Poe: Gothic Genius or Raven Lunatic?
His name is the subject of countless English teacher puns. His face can be seen on everything from nerdy coffee mugs to hipster tote bags. His work is on every list of great American poetry, not to mention countless summer reading lists. But does anyone truly know the real Edgar Allan Poe?
For a man whose stories are shrouded in mystery and deception, perhaps the greatest story of mystery and deception is his own life. The first biography written about him was written posthumously by his arch nemesis, so it was full of error and slander (“Poe’s Life” 1). Not to mention Poe was a rather private man, so the real Poe is difficult to discern from the drunken wretch he is made out to be. He certainly has his fans as well as his critics, and for good reason. His works are hailed as the prime examples of gothic literature in a day where literacy was first becoming available to the masses. Poe’s central themes of loss, especially young death caused by disease, were all too relatable. Though the modern premature mortality rate has vastly decreased, the theme of death has not vanished from literature, and as a result, the profound motifs of loss and despair are as relevant to the twenty-first century reader as they were when Poe was alive. In his writing, Poe utilizes vivid imagery, incorporates multifaceted symbolism, and plays upon his audience’s emotions to best convey his own twisted sense of reality.
Poe’s dark and often perverse tales are credited to have influenced writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce, “who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe” (Poet Details 1), as well as psychological thriller film director Alfred Hitchcock, who attributed his love of horror to growing up reading Poe (Bits and Pieces 1). Not surprisingly, the root of the dark, fixated obsession the world has on Poe’s writing is in his remarkable talent for manipulating language. In one of his most famous short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe weaves a tapestry of melancholy revolving around the narrator’s old friend, a sorrowful man who has recently lost his twin sister and is himself dying of a disease that can be described only as psychosomatic. The story is introduced by John P. Roberts, the editor of a collection of Poe stories called together Eight Tales of Terror and author of the following analysis: “We may choose from a list of Poe’s atmosphere words: gloom, melancholy, decay, dreariness, dilapidation… “instability,” “terror,” “hysteria”… the (very) house is full of sinister pulsations” (Roberts, 90). The rest of the story continues in this fashion. The narrator goes on to describe the decaying household, which is nearly personified as an outward embodiment of the waning spirit of Roderick Usher. “Poe’s language keeps us from seeing his characters and situations as related to real life,” Roberts explains in the introduction to his Poe compilation. “The characters are like figures moving across a carefully prepared stage; often they are less important than the painted backdrop- a Fiberglas curtain that makes everything soft and dreamlike. This is as if should be. If the audience… gets close enough to suspect that Ligeia or Madeline Usher might have to get breakfast or sew on a button or meet someone at the station, Poe’s spell is broken and the tale becomes farce comedy… for Poe, distance is preserved by language” (Roberts x). This all to say that Poe’s seemingly enchanting gloom stems directly from the words themselves. They are remarkably eldritch, and they paint a scene of deep sorrow and tumultuous emotional turmoil. Poe, though known more for his short stories than his poetry, is believed to have more than mastered the latter. “The laws of effect, mood, tone, music, (and) length of poems reached their culmination… (in) “Annabel Lee,” wherein, by means of repetition, each stanza coiled back on and absorbed its predecessor before it could move on again” (Davidson 98). The catchy, sorrowful, sweet rhythm of Poe’s work is truly a feat deserving of the highest esteem, as it allows the reader to truly revel in the imagery he or she might otherwise glaze over. “In her sepulchre by the sea/ in her tomb by the sounding sea,” he writes, writing to memorialize the youthful “Annabel Lee,” taken too soon by “a wind (that) blew out of a cloud by night” (Poe, Poetry Foundation). For example, he deliberately chooses the term “sepulcher,” which gives substance to the cryptic, dusty, even dreary tone Poe is aiming for. The word “sepulcher” is darker, drearier, and creepier than perhaps “resting place” or “burial.” The tragic loss displayed in “Annabel Lee” is immortalized in such a manner that plays upon emotionally-charged words.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite methods of displaying his intellect is to lace is work with classic allegory and symbolism that only those of equal education would pick up on. The symbols are often dark, and fitting for such a macabre writer. One such example is in his arguably most famous piece, “The Raven.” Poe’s masterpiece of poetry chronicles the bitterly sorrowful plight of the narrator, who is mourning the loss of his lover “whom the angels call Lenore” (Poetry Foundation 11). The exquisite dulcinea to whom he writes is often believed to be his wife, Virginia, who died of tuberculosis after only four years of marriage (Swan 2). Of course, the poem is riddled with symbolism, from the “bleak December” (Poetry Foundation 7) to the “stately Raven of the saintly days of yore” (40) that perched atop the “bust of Pallas just above my chamber door” (43). Poe ingeniously weaves the allusion to the Greek goddess of intellect and strategy, Pallas (better known as Athena) into “The Raven,” which is a testament to the narrator’s own intellect. Since a statue is a statement of status and pride, it symbolizes the narrator’s great pride in his own intellect. However, the bird, a raven (an omen of death and tragedy) flits into his home and casually perches atop this bust as if it were nothing of value, which demonstrations how the narrator’s prided intellect is useless and perhaps even laughable beside the powers of fate and of death (Davidson 87). Other pieces of symbolism fill the poem: the chamber in which it happens can be perceived as an embodiment of the narrator’s loneliness, the rich furnishings reminders of his lost Lenore. The storm raging outside can represent how the speaker is in the eye of the storm- calm in his own sadness, but surrounded by emotional turmoil that threatens to enter at any moment (16). Then, of course, there is the healing salve the speaker requests of the bird when he asks, “Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” (88). The “balm” he speaks of is believed to reference Balsam, a thick, viscous sap from some shrubs native to the Biblical tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh (grouped to make “Gilead”). It had often been used to numb and seal open wounds, though modern studies show that the fluid can cause other unforeseen heath issues when ingested (Moreau 2013). Even just this is too perfect: the man’s pain is so raw from the loss of “Lenore” that he would all but beg a strange bird to tell him whether there was such an unguent that could ease his pain, and of course, his answer is, as expected, “Nevermore.”
The public reaction to Poe’s “The Raven” was varied. Some reveled in its masterpiece. In a letter, Elizabeth Bennett Browning told Poe, “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror,’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore,’ and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight” (Browning 1). Others were less than impressed. Some found his work too dark, including the editors of The Richmond Compiler, who, in the February edition in 1836, responds to Poe’s “The Duc de L’Omlette” by wondering why Poe insisted on “descending into the dark, mysterious, and unutterable creatures of licentious fancy” and dabbling in “German enchantment and supernatural imagery” (Bits and Pieces II 1997). Jill Lepore, an editor for The New Yorker with a PhD in American Studies from Yale, also ridiculed his work, stating, “Most of Poe’s stories have this campy, floozy “Boo!” business at the end. Poe knew these were cheap tricks… (and) they weren’t to everyone’s taste” (18). Lepore goes on to accuse Poe of writing not to satiate the world’s need for literature, but to put food on the table. She even cites a letter Poe sends to his publishers and the rather miserable post-script of “p.s. I am poor” to illustrate his desperation (21).
The argument is often held over whether Poe was truly a lover of poetry and literature, crafting art that is the lovechild of bitter despair and beautiful tragedy, or simply a desperate man driven by hunger alone. Either way, his dark purpose was fulfilled: his writing did keep him alive, and it did greatly impact the world of literature. As stated by George Lippard in the November 1997 edition of Citizen Soldier newspaper, “Delighting in the wild and visionary, (Poe’s) mind penetrates the innermost recesses of the human soul, creating vast and magnificent dreams, eloquent fantasies, and terrible mysteries. Again, he indulges in a felicitous vein… that copies no writer in the language” (Bits and Pieces II). Evidently, Poe’s work evokes emotions in his readers. He is like a puppeteer, whose puppets are his readers, the strings his words. One such case is in his short story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” This tale records the anger and bitterness of one nobleman, Montresor, towards another named Fortunato. Montresor never explains what his “thousand injuries of Fortunato” actually are, but the emotion he feels is raw and true. The petty revenge story where Montresor lures Fortunado into the catacombs of the city with the promise of fine wines (as suggests the title of “Amontillado,” a dry sherry) satiates a sadistic or even child-like urge to “get even.” Readers can relate to Montresor’s vengeful spite, but also with Fortunato’s agony. After all, even the smallest of children play the “he started it!” card when the grown-ups intervene, because it is human nature to want revenge. It gives its audience a vicarious edge of satisfaction, even despite the moral soundness that admits Montresor’s crime is vile and heinous. While it does not render it justified, it does allow for a sense of sympathy (Roberts, 1). This sympathy is the dangerous, appalling, yet extremely filling sentiment created by Poe’s handiwork. The reader is left wondering, then, whether Montresor was truly a villain, or if since Fortunato’s plight is so satisfying, he is to be commended. His twisted sense of justice is the very sense that gained Poe his world renown. This motif echoes not only in what Poe wrote, but of what he expected of other writers. “Whereas earlier critics predominantly concerned themselves with moral or ideological generalities, Poe focused his criticism on the specifics of style and construction that contributed to a work’s effectiveness or failure” (Poet Details 1). Poe didn’t care what a man preached as much as how well he preached it, which demonstrates his concern about the piece’s emotional appeal.
Edgar Allan Poe weaves tapestries of language, allegory, and emotional appeal into his work that is so famous for twisting their audiences’ perception of reality. He hand-selects words that pierce the minds and souls of his readers. Not everyone loved the crepuscular horror of his murky literature, but nevertheless, he will forever be remembered as the pioneer and reigning king of literary horror. His name is both praised and degraded for his masterpieces of gothic literature, and even those who do not subscribe to his widespread admiration cannot deny the genius that is woven into every word. Will he ever renounce his title as King of Literary Horror? Quoth the poet, “Nevermore.”
Symbolism in The Raven
In “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe demonstrates his mastery of symbolism and repetition. He uses these devices to gradually build anticipation, climaxing at the third stanza from the end with the speaker entreating the bird whether there is word from the after world of his lost love, Lenore. While the bird’s repetition of the word “Nevermore” is objectively nonsensical, the speaker gives the utterance context and allows the word to agonize himself. Poe’s use of symbolism in The Raven gives the poem a needed air of drama. The ambiguity of the chosen symbols combines the dramatic feel with a sense of the ordinary to create the desired effect on the reader. The most obvious symbol in the poem is the raven itself. Poe decided to use a raven because it fulfilled his need for a nonsensical creature to repeat the ominous word and could also stand for the speaker as an omen of death (Poe). The raven is also an ordinary bird and adds to the overall mundane back story of this psychological otherworldly tale. A key component in The Raven is this face-value approach. The answers to all the questions posed by the speaker are already known; therefore, his continued questioning of the non-reasoning raven serves to illustrate the self-torture to which the narrator exposes himself. This way of interpreting signs that do not bear a real meaning, is “one of the most profound impulses of human nature” (Quinn 441). Another symbol is the bust of Pallas. Conjectures have been made by many concerning the reasoning behind having the raven perch on the goddess of wisdom. Many feel the connection between bird and Pallas would lead the narrator to believe that the raven speaks from wisdom, and is not just repeating its only “stock and store.” Some feel it is to signify the scholarship of the narrator. According to Poe, he chose to use the bust of Pallas simply because of the “sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself” (Poe). Because of the popularity of gothic architecture during the set period of this piece, the bust of a goddess is also completely ordinary. There is no otherworldly feel attached to it other than what is in the speakers mind. The use of the words “Midnight” and “December” symbolize an ending and a time of transition. The midnight in December, could easily be New Year’s eve, a date commonly associated with change. This view is held by Viktor Rydberg, who translated The Raven into Swedish. He uses the phrase “årets sista natt var inne,”(“The last night of the year had arrived”) (Silverman 241). Midnight in December does not foretell the future in any way – it merely describes time and, perhaps, weather – yet in Poe’s hands even a simple description is rife with symbolism. The chamber in which the narrator is positioned signifies the loneliness of the speaker and the sorrow he feels for the loss of Lenore. The room is ordinary yet richly furnished, a reminder of his lost love. This creates the countering undercurrent of beauty in the poem as the companion of death. There is nothing extraordinary about a furnished room but because it is furnished by the dead Lenore it becomes an echo of the dead (Quinn 408). Similarly, the tempest outside is nothing more than an ordinary weather occurrence but takes on great meaning in the context of this poem (Silverman 290).Edgar Allan Poe’s companion piece to The Raven, The Philosophy of Composition, highlights the creation of The Raven. Although it is doubtful that Poe composed his poetry exactly in this strategic, unemotional way, the essay does provide readers with a glimpse into the author’s mind during the poem’s composition. Poe explains that he approached his work on The Raven more like a mathematical problem than a work of writing. Using this methodology, Poe builds tension stanza by stanza to impact the reader at an optimal level, only to reveal finally that there is no meaning in the raven’s “nevermore”. The dark symbolism in The Raven is powerful because it is so ordinary. A raven, a statue of a goddess, a storm and a furnished room do not by themselves exude negativity; a combination of Poe’s poetic skill and the speaker’s (and reader’s) impressionable nature is what gives these simple components such power.Works CitedPoe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition”Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe, Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998 (second printing).
Lost in a Dream
“You may say that I am a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.” John Lennon’s “Imagine” has reached far beyond the bounds of his time to embrace the sentiments of an ageless audience. Lennon invites his listeners to envision a society in which people do not anticipate the beauty and splendor of a heaven, but rather attempt to create this environment on earth. Manmade barriers no longer exist and life is a general “brotherhood of man” in which people have a mutual respect for one another’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Humanity has long suffered the strife of reality and dreamed of a utopian society, similar to Lennon’s vision. This civilization would ideally be void of pain, want, and despair-all aspects of the shared human condition. Inevitably the daydream ends, the flower withers, and love is forever lost. Artists and poets are not exempt from this race of optimists who find their dreams obliterated by the cruelty of reality. Through several of his poems, Edgar Allen Poe struggles to find a compromise between the caustic world of reality and the fantastical images of dream life. His catalogue of poems concerning this subject matter and the discernment between the two worlds is unified by their progressing themes and titles. His poem “Dreams” focuses on the happiness and innocence that dreams have given the speaker. Relating to the concept of childlike innocence lost, “A Dream” proclaims that daydreams are the reflection of youthful aspirations never attained. Ultimately regressing to a pessimistic and jaded perspective, “A Dream Within a Dream” claims that all dreams are futile and delusional. Throughout the progression of these works, Poe’s speaker reveals his sense of insignificance in a world enraptured with its own pointless and shallow endeavors. He dreams of an unattainable fantasy world far better than any reality he can foresee. In childhood, every aspect of life has a sense of purity and innocence that permeates these memories. Children find time to be contented merely living and daydreaming. The speaker throughout “Dreams” invokes his memories of the past, desperately wanting them to last beyond the reverie and develop into reality. He feels as though a dream of “hopeless sorrow” is far better than the “cold reality of waking life” because a dream is temporary and ever changing (ln 4-6). A dream possesses the ability to conform to any expectation, regardless of physical barriers. Alas, reality is truthful and inescapable. There are expectations and demands of the outside world that govern man’s every move and thought. Within a dream world, man is commander of his own reactions, never judged or expected to do the conventional. Dreams have no conformity because individuals, apart from society’s rules, create them. As a boy, the speaker saw his future as a promising and welcoming adventure. He “reveled…in the summer sky, in dreams of living light/And loveliness,” wherein the beauty of nature embodied his hopes and dreams (ln 13-15). As inevitable as the setting of the sun and the changing of the seasons, the boy must grow to manhood, abandoning his imagination and fascination. Reality attacked innocence during its most vulnerable hour, leaving “behind its image on [his] spirit,” leaving him a jaded and caustic man (ln 22-23). Although he found pleasure during his childhood, this world of perfection and happiness can be revisited only in dreams. The capitalization of Paradise, Hope and Love exemplifies the reverence and value placed upon such entities. These aspects of dreams are all that give life purpose. The speaker claims that reality embodies all that is evil in the world while dreams possess the unique ability to perpetuate hope. Adolescence is traditionally a period evaluating morals and purposes. It is the transition time from a life of unquestioning acceptance to critical analysis. This speaker in “A Dream” tends to believe that dreams may offer a glimpse of inner peace that can never be attained. Every morning, man is destined to wake from his dream of “joy departed” to fall victim to a daily regimen (ln 2). Inevitably, he “turn[s] back upon the past” to view his childhood, wherein life held this inexplicable wonderment (ln 8). He is bombarded by memories of his goals and hopes as a child. During this adolescence stage (a period of awakening), the once deemed pure past has a shadow of pessimism cast over it. People begin to realize that dreams of the past, while beautiful and idealistic, are impossible. Each night, the speaker retreats to his slumber to revisit days in which these dreams were conceivable, only to wake all too abruptly and “broken-hearted” (ln 4). The dream is unfinished and unfulfilled. The speaker finds himself wanting desperately to make these dreams his reality. The hope that has motivated his every action seems to be fruitless, leading to no ultimate state of contentment. While he feels alone in all of his endeavors, this hope serves as a “lonely spirit guiding” him through difficulties (ln 12). He clings desperately to concepts that strive to give him purpose in life. Dreaming, although inevitably interrupted by prolonged stints of reality, provides humanity with an idealistic hope for the future. Childhood and adolescence are merely paths that lead to adulthood and wisdom. Adulthood embodies many aspects of maturity-obligations, incredulity, and cynicism. Imagination and hope stand little chance against such formidable foes. According to “A Dream Within a Dream,” regardless of the exact moment and circumstance along the path, once hope is lost, it can never be regained. Man is merely a shadow of his previous existence without dreams because he has lost reason to continue onward. His efforts to change society seem ineffectual within a world that has no purpose or place for him. Standing “amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore,” the speaker embodies a sense of helplessness and futility further perpetuated by the images of groping at sand in an hourglass (ln 13). In this adult stage, he realizes his minuteness within the infinitely large universe and is petrified by such a concept. Throughout his life, both in the childhood and adolescent stage, the speaker fondly reminisces of his goals as a young boy. Not until this stage does he fully comprehend the fact that opportunities and time is passing so quickly. Unable to preserve one moment of a lifetime intact, the speaker claims that life is but a “dream within a dream,” an ephemeral image that is no more than a wish (ln 24). Dreams do not last perpetually; therefore, the fact that life is a dream compacted to the extent that it fits within another dream merely intensifies its brevity. The final line within the poem questions existence, encompassing reality, dreams, and God. Without a predestined and distinctive purpose for his existence, the speaker contemplates his relevance to a world that may exist without him. He needs tangible evidence of faith-based concepts. Lacking any knowledge of the possibilities that his future holds makes him debate the purpose of today. Should the future be nonexistent, where in the grand scheme lies the past and present? Life is fleeting, and the opportunity to seize dreams becomes more and more rare with each fallen grain of the hourglass. As creatures with human nature and a sense of will, people tend to gravitate to John Lennon’s vision of a paradise in which peace, love, and harmony dominate. However, that same sense of nature and will forces people to question the possibility of such an idealistic existence. This sense of pessimism tends to derive from the emotional abuse endured by man on his way to maturity. Poe advocates that, as imperfect beings, humans are designed to hope, wonder, and question. There is no feasible line between an imaginary world and reality. In planning and anticipating a realistic future, some degree of dreaming and fantasizing is involved. Through the marriage between hopes and acceptance of duty, man finds heaven on earth. Reality is only as harsh as the rarity of dreams. While dreams survive, life remains bearable. Throughout “Dreams,” the speaker realizes there is vast room for hope in a world of despair, proclaiming that dream life is more desirable than the real one. Further on the decent of optimism, “A Dream” depicts the corruption of a world in which dreams are tainted. Purity of these dreams is crucial to the maintenance of a stable life. Hope plummets into the abyss of reality throughout “A Dream Within a Dream,” wherein the speaker adapts the lessons learned from “A Dream” and states that, without dreams, life is futile. Poe, a traditionally dark and cynical writer, includes himself with humanity in his struggle against his fear of impotency. He reveals his vulnerability and innermost fears of growing old and losing sight of the dreams he once held sacred. Poe adopts a tone of somber resolution to the inevitable cruelty of reality. His testament throughout these poems is to hold fast to dreams because time will wait for no man. Rather than wait until tomorrow to act on hopes, Poe insists that the present is all that is guaranteed and dreams of a society in which people act on such inclinations to form a heaven on earth. Like Lennon, Poe “imagine[s] all the people living for today.”
Death and Creation in Poe’s “Ligeia”
In his essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes, “the death…of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Here, Poe suggests that out of the death of something beautiful comes poetic inspiration. In a Poe story or poem, the death of a beautiful woman creates a “deficit” of beauty. In turn, Poe fills the void with his “beauty,” manifested in the narrator’s own words. Since the dead can no longer speak to affirm or dispute the truth, the bereaved lover is in a position of considerable power; he can relate the story of his lover’s death in any manner he chooses. In “Ligeia,” Poe explores the relationship between death and creation through the power of the narrator. Out of the death of Ligeia comes the birth of a new story, of which the narrator is master. Poe uses the analogy of Ligeia’s revival to represent the idea of narrative creation coming out of death.In the beginning of the story, Poe’s narrator increases his agency as the storyteller by erasing that of Ligeia. He accomplishes this by describing her as still, unmoving, and at times almost nonexistent. For example, he recalls how she placed her “marble hand” on his shoulder, and of her movement he says, “she came and departed as a shadow” (27). Furthermore, the narrator refers to her as the “outwardly calm…ever-placid Ligeia” and specifically to the “placidity” of her voice (29). In his Elizabethan-like cataloguing of her features, there is no evidence of movement or even life. The way in which the narrator isolates and meditates on each of her features achieves a chilling effect that suggests that he is describing her dead body. He tells of her forehead that is “lofty and pale,” her skin that rivals “purest ivory,” the “soft, voluptuous slumber” of her lip, and her “serene and placid” smile (27). The adjectives pale, serene, and placid, as well as the nouns ivory and slumber suggest an absence of movement or life, and could easily be used to describe a corpse.The subtle way in which the narrator manipulates the reader by describing Ligeia as if she is dead is proof of his power to dictate what is told in the story. He calls the reader’s attention to his power of shaping the narrative by making the story about himself. First, the story is entitled “Ligeia,” but the reader never really knows much at all about her; the person about which the reader is given the most information is the narrator himself. This tactic appears in many of Poe’s poems about dead women. The implication is that the narrators care more about themselves than they do about the women. Second, the story acts as a kind of confession – that is, an unburdening of his soul. There is very slight yet noticeable evidence of confession in the ambiguous deaths of Ligeia and Rowena. After he reads the poem that Ligeia has composed, she repeats the epigraph about the nature of the will, and dies, mysteriously. Since we are never told what brings about Ligeia’s illness, the reader is left somewhat suspicious as to the exact cause of her death, and also, perhaps, suspicious of the narrator’s agency in bringing it about. We are not given any direct clues as to the narrator’s motivation for wanting to murder her, but he does say, “…in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection” (31). The effect of this statement is to arouse the slightest amount of suspicion in the reader that the narrator might have been unsatisfied with Ligeia’s outward affection for him, and was moved to end her life. However, there is not nearly enough evidence to make the reader draw any hard and fast conclusions. In essence, the narrator exercises his power in constructing the narrative. He strings the reader along, including selective details and deliberately arousing the reader’s suspicions whenever he pleases. The cause of Rowena’s death, too, is uncertain; we are only told that “she was attacked with a sudden illness” (35). Immediately prior to her death, the narrator says that he “saw, fall within the goblet, as if from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby colored fluid,” which causes a “rapid change for the worse” (36). This, too, arouses the reader’s suspicion. The narrator would have the reader believe that he witnesses someone or something else drop the liquid into her goblet. However, the reader may suspect that in reality, the narrator placed some poisonous liquid in her goblet, and in his retroactive recollection of the incident, imagined that he witnessed it from an outside source. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that the narrator was “wild with the excitement of an immoderate dose of opium” (36). Consequently, the reader is left to exercise judgement in evaluating the narrator’s story, which is exactly what Poe wants. The narrator calls attention to himself, arousing suspicion that he might have been responsible for the deaths of Ligeia and Rowena. However, this is done so in a careful way, and the story is at best a covert confession. Nevertheless, the arousal of suspicion as to his guilt is evidence of the narrator’s power in relating the story. He draws attention to himself – the storyteller – in order to call into question his own validity, and to draw a connection between death and creation.The other major instance in which the narrator calls attention to himself is in his description of Ligeia’s eyes. Her magnificent “orbs,” which are “far larger than the ordinary eyes of our race” (28), are the constant subjects of his musings. One might imagine that when he gazes into her large black eyes, he is able to see himself. In fact, this is not far from the truth; the narrator’s obsession with her eyes is analogous to his obsession with his self – literally, the I. The contemplation of certain objects arouses a strangeness felt in gazing in her eyes: “a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water” (29). He also mentions that that certain sentiment is aroused “not unfrequently by passages from books.” Here, the narrator is drawing particular attention to himself by being self-referential. Passages from books – for example, the one he is writing – arouse the sentiment he feels in looking at Ligeia’s eyes, which are mere analogies for himself. Once again, he calls attention to himself and his narrative agency. The most telling detail, however, is the passage supposedly by Joseph Glanvill, which, according to the narrator, “never failed to inspire [him] with the sentiment” (29). This particular quotation, which Ligeia utters before her death, and which appears as the epigraph to the story, is the key to understanding the narrator’s power in drawing the connection between death and creation.The idea that “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” suggests that by harnessing the power of the will, man can accomplish a great deal, and even combat death itself. The quotation also mentions that God is “but a great will pervading all things,” adding to the suggestion that the will is all-powerful. In the end of the story, the narrator – through his powers of narration – brings Ligeia back to life out of the body of Lady Rowena. The logic is as follows: Glanvill’s quotation about the power of the will reminds the narrator of Ligeia’s eyes, which (literally and metaphorically) reflect his self-obsession. By syllogism, then, Glanvill’s quotation about the power of will reminds him of himself. What he does at the end of the story is indeed an ultimate act of the will. The narrator equates himself with God (who is “but a great will”) who has the power to manipulate life and death. Using his powers of narration, he enacts the process of “revivification” (38), literally bringing forth life from death. The account of the corpse returning to life parallels the narrator’s bringing the “dead” story to life, and the narrator serves as a vehicle to bridge the gap between death and creation. Just as life emerges from the dead body of lady Rowena, out of the deaths of the two beautiful women comes the creation of the narrator’s story.In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe also writes, “That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful.” In considering this statement, the reader must think like Poe, and consider the implications of writing about someone who is beautiful. If a woman, for example, whose beauty is the subject of one’s writings, is alive, then the opportunity for disappointment is great, since the writing may not do justice to the woman’s true beauty. If, however, that woman is dead, then the reader has no means for comparison, and the writer must be taken at his word. Furthermore, the narrator has the liberty to describe her any way he chooses, and create the context as well. The narrator uses the death of the beautiful Ligeia as poetic inspiration; in contemplating her death, he creates a new story. In the end, equating his power of will with that of God, he brings about a revivification, which serves as an analogy for the relationship between death and creation.
Poe’s Pointers for Perfection
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe describes a credible set of short and simple guidelines regarding the structure of a great literary work. These procedures may seem insignificant and useless to experienced writers. On the other hand, amateur writers that may be having difficulty beginning or developing their work might find Poe’s strategy legitimate and quite helpful. The poem “The Raven” is proof that these guidelines are effective when used to begin and to develop a literary work. The effectiveness of some of these procedures, such as the development of a dnouement, the length of a work, and the theme of a work, is evident in Poe’s “The Raven.”Firstly, Poe’s “Composition” suggests that, “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dnouement before anything be attempted to pen” (1). In this statement, Poe is suggesting that the writer should previously develop the dnouement, or the resolution of the climax, before developing any other part of the work. Poe validates this statement with the point that, “It is only with the dnouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention” (Composition 1). In this statement, Poe explains that once the conclusion is formed, it acts as the central point to which the causation, the incidents, and the tone all refer back to. For some writers, this “equation” may help them with the process of composing a work. Poe’s “equation” is very simple and to the point in that it allows the writer to piece together his or her work step by step, successfully creating a complete literary work.In addition, Poe explains the creation of “The Raven’s” dnouement with the following statement:Here, then, the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin; for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza: “Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! Prophet still, if bird or devil! By that the 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.” (Composition 9-10)In this statement, Poe explains that this verse is the first stanza that he puts on paper and that this verse will be the dnouement of the poem that he is developing. All of the stanzas placed before this original stanza, as well as after it, refer back to the dnouement. Poe’s successful development of “The Raven” verifies that establishing the dnouement first and then building off of it can be useful for writers who are having trouble beginning their own literary works.Secondly, Poe recommends in “Composition” that, “It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting” (4). In this statement, Poe suggests that a writer should plan out ahead of time how long he or she would like the work to be, preferably a length that one can read it during one sitting. It is evident that Poe followed this rule with most of his works. His short stories, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as well as his poems, such as “Annabel Lee” and “A Dream Within a Dream,” are all short enough to be read all at once. Poe believes, “[…] that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect: — that, with one proviso, that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all” (Composition 4). In this statement, Poe explains that a short work will produce the intended effect, and that a longer work may result in the loss of the intended effect. Most readers find it very difficult, once they have paused their reading, to pick up where they left off, sometimes being forced to reread certain parts of the story to get back into it. In keeping with this “short, yet affective” method, many of Poe’s works are brief, but they still keep the reader’s interest.Furthermore, Poe discusses the way in which he kept “The Raven” short with two different methods: length and rhythm. First, Poe states in “Composition” that before “The Raven” was even composed, ” […] I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem, a length of about one hundred lines” (4). Poe just missed his mark, finishing “The Raven” at one hundred and eight lines. Second, Poe explains that he preplanned “The Raven” to contain trochaic feet, “[…] the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short […]” (Composition 11). This continuous pattern of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable creates an upbeat or anxious rhythm in which one is to read The Raven,” such as in the lines, “Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow / From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore” (Poe 36).This anxious tempo not only follows along with the narrator’s anxious state, but also speeds up the reading process for Poe’s audience. For a writer having trouble determining the length and tempo of his or her work, “The Raven” is one of many fine yet concise works by Poe that has a predetermined length and upbeat tempo, as well an effect that is not “cut short” in the least.Lastly, Poe mentions in “Composition” that in order to write a great depressing work, one must use the best melancholy theme. Poe states, “Now, never losing sight of the object, supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself: ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind is the most melancholy?’ ‘Death’ was the obvious reply” (Composition 8). Many of Poe’s short stories and poems have a dark theme, and many of those usually involve some aspect of death. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance, is a short story about a brother who buries his sister alive without knowing it and only finds out what he has done when she returns for revenge and kills them both. Another example of Poe’s use of death as the most melancholy theme is the poem “Annabel Lee.” In this poem, the narrators speaks of his late love, Annabel Lee, who was taken away from him by envious angels, though he still sleeps beside her body every night inside her sepulcher by the sea. These examples, as well as many other works by Poe, strongly support Poe’s belief that death is the best theme of a work.Moreover, “The Raven” is a typical example of yet another one of Poe’s melancholy works focused on death. The poem begins with a man sitting alone in a dark room and mourning the death of his love, Lenore. “Eagerly I wished the morrow; —vainly I had sought to borrow / From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —” (Poe Raven 36). The raven enters the tale and soon the narrator is badgering it for answers about his Lenore, tenaciously hoping that his dreams of Lenore returning from the dead will become reality. The narrator pleads, “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.'” (Poe Raven 42). Finally giving up on his obsessive questioning of the raven, the narrator returns to his mourning of Lenore: “And my soul from that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted — nevermore!” (Poe Raven 43). Again, Poe’s consistent theme of death supports his belief that death is the best topic to write about. If Poe were to give a bit of advice to a writer having problems deciding what to write about, it would be to incorporate death somewhere in the work.Poe’s guidelines for a successful literary work are quite respectable. They are concise and to the point yet very effective, as many of Poe’s short stories and poems, written more than likely in the same fashion as “The Raven,” can support. Writers of both prose and poems can follow these simple rules of composition. If one is having trouble beginning his or her work, Poe suggests beginning with the dnouement and progressing from there, yet remembering always to relate the causation, the incidents, and the tone back to the dnouement (Composition 1). If one is having difficulty determining whether or not his or her work is too long and confusing for the reader, Poe recommends setting a limit on one’s writing so that the reader will be able to interpret it in one sitting, without confusion (Composition 4). Finally, if one is having problems choosing the best melancholy theme in order to attract readers from around the world, Poe’s obvious choice would be the theme of death (Composition 8). With all of the respect and appreciation Poe has gained from millions of admirers over the years, it is obvious that he has done something right. When it comes to mastering the art of writing a short, interesting tale about death, Edgar Allan Poe is without a doubt the “Man with a Plan.”Works CitedPoe, Edgar Allan. The Raven and Other Poems. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2000.Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The Raven with the Philosophy of Composition. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986. 1-15.
Two Poets, One Poetic Vision: The Edgar Allan Poe/Thomas Hardy Alliance
Any literary critic or scholar who sets out to verify the relationship between the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and the English novelist/poet Thomas Hardy cannot realistically begin without considering the questions posed by Cyril Clemens in the autumn of 1925 during an interview with Hardy at his home at Max Gate–“Do you like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” “Yes,” he replied, “I have always been fond of the American. I like especially “The House of Usher,” that cryptogram “The Gold Bug” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (26). Clemens, the nephew of American novelist/humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), continued his questioning with “Did Poe influence your work?,” whereby Hardy answered “Yes, without hesitation I say that Poe has influenced my work” (27). Thus, with these assertions by Hardy firmly established, we can proceed to explore Poe’s influence in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, for both poets shared a common desire for “the rhythmical creation of Beauty” as defined by Poe in his “Poetic Principle” of 1848. D.H. Fussell, in his article “Do You Like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” concurs with this by admitting that Poe and Hardy share ” (an) underlying similarity of vision and of certain preoccupations which both writers hold in common” (214).In order to simplify our search for the relationship between the poetry of Poe and Hardy, several key elements must first be discussed. In his 1938 work The Pleasures of Literature, John Cowper Powys verifies the Poe/Hardy connection with a personal reminiscence from a visit to Max Gate in the early 1890’s:”But it was in my own youth. . . that none other than Thomas Hardy pointed out to me, with more passionate appreciation than I ever heard him display for any other author, the power and beauty of Poe’s Ulalume, that weird poem that represents the inmost essence of his genius” (528).With this revelation in mind, consider Fussell’s statement regarding Poe’s poetic complexity: “Hardy saw in Poe a technician of some importance; in several cases he remarked upon Poe’s excellence in this respect” (213). According to Florence Hardy, the poet’s wife, Hardy had nothing but praise for Edgar Poe as shown in a letter to her in which he affirms “Poe. . . was the first to realize. . . the full possibilities of the English language in rhyme and alliteration” (343). As a poet, Hardy clearly exemplifies all of these traits usually assigned to Poe–power and beauty, technical mastery and an uncanny sense of rhyme and alliteration as will be demonstrated in the poems which follow.In a second letter, Thomas Hardy considers whether or not Poe would have achieved even greater poetic mastery and power if he had stayed in England in 1815 as part of John Allan’s extended family:”It is a matter for curious conjecture whether his achievements in verse would have been the same if the five years of childhood spent in England hasbeen extended to adult life. That `unmerciful disaster’ hindered those achievements from being carried further must be an endless regret to lovers of poetry” (Florence Hardy 343).Since Hardy was obviously a “lover of poetry,” this declaration shows his concern for Poe’s plight in the literary cultural arena of America in the early 1830’s and 1840’s when Poe was forced into a life of literary servitude which barely sustained him financially and was cast aside by his editors and publishers who lacked the sagacity to see his potential as a great American poet and prose writer. For Hardy, Poe’s `unmerciful disaster’ (a line segment from “The Raven”) was the underlying cause for his inability to achieve poetic fame in America during his lifetime which fostered `endless regret’ for those in England who would have gladly accepted him as a fellow Englishman with the status of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge.In January of 1909, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Edgar Poe’s alma mater in 1826, invited Thomas Hardy to attend the 100th anniversary of Poe’s birth (January 19, 1809), but Hardy declined the offer and wrote,”The university. . . does well to commemorate the birthday of this poet. Now that lapse of time has reduced the petty details of his life to their true proportions beside the measure of his poetry, and softened the horror of the correct classes at his lack of respectability, that fantastic and romantic genius shows himself in all his rarity” (Florence Hardy 356).Hardy’s grand approval of Poe, however, lacks in biography, for it is interesting to note that the American poet James Russell Lowell whom Hardy dined and corresponded with on a number of occasions had met Poe in New York City in 1845, prompting him to write a laudatory sketch of him in his Pioneer magazine. But due to Poe’s scathing attacks on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a plagiarist, Lowell’s enthusiasm cooled rapidly and later described Poe as “three-fifths genius. . . two-fifths sheer fudge,” a reference to Dicken’s Barnaby Rudge.In regards to the poetical affiliation between Edgar Poe and Thomas Hardy, Robert Gittings provides this significant observation:”In Hardy’s works, there are only two suggestions of Poe’s presence in the writer’s mind. The first is in the poem `The Dawn After the Dance’ which is in a meter so close to that of Poe’s `The Raven’ as to be more than coincidental. The second is in Jude the Obscure, where `The Raven’ is quoted” (145).Poe’s “The Raven,” first published in the Evening Mirror of New York City in 1845, has come under various interpretations through the years, but one aspect of this poem is undeniable, for beneath its Gothic undercurrent lies the distinct sense of horror generated by the most recognizable refrain in American poetry, the recurrent “Nevermore.” In simple terms, “The Raven” depicts the loss of a loved one in the form of Lenore, the “rare and radiant maiden” whom the narrator, as an elocuting hero, imagines to be wandering aimlessly “on the Night’s Plutonian shore” as the bird sits placidly “on the bust of Pallas” above his chamber door, a contrast in black and white which reinforces a repetitive theme in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.Hardy’s “The Dawn of the Dance,” which imitates the meter of “The Raven,” also contains similarities in rhyme and the use of alliteration as shown by these lines:I would be candid willingly, but dawn draws onSo chillingly,As to render further cheerlessness intolerableNow,So I will not stand endeavoring to declare a dayFor severing,But will clasp you just as always–just the oldenLove avow. (Gibson 230–lines 5-8).Now listen to “The Raven”:Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost uponThe floor.Eagerly I wished the morrow–vainly I had sought to borrowFrom my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lostLenore. (Mabbott 365–lines 9-12).In 1896, John Cowper Powys paid another visit to Max Gate and spoke to Hardy about Poe’s influence in his poetry:”He called my attention to Edgar Allan Poe’s `Ulalume’ as a powerful and extraordinary poem. In those days, I had never read this sinister masterpiece, but following up Hardy’s hint I soon drew from it a formidable influence in the direction of the romantically bizarre” (Fussell 216).From the observations of Powys, one might assume that “The Raven” and “Ulalume” were significant influences on Hardy’s poetry with their Gothic trappings of bleakness and melancholia. In Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” written in 1900, these trappings become even more obvious, for like his predecessor, Hardy often relied upon the contrasts between dawn and dusk and the changing of the seasons as backdrops for their poetry, colored and flattened towards a common shade of gray or what Samuel Hynes describes as “neutral-tinted” (113). Consider the first octet from “The Darkling Thrush”:I leant upon a coppice gateWhen Frost was spectre-gray,And Winter’s dregs made desolateThe weakening eye of day.The tangled bine-stems scored the skyLike strings of broken lyres,And all mankind that haunted nighHad sought their household fires.(Gibson 150–lines 1-8).As a comparative piece, here are the first eight lines from “Ulalume,” first printed in the American Review for December, 1847:The skies they were ashen and sober;The leaves they were crisped and sere–The leaves they were withering and sere:It was night, in the lonesome OctoberOf my most immemorial year:It was hard by the dim lake of AuberIn the misty mid-region of Weir–In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. (Mabbott 415-16)The images contained in these poems are presented as silhouettes of black against gray; even the frost is “spectre-gray” amid winter’s desolation. Blackness, symbolized by the “weakening eye of day” in “The Darkling Thrush,” serves as a canvas upon which light and dark pigments are applied to designate lighted interiors and the solitude outside the “coppice gate” and down by the “dim lake of Auber.””Neutral Tones,” written two years before “The Dawn of the Dance,” also displays this scenario of contrasts which “creates a mood which is appropriate to a dismal winter day” (Hynes 136):We stood by the pond that winter day,And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;They had fallen from an ash, and were gray. (Gibson 12–lines 1-4).This poem serves as an excellent example of Hardy’s semi-dark poetic style drawn from his earliest productive period, yet when contrasted against `Ulalume,’ it expresses an even gloomier tone:Poe: Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,And tempted her out of her gloom–And conquered her scruples and gloom.Hardy: Your eyes on me were as eyes that roveOver tedious riddles of years ago;And some words played between us to and froOn which lost the more by our love.The central question posed by Cyril Clemens in 1925 at Max Gate regarding Hardy’s appreciation of Edgar Poe seems to be in the affirmative, due to the shadow of Poe revealed in “The Dawn of the Dance,” “The Darkling Thrush” and “Neutral Tones.” However, when we take into consideration our enamored Englishman’s poetic principle, Poe’s influence becomes quite unmistakable–“to make sense of reality. . . by embodying images, ideas and feelings, intimate gestures by which the creative mind reveals itself” (Hynes 109).Sources CitedClemens, Cyril. My Chat with Thomas Hardy. Webster Groves, MO: The International Mark Twain Society, 1944.Fussell, D.H. “Do You Like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 27 no. 2 (Summer 1981): 211-24.Gibson, James, Ed. The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy. NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1976.Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. London: Heinemann Press, 1975.Hardy, Florence Emily. The Life of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1928. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1962.Hynes, Samuel. The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry. Chapel Hill: U of South Carolina P, 1961.Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, Ed. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 1 (Poems). Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969.Powys, John Cowper. The Pleasures of Literature. London: Cassell, 1938.
The Role of Confession in Poe’s Poetry
In his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe writes that in an ideal poem, “two things are invariably required first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning.” While he claims to use this statement to justify the “suggestiveness” of the final two stanzas of “The Raven,” he points at a more universal under-current that lies behind several of his poems, particularly those about deceased women. In poems such as “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven,” the speaker covertly confesses to murdering the women about whom they are written. The complexity of these poems lies in the nature of the speaker, who wishes to make his guilt public, yet at the same time enjoys keeping it hidden. The principle of a covert confession serves as Poe’s poetic inspiration, drawing a connection between confession and creation.Since the death of beautiful women is such a common theme in Poe’s poems, it obviously an inspiring topic. More important than the deaths themselves, however, is the manner in which they are narrated. Poe’s speakers tell stories about dead women that hint that they are responsible for killing them. One of the best examples is “Annabel Lee,” in which Poe frames the speaker’s underlying confession primarily through the use of meter. First of all, the sprung rhythm, or lines of alternating four and three beats, makes the poem sound like a fairy-tale. With the opening lines: “It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea,” the reader is immediately clued in that what is about to follow is a story, and not necessarily the truth. Thus, the reader is at once skeptical when the speaker declares that the angels in heaven, who coveted their love, were responsible for the death of his maiden. Perhaps the most revealing part of the covert confession is in the fourth stanza, in which the speaker exclaims, “Yes! that was the reason (as all men know / In this kingdom by the sea)” The exclamation, which disrupts the general pattern of beats, gives the impression that the speaker is convincing himself of this false excuse, as if he has just now begun to believe it as it escapes his mouth. Another possibility is that the speaker has anticipated the reader’s doubtfulness at this point, and feels it necessary to affirm his story by crying, “Yes!” In either case, the speaker’s frenzied exclamation that disrupts the otherwise smooth, almost hypnotic meter, illustrates how the speaker wants the reader to read his confession that lies beneath his thin and meager excuse for his maiden’s death.Poe also uses rhyme and alliteration to hint at the speaker’s guilt. One of the most subtle, yet effective uses of rhyme is the repetition of the vowel sound at the end of every other line. With the exception of a minor variation in the fourth stanza, the pattern of end rhymes in every other line is: “sea,” “Lee,” and “me.” The continuous rhyming of the word “me” suggests that the speaker is directing the reader’s attention to himself for a particular reason. That is, he is pointing the guilty finger toward himself as if to say, “it was me.” The alliteration of the “s” sound in the final two lines of the poem mimics the peaceful lapping of the sea, where the speaker presumably lies down with the corpse. Similarly, the internal rhymes such as “the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes” and “all the night-tide, I lie down by the side” force the reader to pronounce the same sounds in each line, mimicking the echo of the speaker’s voice within the walls of the tomb in which Annabel Lee is buried. The alliteration, internal rhyme, and peaceful rhythm create a tone of eerie calmness that reflects the speaker’s own calmness and lack of grief another sign of his self-indictment.The guilty speakers in Poe’s short stories also claim to be of calm composure. In the beginning of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the speaker attempts to show that he is sane by saying, “Hearken! and observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Throughout the story, the speaker goes to great lengths to tell the reader how calm and how careful he is in order to “prove” his sanity; however, the story as a whole serves as a confession of his insanity. Similarly, in “Annabel Lee,” the speaker’s calmness in the final stanza points to his own guilt, since he is strangely calm enough to lie peacefully next to his lover’s rotting corpse. The relationship of calmness to confession is especially strong in “The Black Cat,” in the scene in which the police are examining the area in which the speaker has walled up his dead wife and (unknowingly) the cat. Poe writes:’Gentlemen,’ I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, ‘I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this this is a very well constructed house.’ [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.] ‘I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls are you going gentlemen? these walls are solidly put together;’ andI rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.The speaker, who delights in keeping his composure in the presence of the police so near to the evidence of his crime, has an inexplicable urge to expose the evidence that will undoubtedly point to his guilt. However, there are no indications whatsoever that the speaker’s urge to confess is motivated by remorse. Therefore, it appears that the speaker has an inclination toward self-torment.The inclination toward self-torment is a prevalent topic in “The Raven,” as Poe discusses in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.” The speaker’s self-torment is illustrated by his repeated questioning of the bird, whom he knows will only answer, “Nevermore.” According to Poe, the speaker asks, “half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture,” and because “he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected ‘Nevermore’ the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows2E” Delighting in torment is not only a staple of the Gothic genre, but also a correlative of confession. Poe’s narrators enjoy a kind of covert confessing because it is a kind of self-torment.The concept of self-torment, particularly through the act of confession, is closely tied to the idea of narcissism. The very act of tormenting oneself shows at once a degree of self-obsession. By definition, to confess is to disclose information that has previously been kept only in one’s own head. Logically, then, a poem that is characterized by a speaker’s confession is a poem that is about himself. The relationship of self-torture and narcissism is well-defined in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which, at the end of the story, the narrator pulls up the floorboards in front of the police to expose the corpse of the man whom he killed. Ironically, the object that drives the speaker to murder the old man is his eye, a homonym for the word “I.” The underlying suggestion is that the “eye” is at the same time the symbol of the speaker’s torment and of his own self-obsession.Narcissism is indeed prevalent in many of Poe’s works both prose and poetry. Several of his poems, while they are written under the guise of being about particular women (such as “For Annie” and “Annabel Lee”), are only about the speaker. For instance, in “Annabel Lee,” the woman about whom the poem is written is almost entirely absent from the poem, with the exception of her name. When the speaker describes her, it is in terms of himself. The first piece of information the reader learns about her is that she “lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me.” Later, the speaker describes her as “my darling, my darling, my life and my bride.” The speaker’s self-obsession is made even more apparent by the same device that exposes his guilt the repetition of the “ee” vowel in the end rhymes leaves the reader saying the word “me.”The pervasive narcissism in Poe’s works is fundamentally important in making the connection between confession and creation. The self-obsession of the speakers, combined with the absence of the women in the poems, makes it apparent that the speakers are far more concerned with themselves than they are with the women they have killed. It is as if the speakers are making up for the silence of the dead women by inserting their own voices. Therefore, the absence of the women provides a certain poetic inspiration. This is what Poe means in “The Philosophy of Composition” when he writes, “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” The logical deduction from this statement is that a person is justified in killing his lover for the purposes of poetic inspiration. That is precisely what the speakers in “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” have done. However, what Poe realized in writing these poems is that the speakers are in positions of tremendous power. A person who has killed his lover has the power to tell about it, but more importantly, he has the power to shape his story any way he chooses, and to reveal as much or as little as he desires. In other words, it is not the murder, but the act of confessing it that inspires poetic creation.Richard Wright explores this relationship in his 1940 novel, Native Son. The protagonist, Bigger, gradually claims that he intentionally murdered a girl, while her death was truly accidental. By claiming responsibility for the murder, Bigger takes responsibility for an act of power, thereby redefining his identity. The narrator says, “He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own” (105) Shortly after, the narrator says, “He wanted suddenly to stand up and shout, telling them that he had killed a rich white girl, a girl whose family was known to all of them” (129). Not only does Bigger expose the relationship between murder and creation; he senses the urge to confess. Bigger’s analeptic refashioning of the events of the murder shape a large portion of the narrative, spanning the process of murder to confession, and finally to creation. This is the concept that lies at the heart of Poe’s works. The reader is not to believe that Poe killed women in order to write about them. The voice of “The Philosophy of Composition” is not Poe’s, but rather the voice of Poe’s guilty speaker. Poe likely wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” in order inspire people to suspect his narrative voices of this kind of guilt, and to encourage people to re-read his poems, looking for the underlying confessions if they had not picked up on them before. However, the idea about the death of a beautiful woman being poetic holds an aspect of truth. Without writing it plainly, Poe goes a step further than saying that the “lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” In fact, the only lips better suited for narration than those of a bereaved lover are those of one guilty of murder. The latter affords much more poetic creativity covert confession being the primary example. Poe also writes that, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem.” While the entire essay should be taken with a grain of salt, (since it is indeed another dissembled confession), Poe’s obsession with Beauty aligns itself with the relationship of murder to creation. It is not merely the death of a woman that is “the most poetical topic in the world,” but the death of a beautiful woman. When a beautiful woman dies, there becomes a shortage of Beauty that may be replaced by the poet’s own “Beauty” his poetry. Poe fills the void left by the death of the beautiful women in his poems with his own creative ideas, characterized by the self-tormented, narcissistic confessions of his speakers.Toward the beginning of “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes: “I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would that is to say, who could detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say” Of course, the entirety of what follows this precursor is precisely what he speaks of a detailed description of his own composing process for “The Raven.” Poe then offers an explanation for the absence of papers detailing the process of composition, saying that most poets would “shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought at the true purposes seized only at the last moment at the innumerable glimpses of the idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view” What Poe does at this point is the same thing that the speakers in his other poems do he gives a covert confession. The frenzied, disorganized poetic process that Poe attributes to other poets is the very process by which he composes. The process by which Poe claims to have written “the Raven” is utterly absurd, and intentionally presented so. Just as the speaker in “Annabel Lee” gives such a ridiculous excuse for her death that it appears that he wants to be “found out,” Poe makes his account of the poetic process so far-fetched that the reader becomes aware of the underlying confession. Similarly, the composing process that Poe describes is unrealistically premeditated and composed, much like the manner in which the guilty speakers narrate. The essay is, in fact, a “key” to reading his other poems. In making the essay a confession in itself, Poe draws the reader’s attention to the subtle “complexity” and “suggestiveness” of the hidden confessions that characterize his other poems. At the same time, his use of confession as a basis for an essay about composition affirms the presence of a direct relationship between confession and creation.
Poe as a Literary Professional
As an aspiring Southern gentleman, Edgar Allan Poe longed for the glamour of fame and wealth, prominence and prosperity. To gain this through his writing, Poe understood that he must be able to sell his writing to make money, but he also must appeal to the genteel to gain respect in their community. This stark divide in audience made it difficult for Poe to balance his writing in such a way as to target both populations, the literary elite and the popular middle class. Still, this divide creates a unique brand of writing by Poe that utilizes tactics to appeal to both audiences, creating art that works with Poe’s definition and the definition of his audience.
Art to Poe is a complicated thing. While he longs to belong to a class that determines art as an elite substance, he must work to create art that applies to more than just the elite. However, as Poe writes in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem per se, the circumstance – or say the necessity – which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” (1375) for a moment. To Poe, it seems that art involves premeditated process, focused upon very specific elements. As he opens his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” he praises the author of “Caleb Williams,” claiming that he “was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process” (1373). Poe writes this in regard to the idea that the author begins his process by planning his writing backwards; he clearly admires the process as a means to create art, while the product itself may be less important to Poe. This can be seen in his work, as well, as the typical pattern Poe follows in his writing involves very long sections of rising action and character development with dramatic climaxes near the end of the story. If climaxes can be read as the final culmination of a story, Poe shows his investment in the development leading up to this moment. For example, “William Wilson” tracks the life of William Wilson for twenty pages before the final paragraph of the story reveals the fate of the man and, perhaps, the moral attached to the story (337-357). Additionally, stories such as “Berenice,” “Hop-Frog,” and “The Oval Portrait” all utilize several pages worth of backstory and suspense, creating the ultimate effect; in this way, Poe recognizes the importance of the journey within art.
At the same time, Poe’s understanding of effect relies on the brevity of the work. “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting,” he explains, “we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression – for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed” (1375). Poe believes in complete focus and attention to art; no distractions should be present through his work; this may speak to a bit of self-importance from Poe, which makes sense, considering his aspirations to Southern aristocracy. Poe relies on a delicate balance between brevity and excitement, excitement and class. According to Poe, there is a “proper degree of excitement” that is “not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste” (1376). Poe seems to think that he has found the correct correlation between brevity and excitement, with shorter length leading to more intensity, that can appeal to both classes of audience, holding the attention of enough readers to create an enjoyable tale for all.
Finally, Poe understands art as a creation of beauty. The beauty Poe speaks about is that of a feeling, not necessarily of something seen. According to him, “Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones” (1377). This explains his branded tone of despair in many of his stories and poems. Additionally, “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (1379). The reader sees this in practice in “The Raven,” in which a melancholy narrator mourns over his lost lover, as well as in “The Oval Portrait” and “Eleonora,” to name a few. In “The Oval Portrait,” Poe reflects upon art itself as taking away the life of an innocent woman. “And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him” (483). This can be read as Poe considering his own favorite theme, the death of a beautiful woman, taking ahold of his art and manifesting itself in real life, as Poe loses many of the important women in his life. When he writes “Eleonora,” this real-life theme again shows itself, breaking away from Poe’s typical tropes of horror and showing vulnerable sorrow and loss of a loved one, creating an entirely different kind of beauty that still relies on the same art form.
While Poe wished to be accepted as a Southern gentleman, he understood his actual audience quite well. While he was read by the literary elite, he was also read by the general population, being published in anthologies and gift books for everyone. According to Poe, “I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable” (1376). Despite acting as a superior gentleman, occasionally, Poe marketed himself properly in order to allow art to be accessible for the entire population; this is probably why Poe has a lasting impression on the literary cannon today. He created original, unique works that were incredibly thought-out in terms of impression and art. He allowed publication in various magazines for popular entertainment and he utilized the media in his favor. While Poe may have had aspirations for prosperity and renown, his fame today proves that he has earned his spot as an artist in his own terms and in the minds of several different audiences.
Acceptance and Subtle Autobiography in “The Raven”
As the account of his life goes, Edgar Allan Poe was a notoriously dark and depressed man who was always in search of love. When he finally found a marital relationship with his first cousin, she passed away, making his life even more tragic and empty. He often wrote about his despair over his lost love, and used it to inspire many great works. Some may consider Poe to have pioneered the horror genre. His most famous piece of work, The Raven, played an important role in giving birth to this new type of entertainment. The Raven is about a man, heartbroken over his recently deceased lover, who gets a visit from a mysterious raven. The poem documents the speaker’s feelings and curiosities about this raven who, quite shockingly, can speak. However, the Raven can only speak one word, which allows the speaker to drive himself mad. Through the use of symbolism and allusion in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, Poe illustrates that an inability to accept the past will inevitably lead to the self-destruction of one’s future.
Poe uses symbolism to show the consequences that come from the rejection or acceptance of finality. In the poem, the Raven is used to reflect the speaker’s denial of the past and to show the self-destruction that comes along with it. Upon interacting with the Raven, the speaker quickly learns that the only thing it says is “nevermore.” However, he goes on to “implore–is there–is there balm in Gilead?” to which the Raven replies “Nevermore.” He is asking the Raven if there is hope in his future. Although he has already learned that the Raven will only ever reply with “nevermore,” he still asks it questions that he wants to have a positive answer, failing to accept the Raven’s pattern of answer. As if that was not enough of a lesson to him, almost immediately after, he asks the Raven to “tell this soul sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, it shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the Angels name Lenore” to which the Raven predictably answers “nevermore.” The speaker allows this to infuriate and depress him further. The speaker’s refusal to accept the certainty of the Raven’s answer leads him to engage in this self-torturous activity. The Raven reflects his incapacity to accept certainties learned from the past and this is supported by the way the Raven first appears.
The poem starts with the speaker perusing over some literature when he hears a tapping on the door. Initially he ignores the tapping, but then it happens again, which frightens him. He assumes that its a visitor and goes to open the door but is met only with darkness. He then calls out to his deceased beloved Lenore, with the slight hope that it was she who was tapping on the door. When he goes back inside, he hears the tapping now by the window. He flings it open and “in there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore. Not the least obeisance made he.” The Raven forcefully and unwantedly enters his home, only after when he foolishly calls out for his dead Lenore. This further suggests that the Raven is a symbol of his denying of the past. All of the speakers depression is due to the self-destructive activity of rejecting the fact of the past. Only when he accepts that his Lenore will never be with him again is he relieved of some of his sorrows. The speaker is pondering the nature of the Raven while sitting on a velvet cushion, which reminds him of Lenore. It leads him to the realization that “she shall press, ah, nevermore!” Once the speaker admits to himself the finality or “nevermore” of Lenore’s death, the air is then mysteriously filled with a sweet perfume that “God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore.” The speaker believes that God has sent him a cure to his sorrows as symbolized by nepenthe, an opioid. Only when he accepts that Lenore will be there “nevermore,” is he relieved of his pain. However, the relief does not last long because he then proceeds to ask the Raven questions regarding his future happiness and his reunion with Lenore in heaven to which the speaker knows it will answer “nevermore.”
Poe uses allusion to express the subjugation that an incapacity to accept the past has over reason and the eternal hell that comes from succumbing to it. The Raven is described to be very forcible as evidenced in the way he enters the speaker’s house. When the Raven first enters, he “perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–perched, and sat, and nothing more.” Pallas is the Roman goddess of wisdom and reason. The fact that the Raven, a symbol of the refusal to accept the past, is perching atop it, is a metaphor for the overwhelming power that living in the past has over logic and reason. Examples of this are when the speaker does unreasonable things like calling out to his dead Lenore or asking the Raven questions that he wants a positive answer to. The speaker comments on the Raven’s confident and dominating nature when he says “‘though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven, ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’” He is saying that although the bird looks weak, he is definitely not a coward. From that the speaker assumes that the Raven is from the “Night’s Plutonian shore,” which is the Roman version of the River Styx, the river leading to the underworld. He is suggesting that the Raven, being from hell, is a sort of evil, and thus that the mindset of living in the past is an evil. This is supported when, in the last stanza, the poem switches to the present tense, revealing that the Raven has never left the bust in the speaker’s home. He says that “[the Raven’s] eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, 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!” The switching of the poem to the present tense suggests that the Raven, or the mindset of living in the past, has control over the speaker. It is the mindset that chooses to stay, and not the speaker who chooses to allow it. The shadow that the Raven casts on the floor has locked the speaker’s soul in it, meaning that his soul has been possessed by the darkness that comes from a rejection of the past. The fact that the Raven is from hell suggests that being locked in this state is actually a perpetual and inescapable hell.
Through the use of symbolism and allusion, Poe exposes how a rejection of the past can turn into an overwhelming power that takes over one’s life, essentially making it a sort of eternal hell. Being that he used the tragic loss of his love to inspire his work, this is most likely a similar fate experienced by Poe himself. In fact, his death may be linked to the kind heartbreak-driven loss of self-control suggested in this poem.