at each other, Peter Lorre, a less effective wizard transformed into a raven, flies between them.

The poem itself is not about magicians, but presents the musings of one of the less sinister of Poe’s solitaries, who is interrupted by a raven knocking at his window. I do not think anything is added to the poem by assuming that the raven stands for some psychological intrusion, for the disturbance to the narrator is entertaining enough in itself. Unfortunately the poem is too long to be quoted in full, but I will select some stanzas that give an idea of the story, such as it is –


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’……
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more…….
`Prophet!’ said I, `thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?’
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

The story then is about a man mourning for his lost love, wondering if his strange visitor can give him news about his ‘rare and radiant maiden’. The way in which the narrator moves from fascination to rage, as the raven answers all his questions with the same absolute negative, is a precursor to Poe’s later studies of monomania. But the real distinction of the poem lies more in the sound than the sense, its extravagant rhymes, its florid alliteration and the easy repetitions.
In the same genre, though more direct about love and loss, is Poe’s lament for Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Remarkably, Poe gets away with the sing-song internal rhymes of the last verse. By using anapaests, the quickest of metress (short-short-long), in alternate lines with the slow rhythms of the lines mentioning Annabel Lee, and then repeating ‘my darling’ in the 6th line, with two shorter lines to follow, Poe manages despite the relentless artificiality of the verse to evoke genuine emotion. Though one realizes sound mattered more to him than sense, he was able to deploy sound meaningfully.

In addition to these self indulgent performances, I should I suppose say something too about his more orthodox poetry, though I find it less memorable. There are the usual romances and elegies, which do not rise from the ordinary, though one can always discern Poe’s melancholy streak playing itself out in its usual idiosyncratic fashion. The latter indeed is the subject of Alone with its powerful last lines, describing a child who saw a demon in a cloud – when the rest of Heaven was blue

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov’d — I lov’d alone —
Then — in my childhood — in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still —
From the torrent, or the fountain —
From the red cliff of the mountain —
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold —
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by —
From the thunder, and the storm —
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view —

More orthodox seems To Helen, a deliberately classical account of beauty and longing, until one realizes that it was written to the mother of a friend, who provided a home to a lonely child. The classical allusions then are more telling with regard to the subjects of study (the phrases about Greece and Rome became the titles of two classic texts on the subject) than the subject of the poem.

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo, in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand,
Ah! Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy Land!

Poe was the first of a line of New England writers, who have great sensitivity, but also a forceful streak of perversity. I feel this says much of the extraordinary history of that cradle of the United States, where the founding fathers for totally selfish reasons destroyed the original inhabitants and convinced themselves that this was part of God’s plan. One is reminded of Hopkins’ anguish about God’s justice in the face of the thriving that resulted, but the writers remind us that perhaps such success too has its inner horrors.

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