The aim of this series is to read a short piece by every deceased writer who I haven’t read. With Poe, this is very interesting because I – like most people – would be very familiar with Poe, but not through his own writings. Rather, it’s through adaptations. I’ve seen the Vincent Price movies of the 60s – The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. When I was a kid, I read lots of Poe stories but they were all annotated adaptations written for children. So this was the first time I’d ever read a Poe story in its original form.
I decided to look at some of his most well-known poems: “The Raven”, “Lenore” and “Annabel Lee”. While I picked these three at random, I quickly realised there was a connection there. And the connection was this: all three poems deal with the loss of a woman through death. In 1835, Poe secretly married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia (although she was listed on the marriage cert as being 21, presumably for legal reasons). Virginia contracted tuberculosis seven years later and eventually died in 1847. The poem “Lenore” is very much a poem about a heartbroken man grieving the loss of his wife:
“Come! let the burial rite be read- the funeral song be sung!
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young”
Although this poem seems as much tinged with anger as grief:
“How shall the ritual, then, be read?- the requiem how be sung
By you- by yours, the evil eye,- by yours, the slanderous tongue
That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young?”
One wonders if these lines are aimed at those who may have raised eyebrows at the age of his young bride. The poem “Annabel Lee” has a similar sentiment although it’s not quite as heart-rending or as personal as “Lenore”.
“The Raven” – probably his most famous poem – is like the final distillation of both poems. It opens with the line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”, telling the story of a man who’s sitting in the darkness musing about the loss of his beloved. A raven flies into the room, perches itself on a bust of Pallas and speaks to the man. But the only word the raven can speak is “Nevermore”. The narrator doesn’t understand why this is the only word he can say. The more he enquires of the raven, the more his mind starts to break down under the weight of the memory of Lenore. Until finally, he asks the raven …
“Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’”
At that point, the man breaks down and screams at the raven to leave but the raven doesn’t move. And, in the final lines, as illustrated below, the man says,
“And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!”
I don’t know that these poems could be called great poetry. There’s a lot of very simple rhyming: “dreary” and weary”, “rapping” and “napping”. But there are some quite nice lines in there as well, such as his description of the deceased Lenore:
“For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes
The life still there, upon her hair- the death upon her eyes.”
However, beyond the actual words themselves, there’s something very interesting about these poem’s subject matter. Poe took a personal tragedy and turned it into poems that invented a whole genre: horror (and specifically, gothic horror). He was to be a huge influence on other writer – not just in the horror genre – but also writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Bernard Malamud. Despite some issues with the writing style, I enjoyed the poems, especially the ideas behind them and I do think I would read more Poe.
And to finish, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this one.
(Image: Click on pic for credits)
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