Tag Archives: english poetry

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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Alfred Tennyson’s “The Poet’s Song”

It has always somewhat saddened me how, whenever I casually inquire a group of minds as to the authorship of the lines, “Tis better to have lost and loved, Then never to have loved at all,” the most likely response (at least, in my experience) is to attribute the words to William Shakespeare, or even Charles Dickens.  Although his influence within the realm of British poetry and the common anglophone vernacular are enough to place Alfred Tennyson’s name amongst the giants of what makes up early modern literature, the fact remains that the man is relatively unknown to the layperson who more than likely has made use of one or more of his charming phrasings.

Tennyson’s poetic talents were best displayed through his idylls, which intimately capture the world through the senses of the subject narrating the simple, yet engaging, prose.  Tennyson excelled when he wrote candidly of the world he observed around him, often without resorting to the great emotionalism of the Romantics he admired, preferring instead to employ a reserved tone to inspire the feeling he wished his writing to convey to the reader.  His lesser discussed prose, “The Poet’s Song,” is a perfect illustration of Tennyson’s artistic approach.

The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,

He pass’d by the town and out of the street,

A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,

And waves of shadow went over the wheat,

And he sat him down in a lonely place,

And chanted a melody loud and sweet,

That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,

And the lark drop down at his feet.

Tennyson’s opening lines work to convey the movement’s of the poet in tune with the harmony of nature; hence, the explicit indication of the poet’s scant interaction with the urban world he passes by, in contrast to the vivid details given about the natural world he observes.  The reason for this distinction suggest that the poet is by virtue of his character more in touch with the underlying order of life, rather than the artificial constructs that compose metropolitan living.  His chanting of a melody into this tranquil world further symbolizes his interest to gain a oneness with its features, so much so that it awes the creatures who come to hear it.  The poem goes on to state:

The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,

The snake slipt under a spray,

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,

And stared, with his foot on the prey,

There is a subtle shift in the tone here (carried on from the last two lines of the previous stanza).  Whereas the poem began indicating the desired unity of the poet with the natural world, this same unity is now causing an obvious break in the normal flow of this natural order.  Thus, although the poet is harmonized with the natural world, he nevertheless is distinct from its actual cycle.

And the nightingale thought, “I have sung many songs,

But never a one so gay,

For he sings of what the world will be

When the years have died away.

The poet’s role within the natural order is to capture the moment for the posterity of those who will yet be born to enjoy the times.  He is an observer to it, but ultimately also the source that defines it.  The sweet song of the nightingale, passing and unrecorded by time, do not compare to the gravity of the poet’s song, which serves as the reference–the very embodiment of the era of the days, and world he observes.  So much so that, once the years have died away, the poet’s prose will come to simply be the moment for those who look back on it from the perspective of what will by then be a changed world.

Tennyson’s “A Poet’s Song,” is a testament to the first person who chose to sing his words rather than state them.  And the reason why such song’s still remain with us to this day, rather than having been lost to time.