Tuesday, November 28, 2017

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”

Poe goes in circles in my life, or in cycles, or orbits, coming around and around again with his own spooky timing. I wasn't expecting to like the PBS documentary I saw a few weeks ago, but I did, and wanted more. Even the actor they chose to portray Poe became more convincingly Poe-like as the show went on. They interviewed the usual suspects, scholars who basically spend all their working life trying to understand him. But they also kept interviewing an author named Lynn Cullen, who had written an intriguing-sounding book called Mrs. Poe.

At that point, I didn't know if it was biography or fiction. Turns out, not only is it fiction, it isn't even about Mrs. Poe! It's about the "lady friend" who almost took Poe away from his fragile wife (the fabled 13-year-old first cousin he married to save her from penury, or worse). So I ordered it from Amazon, with my first question being, "Will she 'get' Poe? Will she be able to 'do' Poe? Will he be at all convincing?" I haven't even finished it yet, and so far it has me in its thrall.

I see Poe differently from the usual perception of a half-mad, emotionally-frail alcoholic who barely made it in the literary world. Hah! Barely made it? The man was a literary rock star.  He didn't "barely make" anything, from his youth as a tough, wiry athlete to his adulthood as a tough, wiry poet who bore all the slings and arrows of his trade (and handed out more than a few in his blistering book reviews).

We're all affected a little too much by that famous photo (which see), where he really DOES look half out of his mind, with unfocused and even unmatched eyes staring into the unknown. Maybe he just disliked having his picture taken, in keeping with his bristly personality. I think if you saw Poe in a room with other poets of his time, you'd be hard-pressed to pick him out. I see him as a serious-looking man, thin and intense, with a big head and untidy hair, and though I have no way of knowing this, I keep thinking he had an educated Southern accent (having been raised in Virginia). He had enough of the thespian in him to give great drawing-room performances of his work.  The Lynn Cullen book is delicious in its imagining of an incredible literary salon where "Walter Whitman" basically makes an ass of himself, Horace Greeley pontificates, Louisa May Alcott shows up for tea, and everyone sucks up to Poe because he just published The Raven and is now terribly, terribly famous.

I've walked around and around inside this epic poem before, of course, but I just now read the whole thing out loud (with no one listening - I didn't even record it, but wanted those cadences inside my mouth and throat and lungs). Stuff sprang out at me, and for the first time I kept bursting out laughing, for this is a really funny poem. At least, it's funny in spots, when it's not absolutely gut-twisting in its loneliness and horror.  Poe was one of these people who had a huge hole in him where the wind blew,  a chill wind that never stopped. 

I realize that for the most part, my longer posts never get read or even opened, like gifts that just stay under the Christmas tree. But it's my blog, and I will do verse-by-verse literary analysis if I want to! 

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. 
"'T is some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door; 
Only this and nothing more." 

The first thing you notice is the clean, impeccable meter, the highly complex, perfectly balanced syllables glittering like gems in the dark. This is what makes it so challenging to read aloud, but if you work at it a bit, it's perfect.  As Poe usually does, he immediately sets the scene, plunks the narrator into our lap, and lets us know that this is a man who likes to sit in a dark room alone and read weird books which are completely forgotten (kind of like my three novels). This implies that he's feeling pretty darned forgotten himself, perhaps on the romantic scrap-heap. The rhyme scheme kicks in very soon, and he plays it to death, along with the famous Poe repetition: napping, tapping, rapping, rapping again, then taking one neat step backward to tapping. Well, if you and I did this verbal cha-cha, it would be a bad poem. The "only this and nothing more" already clues us in on his mood - both dismissive and wary, already reassuring himself, whistling in the dark. 

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December 
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. 
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow 
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore, 
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore: 
Nameless here for evermore. 

Oh really? "Nameless here forevermore"? All he DOES for the rest of the poem is blather on and on about Lenore, who is likely some pure and virginal, consumptively lovely maiden (and as a matter of fact, that sounds an awful lot like his wife). Calling her rare and radiant, well, I've seen a few people who were radiant, but only for moments. Soon that candle will be snuffed out. He sets this thing in December, of course, the dying of the year, and don't forget he has Christmas and all its disappointments in mind. I won't get into "and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor", as it makes me want to howl and/or burst into tears because I should just stop writing forever

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain 
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; 
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating 
"'T is some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, 
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door: 
This it is and nothing more." 

Those first two lines, among the best-known in English literature, are so incredibly sensuous that you can only read them out loud to fully appreciate them.  There isn't a syllable that's wrong - we're in geniusland here. Silken, sad, uncertain. Such words for a mere curtain, not just any curtain but a purple one - no, "each" purple curtain, so how many of them ARE there? I like how he juxtaposes "thrilled me, filled me" with "fantastic terrors" - don't most of us love having the bejeezus scared out of us, even paying for the privilege? And now, repeating and entreating have replaced rapping and tapping. He is the sceptred king of internal rhyme. 

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, 
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; 
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, 
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, 
That I scarce was sure I heard you"—here I opened wide the door:— 
Darkness there and nothing more. 

Oops. There's nobody there. I'll bet HE felt the fool. Here he is talking on and on to someone who doesn't exist, or at least not in fleshly form! And I really love that "Sir", said I, "or Madam" - is he hoping it might be the lost Lenore showing up, as if to deliver a pepperoni pizza from another dimension? But it's funny, too, reminding me of those awful old "Dear Sir or Madam" form letters (rejection letters? For Poe got a lot of those, too. "Ravens, Mr. Poe?" - perhaps from the same editor who said, "Whales, Mr. Melville?").

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, 
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before; 
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, 
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?" 
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore:" 
Merely this and nothing more. 

Well OK, then, he misses his girl friend! But we really know nothing about her, except that she's a "rare and radiant maiden" - and not there. For some reason a Bob Dylan line leapt into my head: "But she makes it all too concise and too clear that Johanna's not here."

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, 
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. 
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice; 
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore; 
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore: 
'T is the wind and nothing more." 

I love this verse. There is so much to love in it! When I saw that he had rhymed "that is" with "window lattice", I laughed out loud, but it was nothing to what I did when I got to "let me see, then what thereat is". This is a sly joke, no mistake, a little clever turn of phrase meant to relieve the bleakness just enough to keep his audience on the hook. For Poe was seductive, along with everything else he was. 

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. 

We knew it was coming, the grand entrance. But how it comes is rather strange. The word "flirt" is not used casually, and fluttering eyelids are almost always seen as flirtatious. But suddenly, "in there stepped a stately Raven" - the thing WALKS in to his gloomy old chamber, looking positively royal. If you've ever studied a raven, though, they're exactly like this; they give no quarter. They really do just sit there, in a hunch. Unlike crows, they don't twitch or dart. They stare at you. It's unnerving.

And in case you're curious:

PALLAS was the Titan god of battle and warcraft. He was the father of Nike (Victory), Zelos (Rivalry), Kratos (Cratus, Strength) and Bia (Power) by Styx (Hatred), children who sided with Zeus during the Titan-War. Pallas' name was derived from the Greek word pallĂ´ meaning "to brandish (a spear)". He was vanquished by the goddess Athena who crafted her aigis (a goat-hide arm-guard) from his skin.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling 
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,— 
"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!" 
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." 

This is just another sly joke, a clever turn of phrase. It's "Who's on first, What's on second" all over again. No, quoth the Raven, I WON'T tell you my name, so there! So Poe assumes his name is "Nevermore", a nice play on the "nothing more" which he has already used SIX TIMES (!! I counted). 

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, 
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore; 
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being 
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door, 
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, 
With such name as "Nevermore." 

He's sure he's the only one. Ever. In all of human history. No ego here! And maybe he's right. I never encountered such long raven poems from any other author. "Ever yet was blessed" must be sarcasm, for a moment ago he was cursing the damn thing. I like how quickly he switches from words like stately, lordly, grave, stern, etc., to "ungainly fowl" (homonym time!), as if it's just a big black chicken.

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only 
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour. 
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered, 
Till I scarcely more than muttered,—"Other friends have flown before; 
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before." 
Then the bird said, "Nevermore." 

Oh, you'll just leave me like everybody does. Oh, no I won't. But I wish you would. And it's funny how HIS hopes are capitalized. I wonder how he does that?

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken, 
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store, 
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster 
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore: 
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore 
Of 'Never—nevermore.'

So! So now he's so desperate for an explanation for that gloomy triplet that he's telling us this bird's owner had a vocabulary of ONE WORD.

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling, 
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door; 
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking 
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore, 
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore 
Meant in croaking "Nevermore." 

This is one of my favorite passages. It completely deflates all the horror he has been building up: the guy wheels up a soft, cushy chair - I didn't know chairs had casters then - and lounges on the lavish velvet, tipping it back, yawning and stretching, linking fancy unto fancy - maybe even lighting a cigar or swigging a little laudanum - can't you see it? 

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing 
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core; 
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining 
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er, 
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er 
She shall press, ah, nevermore! 

Ah yes, now we get to it, the repressed sex. It had to come some time. Once more he's nodding off into some sort of erotic reverie, using a bloated word like "gloated" not once but TWICE, a word so pregnant and ready to burst that it reminds me  of the seethingly fertile abdomen of a termite queen - and then, all of a sudden, here she is, back again for a return engagement - LENORE! Or at least, we can assume it's Lenore who was pressing that velvet violet lining, or having her velvet violet lining ("with the lamp-light gloating o'er") pressed. Never have I seen sex so subtly expressed.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer 
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. 
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee 
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!" 
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore." 
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." 

He likes words which were probably antiquated even then. Quaff I get, nepenthe - well - not so much. So here's what it means:

Nepenthe: a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of pain or sorrow 
Something capable of causing oblivion of grief or suffering

I assume it was a sort of laudanum used by the gods in ancient times. Some sources say it didn't really exist. Laudanum did, as did alcohol, and it's my belief that Poe mixed them freely.

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil! 
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, 
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— 
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore: 
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!" 
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." 

I have always loved this line, and think it's one of the finest ever written: "Is there - is there balm in Gilead?" It brings to mind the old hymn, "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole/There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."  The original Biblical line read, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" Poe's version clings to a shred of hope, but the repeating "is there - is there - " is completely heartbreaking. Strangely, almost all versions I've heard treat this as a kind of sarcasm, but I think it's a cri du coeur from a man who has almost given up.

But then again. . . it could also be a test. 

"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."

OK, I'm going to stop looking things up, so you can take a guess at who or what Aidenn is. These classicists bug me to death. The important thing is Lenore. Lenore, Lenore, Lenore! By now she's not just radiant but "sainted". Did Poe ever have sex, I wonder? I think he worshipped women and even held some of them in high regard as writers, but there is a sense - well, maybe it was marrying that thirteen-year-old cousin. It would render you a little cautious. 

"That God we both adore" is a nice touch. Come on, we're both on the same side, aren't we? And I don't think anyone who rants and rages this much is particularly religious. It's yet another attempt to seduce. Devious man.

As for the Raven's response, I'm beginning to think Poe was right the first time: he was taught just one word, and that's all he's going to say.

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting: 
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore! 
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! 
Leave my loneliness unbroken! quit the bust above my door! 
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!" 
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." 

I like this guy, I really do. I can see him stamping around and jumping up and down, and probably quaffing as Poe was wont to do. "Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!" Which prompts the inevitable response: Polly want a cracker. And the black plume! Isn't that a nice touch - the horses wore them for funeral processions. "Leave my loneliness unbroken" is a plea, which tells us a lot about how he really feels about being alone.

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting 
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; 
And his 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!

Edgar Allan Poe

So we all know this is a Poem About Death. But it's also a poem about Poe. It's about the things that were important to him. Privacy. Quiet. Introversion. Womblike chambers of refuge. A sort of carefully cultivated loneliness. Shock and fright as delicious physical sensations that were perhaps a substitute for sex. Radiant, unbesmirched, angelic women, the kind that don't exist. Scholarship, the classics, escape into literature. Thwarted romance. Abandonment, rejection. Being angry and upset with something external, which is really a problem he has generated himself. Ranting and railing at God, the Fates, demons, annoying symbols of mortality roosting on his doorframe, and all those things over which he has absolutely no control.

So let's look at Nevermore. What does it really mean? "No"? "Never"? I always thought it meant "not any more". The things that were, are no more, and love has bloomed and died and been swept away. So the bird just keeps on saying it, in case Poe didn't get it the first time. It's a grim thing to teach it to say, but for a raven it seems more or less appropriate. Ravens don't budge, it's true. Lately I have seen seven at a time on my back fence, and it gave me a thrill, let me tell you. They just stay, is what they do. They stand their ground. Sometimes they make a gritchy sort of grinding sound, or a hollow rattle. Personally, I love them - I think they're magnificent, and creepy. What other bird could have stood its ground through a whole long poem such as this?