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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
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.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

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
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

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.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

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.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

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,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea”

Much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry tends to personify Death as the final, and therefore, most powerful of entities conceivable.  In “The City in the Sea,” a young Poe dreams up a dwelling for Death to reign as sovereign, and illustrates the trademark gothic imagery that will come to identify the poet’s literary career.

Poe gives clear and detailed descriptions of this city of Death:

Lo!  Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

The second to last line above is the most intriguing, as it suggests that the moral character of a person is of no importance in determining one’s future destination in Death’s lonely kingdom.  This contrasts sharply with Western conception of an afterlife that claims to take into account one’s moral standing.  Adding to this is the suggestion that Death is not just a transitional figure between realities (as commonly believed), but an eternal presence for the souls who pass into his city; Poe’s Death is all-encompassing in his reign, and like Hades, disinterested in our mortal nuances, as seen by the images that accompany his city:

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing in ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

Death’s dwelling is of no comparison to anything we can conceive of, for ours is a world of motion, his of eerie calm.  And despite the fact that both good and bad reside within his place of sovereignty, his city is one of gloom for all:

No rays from the holy heaven come down

On the long night-time of that town;

But light from out of the lurid sea

Streams up the turrets silently–

Gleams up the pinnacles far and free–

Up domes–up spires–up kingly halls–

Up fanes–up Babylon-like walls–

Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers–

Up many and many a marvelous shrine

Whose wretched friezes intertwine

The viol, the violet, and the vine.

Death city is one of elegance, and glamor, but ultimately it lies cold in sight.  The sun does not shine on its inhabitants, and the lights that do breach the city walls come as a haunting reminder of that beyond the melancholy shores, lies a livelier place.  The structures are impressive, but they are empty in tone, serving as no substitute to the artistic touch that the warmth of a living soul can create.

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

This is the second time that Poe has bothered to pen these lines to emphasis how even the seemingly unbound sea lies restrained by the city’s lifeless hold.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seem pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down.

While all else in the city murks into one endless sea of melancholy, Death stands clearly visible to his subjects.  He is the true constant keeping all else still–the inescapable Lord of his domain.

There open fanes and gaping graves

Yawn level with luminous waves

But not the riches there that lie

In each idol’s diamond eye–

Not the gaily-jewelled dead

Tempt the waters from their bed;

Poe’s intent is to subtly impress onto the reader the horror of timelessness that accompanies this city.  It is more imposing than the force of gravity, for at least gravity allows its subjects the privilege of feeling the passing of time through its affects.   Also, by taking away the value of finite existence, all the petty values that give our minds rest are deprived from our very being.  To exist in such a state is not to exist at all.

For no ripples curl, alas!

Along that wilderness of glass–

No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea–

No heavings hint that winds have been

On seas less hideously serene.

To move with no feeling of motion, to breathe with no sensation of breath, is a sentence worse than physical torment could ever be.  In such a realm, one would eager wish to endure all the flames of Hell, just so one can know to have felt something again.  What are we as living beings in this world, if we are forbidden from feeling the world around us?–Nothing!  Nothing, but empty phantasms.  Forced serenity is the most dehumanizing form of torture to a lively mind.

But lo, a stir in the air!

The wave–there is motion there!

As if the towers had thrust aside,

In slightly sinking, the dull tide–

As if their tops had feebly given

A void within the filmy Heaven.

Besides the shift in imagery, a reader should take note of the prose Poe uses in this half of the stanza.  It is the towers which appear to hold the ultimate power over the forces of nature, and all else.  But the towers are inseparable from the city, which is inseparable from its sovereign and creator, Death.  Therefore, Death’s dominion extends further beyond the gates of his city–possibly even above that of “filmy Heaven”?  For if all souls are subject to Death’s domain, what purpose lies there for Heaven, at all?

The waves have now a redder glow–

The hours are breathing faint and low–

A shift in imagery is still occurring, as Poe is continuing to introduce the concept of motion into this once motionless world.  However, even though the first six lines of the stanza are ambiguous about the malevolence of the changing scenery, the two that follow above end any positive impressions the reader may have forged about the coming events.  (At no time are reddening seas, and faint breathing a sign of benignity.)

And when, amid no earthly moans,

Down, down that town shall settle hence,

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,

Shall do it reverence.

Hell has risen on earth, out of the same melancholy sea.  But what took Hell a thousand thrones to rule, Death did with just one.  For that, even the Devil must pay his respects to his ominous superior, whose authority not even beneficent Heaven can reprimand.

Bibliography

Poe, Edgar Allan.  “The City in the Sea,” 1831.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: An Analysis

It is not a hyperbole to say that the final year of Edgar Allan Poe’s life also produced some of the darkest and most sensitive work composed by the poet.  Reading through “A Dream Within a Dream” one is almost inclined to believe that the man understood that his days were coming to an end.  The prose is always reflective, laced with a somber dose of melancholy; yet, filled with unavoidable regret and frustration.  Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the prevailing anger of the hopeless writer at the various circumstances that have brought him to his lowly point.

The poem begins like a dying man’s final plea for understanding from a life that has granted him so much torment during his time within its clutches:

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

The poet appears to be prepared to say his farewell through these opening lines, but also offer a last elucidation into his troubled mind.  The last two lines may read as a concession to the frivolous pursuits of one’s past interests, but if read with the line that precedes it the message takes on a much more affirmative tone than a reader might expect from a shame induced defense.  The man understands that it is too late to bother with vacuous humility about one’s misdeeds, and instead opts to simply give his closing testament of his dire state of mind–offer his own epitaph, if you will.

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

The question asked is much more complex than its simple framing might suggest.  When a man reaches a point in which his past desires,  dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway?  Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes?  And if so, is there any use in pursuing one’s hopes to begin with?  Or as Poe puts it:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Every matter we dedicate ourselves to will some day decay to nothing more but a faint memory–a dream within a dream.  Although it seems apparent when stated in such terms, the actual prose of this first stanza of the poem presents the blatant fatalism of its message in a much subtler tone.  The sort a dying man might present to ease the misfortunes that have haunted his life.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand–

Now, the reader is given a clearer description of the poet’s current circumstance.  The usage of “roar” and “surf-tormented” brings up images of anguish, but the poet’s allusion to an unruly sea as the source implies that the troubles of his life are ultimately pangs that life has thrust upon him (and not the result of self-inflicted foolishness).  The last two lines here are important, for they reference the poet’s still vivid recollection of past valuables amidst his gloomy memories.  But rather than give him solace, these few redeeming moments are the most painful of all to bear:

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep–while I weep!

Edgar Allan Poe is a man whose life is filled with more tragedies than his writings could ever express.  Having lost his parents, his wife, seen much of his literary career dismissed to the margins by his colleagues, reduced to the state of an impoverished drunk, he now stands crying in isolation, trying to hold on to the tiniest of golden moments he can recall in life, but finding himself powerless in capturing them for any meaningful comfort:

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Whereas the poet began his prose in collective reflection, the endeavor appears to have been too much for his fragile mind, as he now tries to plea with the phantoms of his past.  The desperation in these final gasps reveals much about the writer’s final mental state.  Far from being ready to make peace with his life’s torments and losses, and despite his previous insistence how his hope has flown away, his self-pity still prevents him from giving into the apathy he seems at times to crave.  This is evident by how he finishes his prose by repeating his once exclamatory statement, as a hopeful question for mercy from some undisclosed fate:

Is  all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

For someone like Edgar Allan Poe, who at this point in his life had nothing more to hold onto but his dreams–his fading memories–nothing would have been more desirable than the reassurance that this sole valuable of his was more than a mere intangible thought.  But given how the poet’s life ended within the same year that this poem was published, I am skeptical as to whether he ever managed to truly convince himself of this dying wish.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and the Theme of Class Inequality

Edgar Allan Poe is the undisputed master of horror fiction [suck on it, Stephen King].  In his short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe explores the depth of self-indulgence, health paranoia, and the futility of the affluent members of society attempting to survive a social crisis by gating themselves off from the rest of the suffering masses.

Poe begins the plot of his story by informing the reader how, “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.”  The severity of this disease is so dire that for those unfortunate enough to contract it:

There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.  The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

The last words in that passage are particularly important to the narrative.  Unlike many of the stories being composed at the time (and even now), in which social turmoils are depicted as experiences of moral growth for most of the characters, Poe is willing to explore the limited extend of our moral virtues; concluding that there exists a point at which human decency and empathy will be easily abandoned in favor of self-preservation.  The sovereign of the land, Prince Prospero is the base embodiment of the aristocratic, affluent few in society, who in time of need do not reach out to alleviate the suffering of their subjects, but instead find it more convenient for their own survival to horde the necessities to survive from the dying masses:

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

The Prince, and his aristocratic peers, closed themselves off in happy oblivion within their gated community, indifferent and unconcerned about the horrors that dwell beyond their blissful experience.  So lost do they become in the fanciful, carefree world they have created for themselves that, years into the epidemic, “while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad,” the now fully secluded Prince still manages to, “entertain his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”  It is important for a reader to pause and reflect at the message the author is trying to convey.  The world is literary dying around the last few people who have the means to fortify against the affliction, and their primary interest is in vainly entertaining themselves with balls and masquerades.  Not worrying about finding a cure to the ailment, or constructing a plan by which society is to be preserved and protected through the crisis.  Nothing but a relentless desire to indulge in the splendors of life with equally heedless peers.  Never have the words out off sight, out off mind been more apropos than they are to this scene.

Throughout the prose, Poe spends a significant amount of time detailing the eloquent and expensive features of the castle the aristocracy has confined itself in.  Primarily, this is done to fully draw the reader into the features of the plot; secondarily, it serves to demonstrate the vanity of the upper-class characters, who see no peril, no anguish, no need, as important as their want to remain undisturbed and unaware about the worries of the sickly masses.  However, behind this mode of self-sustained obliviousness, lies a state of constant paranoia for the affluent citizens.  This is best illustrated by the way Poe uses the motion of a gigantic ebony clock (time serving the role of a commodity that no amount of wealth or power can control) as a source of anxiety for the masqueraders.  With every noise and movement emitted by the ebony clock, “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”  And with the passing of each such moment, the occupants of the castle vowed mirthfully to each other not to let the ominous thing have the same affect on them again, only to fail as soon as, “there came yet another chiming of the clock.”

Having demonstrated the state of badly concealed apprehension exhibited by the party guests, the narrative goes on to suggest how the main distraction that exists for the masqueraders is Prince Prospero’s eccentric decorative feats created specially for the evening.  Both the Prince, and his fashionable embellishments of the seven chambers making up the ballroom halls, are described as “bold and fiery,” but also repeatedly referred to as mad (either directly, or by implication).  To suit his taste for the evening, the Prince had made it a requirement for the masqueraders to disguise themselves as grotesquely as possible; a request that appears to have been wholly lived up to by the attendees.  (The reason for this request appears to have little cause other than for the Prince to further illustrate his eccentric flair, but it cannot be ruled out that the underlying cause could have something to do with the Prince’s desire to show how he is unaffected by the nervousness about death that his fellow aristocrats seem to be displaying.)

As the night wanes on, the aristocratic masqueraders find themselves more and more confined, as they densely pack into one chamber, while abandoning others.  The source for this behavior is the arrival of a guest no one had previously noticed, despite his striking appearance:

And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive, of disapprobation and surprise–then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

The physical appearance of the mysterious figure was one that deeply disturbed the otherwise grotesquely shrouded party attendees, because, “his venture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”  His costume was that of the Red Death.  Here, the aristocrats, who have spent years hiding away blissfully from the terror and despair that surrounds them, are at last forced to see firsthand the image that is the cause of their self-imposed confinement–the real source of their relentless anxiety.  Prince Prospero’s reaction towards the stranger was immeasurable rage:  “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?  Seize him and unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise.”  This expression of outrage is noteworthy, because it is coming from a man who showed no consideration for the suffering of his own subjects, who holds no regard for anything beyond his own self-indulgence, but is now screaming in all righteousness about being mocked–about being offended–eager to uphold to some murky semblance of principle.  Nonetheless, despite the Prince’s stern command, no one dared move towards the intruder, causing the Prince himself to “rush hurriedly through the six chambers / He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure.”  The chase did not last long, as the figure suddenly turns to face the Prince, “upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.”  All pretense has now been abandoned by the masqueraders, for the stranger was not a costumed intruder, for “now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.”  The disease the inhabitants of the castle had spent so long to shelter from had at last penetrated through their iron gates, “and the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.  And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

If there is one theme that Poe pointedly captures in his haunting story, it is that, ultimately, when it comes to disease carrying pathogens, it doesn’t matter how much wealth or power you possess.  It doesn’t matter who–or what–you are, or where you reside in your social pecking order.  Disease does not, and cannot, care about the arbitrary caste system or social mores your particular culture has decided to embrace; it is nature’s perfect equalizer.  The only thing disease knows is to spread and kill indiscriminately.  And once the pathogen carrying corpses of the lower classes begin to pile up all around your gated community, no amount of affluence will protect you from the fate that it carries.  It’s very poetic, in an eerie way.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”

Like much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, “Annabel Lee” tells the story of a man’s painful longing for a deceased love.  The strength of the poem comes from the seamless nature by which Poe utilizes repetition to instill the darkly impassioned imagery into the reader’s mind, forcing him to feel the heartbreaking despair of the narrator’s loss.

The poem’s emotional impact, I believe, comes through largely due to our knowledge of Poe’s personal history, particularly having to watch his wife, Virginia, die of tuberculosis just two years prior to the publication of the work (the poem itself was published just days after Poe’s own death in 1849).  Hints of Virginia’s sickness can be found throughout several notable lines,  “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee,” and similarly reiterated later, “That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.”  Chills are a common symptom of the (then) little understood disease, thus Poe’s metaphorically attributing the illness as being brought by the wind is a strong allusion to its sudden and mysterious nature.

By far, the strongest aspects of “Annabel Lee” is the way by which Poe conveys his anguish over his lost love.  In the first stanza, he introduces the title character by stating, “this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me,” shortly thereafter reaffirming the same sentiment, “But we loved with a love that was more than love–I and my Annabel Lee.”  However, the man is not just filled with hopeless sorrow, he is also filled with raging anger.  Throughout, he curses the heavens for taking his love:

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 blew out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

It is the last refuge of someone who has exhausted all the limits to his pain, and lashes out at unseen forces for having taking the source of his happiness.  This is the accumulation of the misery Poe must have felt watching his wife suffer for five long years, leaving him with nothing but the desire to keep the last glimpses of his wife’s image with him, declaring, “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.”

Besides the heavy emotion of pain and misery, there also resides a great deal of fortitude in “Annabel Lee.”  This is especially clear in the final stanza of the poem:

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 by bride,

In the sepulchre there by the sea,

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Yes, there is resolve in these closing words, but it is a sunken sort of resolve; more of a refute, needed to combat the utter despair of the tragedy.  It is the hope to carry forward, but inability to let go of someone that meant more to you than life itself; someone that for so long encompassed all of life itself.  For Poe, the pain of watching his wife Virginia suffer and die inspired this simple and great poem.  For the rest of us, his pain gives us a source to lose our own sorrows in; or to just reflect, appreciate, and empathize with the lose of an other.  And teaching readers to feel, is the only lesson any poet could ask and strive for.