The Poets’ Niche - March 2012
By Mark Sconce
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
After listening to Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone recite Poe, I couldn’t recall ever hearing anything quite so eerie, so chill. But then, eeriness was Poe’s specialty, and he became the maestro of horror and the morbid. No, I won’t quoth The Raven evermore, but poetry is our prey and the game is afoot. Besides, The Raven did make Edgar Allan Poe famous when it was first published in 1845.
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!
The peculiar circumstances of his death in 1849* fit comfortably somehow among his dominant themes: mysterious events, intrigue, skullduggery, haunted palaces, and the ever-present supernatural. Poe was more appreciated in Europe where, through the inspired translations of Charles Baudelaire, word went round that Poe was singing their song—the song of someone who recognizes that reality is essentially subterranean, contradictory to surface reality, and “profoundly irrational in character,” as one historian put it. Some would later hail him as “the prophet of modern sensibility.” Malevolence, madness and death came alive under Poe’s queer quill somehow touching our deep-lying apprehensions.
“Congestion of the brain” finally claimed him, a euphemism in those days for something more disreputable—like alcoholism.
Hear the loud alarum bells —
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
But then he could turn around and bring tenderness to life as no one else.
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.
Poe married his darling cousin, Virginia Clemm, when she was but 13 and he but 27. And when she died of tuberculosis after only 11 years of a happy marriage, Poe’s life began its downward spiral into too much alcohol and deep depression. “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”He finds himself descending into a cellar, a wine vault, a whirlpool, always falling ( The Tell Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum).
He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. One winter, he and Virginia nearly froze to death.
With the fever that maddened my brain —
With the fever called “Living” that burned in my brain.
And finally, among his most famous poems:
I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
*Found on a Baltimore street, semi-conscious and dressed in strange clothes, Poe died four days later crying, “Lord, help my poor soul” but unable to relate exactly what had happened.