The Edgar Allan Poe Popular Culture Never Knew
Seldom is Edgar Allan Poe's voice heard today. It is drowned out by the popular culture's notions of some deranged man whose stories and poetry were simply the product of his own sick mind. The myth of Poe as some sort of mad man genius was largely the creation of his personal enemy Griswald who wrote the first Poe biography. However, rather than going into the details of Poe's biographies and trying to debunk myth after myth, let us take his poetry as evidence of where Poe's mind dwelt.
Many will accuse Poe of 'morbidity', however those who make such accusations have most likely not come face to face with their own mortality. Take for example Socrates, who said that the true philosopher is always concerned with 'dying'; that is, they are concerned with freeing themselves from all those obstacles of the earthly world, like the blindness of the flesh, the fear of the unknown and the sobering frailty of life itself. Only if one overcomes those earthly obstacles, does one find the courage to explore those unknown realms, finding their own thoughts no longer anchored in the usual places, and now ready to explore that which their instincts for self-preservation and the condition of their mortality had predisposed them to fear.
The secret of Poe's method of composition lies precisely in the fact that he never lets you escape Death, he never allows you to avoid the paradox of your mortality.
Here is where many feel their instincts are challenged, “That’s so morbid” says the Romantic. Yet only by crossing this path can one attain a higher realm, the realm of what Poe terms "Supernal Beauty" – that which lies beyond the pretty flowers and singing skylarks, where the haunting beauty of the sublime takes over.
Take the Conqueror Worm as a simple and early example of his mind:
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.
Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.
But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.
The Search for the Supernal
As the great German poet Friedrich Schiller said, while the sublime is a mixed feeling, which comes almost as a shudder, it is yet more powerful; one feels a degree of freedom incomparable to that which the attachment to any sensual thing or its appearance can offer.
While perhaps a bleak idea for some who define their existence as solely a question of what they can touch, taste, hear, see or smell, for a humbled person, it has the power to bring them to that higher realm, the realm of Supernal Beauty, where one finds themselves no longer troubled by the worldly concerns that ensnare most people.
Think of the 'Conqueror Worm' as a tragedy like one of Shakespeare’s, where the real stage lies in the audience's mind, watching the characters, the choices they make, seeing the entire system of axioms that shapes their fate, and that of their society, unfold.
Take Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar for example. In it, Shakespeare puts the lines “The fault my dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves” in Cassius' mouth. By saying this, Shakespeare allows the audience to contemplate the question of where the power to decide one's own fate lies.
However, can those unwilling to contemplate their own mortality have the courage to choose their own fate? That is, when the curtain falls, will the worms have the final say or will their lives, from the start, have been directed towards a higher realm - the one which Poe now eternally inhabits?
With this in mind we take the opportunity to list Poe’s top 5 poems. As we read some of Poe's greatest poems like The Raven, Annabel Lee or To Annie, let us consider: were such poems really driven by despair, or does a higher order of beauty exist?
We present below a list of what we consider Edgar Poe's five greatest poems.
1. El Dorado (1849)
Before Poe died, despite all of life’s hardships, he had found and relished the key to true happiness. He sought for this El Dorado in nothing but the principle of beauty and all that which lies beyond what we can touch, taste, hear, see or smell: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow.”
From a compositional standpoint, and conceptual standpoint as well, Eldorardo is arguably Poe's greatest poem. Think about how the meaning of this piece is being communicated. Are the words "shadow" and "Eldorado" simply being repeated, or is something happening between the lines? Is the land of Eldorado, which the knight sings of, the same one that the shade refers to?
By not addressing his subject directly, Poe communicates the meaning through a process of development: a tension is built up as the theme moves from stanza to stanza (from “room” to “room” in Italian). By not directly stating his idea, the meaning is developed in a way which is not arbitrary, which allows the reader to discover for themselves what is happening behind the lines, in the poet’s mind.
See what occurs when the poem is read over.
How does the nature of the word “shadow” change? At first it refers to a simple literal shadow, but then it takes on a qualitatively higher order of meaning with each successive stanza. How does the seemingly literal idea of Eldorado become elevated, and changed, such that it no longer has the simple literal meaning of some fabled land of riches and lost treasure, but takes on a metaphorical idea suggesting a completely different kind of world - a much "richer" world.
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’
‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
2. Annabel Lee (1849)
In justifying this next choice, much of the reasoning for the ones that follow will have been addressed. We can hear people protesting “why is the Raven not number one, or two?” The Raven is Poe’s most popular poem, and without doubt one of his best, but just because it is the most popular and well known, in fact ubiquitous within the culture, that does not mean there are not reasons to put some of Poe’s later compositions before it.
The Raven put on display all the elements of a perfect poetic composition, all weaved into one artless piece of narrative poetry. However, it is arguable that Poe was able to reach a more profound level of idea, using those skills he put on display in the Raven, in some of his later pieces, employing many of the same strophic and metrical principles used in The Raven and treating the same theme, but doing so in a more elevated fashion.
Annabel Lee was the last completed poem Poe wrote. In introducing this theme of the death of a young woman, he uses some of the most well-crafted meter ever employed in the English language. With anapests, iambs and spondees coming together in a manifold of meters, breaking his own rules, much like late Beethoven, and thus breaking out from any standard form, Poe created, while perhaps a less popular and accessible piece, a more haunting and a more profoundly moving piece, for those who are willing to follow him into "the night’s Plutonian shores."
The death of a youthful maiden is a theme, which Poe called “the most poetical topic one could conceive of,” which had been so brilliantly showcased in The Raven. While The Raven is an artful masterpiece, and has perhaps more ability to thrill and entertain, it yet has less power to deeply move, to grip one from the depths of the soul to the effect that the person experiences a fundamental transformation within themselves.
Moreover, for much of that magic to come alive, such poems have to be recited (which is another art form of its own, aided by those familiar with dramatic performance and bel canto singing), they are not dead scores like those of some post-modernist composer utilising all sorts of intricate combinations and virtuosity merely for the purpose of effect and titillating the senses, without any real commitment to truth or sense of higher purpose - Poe is creating a rhythm and musicality, which as Saint Augustine wrote of poetry:
It is the ascent from rhythm in sense, to the immortal rhythm which is in truth
It has the power to carry us beyond the realm of simply pretty images and singing skylarks, bringing the reader who is courageous, to the utmost depths of the soul, and experiencing one of the most profound and at the same time frightening of human experiences - the loss of our beloved. It is a loss no man or woman can escape. In being confronted with this greatest and most moving of mortal experiences, only then does life become ever sweeter, sweeter than anything any of us might have been willing to accept, before such an experience. Still living, having walked with Poe, we now re-enter our daily lives with a profound sense of appreciation for the sweetness of life - having been made sweeter only by death.
In a word: the ultimate difference between Annabel Lee and The Raven is the tone. With The Raven, theatrics, drama, characters all come to life, which while haunting, still manages to have a playful feeling to it – it cannot be taken too seriously or it loses its magic. With Annabel Lee, the feeling of loss is a lot more personal, and the announcement that this beautiful woman is not just some special love interest, but she it is his bride - the feeling felt is truly painful. It is a pain, which no person who has ever experienced the true meaning and beauty of life can ever deny knowing.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
3. The Raven (1845)
The Raven was Poe’s most popular poem, and to this day, even people who have almost no familiarity with poetry are most likely familiar with The Raven, much in the same way those who have virtually no knowledge of painting, renaissance art and history are yet still familiar with the Mona Lisa.
Like Da Vinci, Poe produced very few masterpieces in the art for which he was unique. The Raven stands out as something of a Mona Lisa of poetry because of the fact all the elements of a poetic master are displayed to create something of a miracle in poetic composition. From the elements of strophic poetry, intricate meter (including anapests, hearkening back to the ancient Greek poets), the narrative excellence and mastery of diction which makes the vowels "dance" as Dante said they should, to the superb and haunting musicality, the Raven stands out as a true masterpiece.
The theme of the death of a beloved, of a beautiful maiden is on full display. While many tend to view much of Poe’s work as autobiographical, an obsession with Death, if one only considers that we are all mortal, and that we will all die, by Poe treating the question of Death and our mortality in his most famous poem, is this really some sign of deviance from healthy and ‘common’ place thoughts?
Poe is in fact provoking us to explore the most profound paradoxes of the human condition, not through some sort of thesis, but by getting us to experience the concept directly, which only great poetry and great art can do. While perhaps some people would prefer Poe just focus on happier thoughts like the Romantic’s skylarks and daffodils, he is challenging us to go deeper.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
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.
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
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
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.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal 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.
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;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
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.”
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.”
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 farther 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.”
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
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 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 lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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!
4. For Annie (1849)
On march 23rd, 1849, Poe wrote in a letter to Nancy L. Richmond (to whom the poem was dedicated to) "I think the lines 'For Annie' (those I now send) much the best I have ever written." Annabel Lee would come only slightly later.
Poe’s understanding of strophic poetry, and its use in a seemingly almost startlingly excessive manner, repeating like a symphonic theme, demonstrates where Poe’s mind was, and how he viewed music and poetry as inextricably woven together. Was it excessive, or is our general notion of poetry perhaps incomplete? Do we too often have the tendency to try and grapple with some idea directly, as if poetry were simply a more organized form of prose?
The idea behind this poem, as with the others previously mentioned, is profoundly felt because it comes as that of a musical idea. There is no literal statement, no telegraphing of one’s thoughts; instead we have a musical idea, augmented with imagery, which moves us to contemplate the most profound paradoxes of human existence, as Poe did.
Thank Heaven! the crisis -- The danger is past, And the lingering illness Is over at last -- And the fever called "Living" Is conquered at last. Sadly, I know I am shorn of my strength, And no muscle I move As I lie at full length -- But no matter! -- I feel I am better at length. And I rest so composedly, Now, in my bed, That any beholder Might fancy me dead -- Might start at beholding me, Thinking me dead. The moaning and groaning, The sighing and sobbing, Are quieted now, With that horrible throbbing At heart: -- ah, that horrible, Horrible throbbing! The sickness -- the nausea -- The pitiless pain -- Have ceased, with the fever That maddened my brain -- With the fever called "Living" That burned in my brain. And oh! of all tortures That torture the worst Has abated -- the terrible Torture of thirst For the naphthaline river Of Passion accurst: -- I have drank of a water That quenches all thirst: -- Of a water that flows, With a lullaby sound, From a spring but a very few Feet under ground -- From a cavern not very far Down under ground. And ah! let it never Be foolishly said That my room it is gloomy And narrow my bed; For man never slept In a different bed -- And, to sleep, you must slumber In just such a bed. My tantalized spirit Here blandly reposes, Forgetting, or never Regretting its roses -- Its old agitations Of myrtles and roses: For now, while so quietly Lying, it fancies A holier odor About it, of pansies -- A rosemary odor, Commingled with pansies -- With rue and the beautiful Puritan pansies. And so it lies happily, Bathing in many A dream of the truth And the beauty of Annie -- Drowned in a bath Of the tresses of Annie. She tenderly kissed me, She fondly caressed, And then I fell gently To sleep on her breast -- Deeply to sleep From the heaven of her breast. When the light was extinguished, She covered me warm, And she prayed to the angels To keep me from harm -- To the queen of the angels To shield me from harm. And I lie so composedly, Now in my bed, (Knowing her love) That you fancy me dead -- And I rest so contentedly, Now in my bed, (With her love at my breast) That you fancy me dead -- That you shudder to look at me, Thinking me dead: -- But my heart it is brighter Than all of the many Stars in the sky, For it sparkles with Annie -- It glows with the light Of the love of my Annie -- With the thought of the light Of the eyes of my Annie.
5. The Bells (1849)
Musically, it is hard to even begin describing The Bells. As one reads Poe, one begins to feel more and more like Poe’s poetry steers further and further away from simple literature or poetry, and towards full-fledged music! Just like a piece by Beethoven or Schubert or any of the great composers (when properly performed), there is no discrete or tangible ‘message’ as such, and there lies the rub - we are moved more than we could ever possibly put into words.
While the theme may be lighter in some respects with this poem, the elements of musicality, and their potentialities for communicating the most profound ideas is made clear. With the Bells, Poe just has a lot of fun doing it!
HEAR the sledges with the bells -- Silver bells ! What a world of merriment their melody foretells ! How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night ! While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens, seem to twinkle With a crystalline delight ; Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells -- From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. II. Hear the mellow wedding bells Golden bells! What a world of happiness their harmony foretells ! Through the balmy air of night How they ring out their delight ! From the molten-golden notes, And all in tune, What a liquid ditty floats To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats On the moon ! Oh, from out the sounding cells, What a gush of euphony voluminously wells ! How it swells ! How it dwells On the Future ! how it tells Of the rapture that impels To the swinging and the ringing Of the bells, bells, bells, Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells -- To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells ! III. Hear the loud alarum bells -- Brazen bells ! What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells ! In the startled ear of night How they scream out their affright ! Too much horrified to speak, They can only shriek, shriek, Out of tune, In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire, In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire, Leaping higher, higher, higher, With a desperate desire, And a resolute endeavor Now -- now to sit or never, By the side of the pale-faced moon. Oh, the bells, bells, bells ! What a tale their terror tells Of Despair ! How they clang, and clash, and roar ! What a horror they outpour On the bosom of the palpitating air ! Yet the ear, it fully knows, By the twanging, And the clanging, How the danger ebbs and flows ; Yet, the ear distinctly tells, In the jangling, And the wrangling, How the danger sinks and swells, By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells -- Of the bells -- Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells -- In the clamour and the clangour of the bells ! IV. Hear the tolling of the bells -- Iron bells ! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels ! In the silence of the night, How we shiver with affright At the melancholy meaning of their tone ! For every sound that floats From the rust within their throats Is a groan. And the people -- ah, the people -- They that dwell up in the steeple, All alone, And who, tolling, tolling, tolling, In that muffled monotone, Feel a glory in so rolling On the human heart a stone -- They are neither man nor woman -- They are neither brute nor human -- They are Ghouls: -- And their king it is who tolls ; And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls, Rolls A paean from the bells ! And his merry bosom swells With the paean of the bells ! And he dances, and he yells ; Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the paean of the bells -- Of the bells : Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the throbbing of the bells -- Of the bells, bells, bells -- To the sobbing of the bells ; Keeping time, time, time, As he knells, knells, knells, In a happy Runic rhyme, To the rolling of the bells -- Of the bells, bells, bells -- To the tolling of the bells, Of the bells, bells, bells, bells -- Bells, bells, bells -- To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.