Tag Archives: literary symbolism

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 “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.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as Allegory to the Terrors of the French Revolution

Although it came to serve as a hallmark for the advent of the Gothic literary genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be separated from its origins in the Romantic tradition.  The Romantic movement in literature (circa 1800-1840) was a reaction to the perceived mechanical, stoic approach to viewing the natural world through the logic of Enlightenment rationalism.  The aim of the Romantics was to introduce the value of the emotional experience in human expression, especially in its relation towards physical reality.  Arguably, it’s historical infusion in English literature can be traced directly to the artistic response to the Reign of Terror (1793-94) which arose out of–and in many ways defined the popular image of–the French Revolution.

The poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, which exalts the aesthetic beauty of nature over its rudimentary empirical observations, set the tone for much of the later Romantics who followed.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, was another key figure in the Romantic movement, who heralded the naturalistic worldview, without making reference to the lifeless trappings of cold rationalism.  This is the environment Shelley was surrounded by as she penned her novel in 1818.  Despite often being overlooked as a mere accomplice to Percy’s more provocative work and demeanor, it was Shelley who expressed most poignantly the Romantic horror towards the Revolutionary elements that sparked the literary appeal for a greater appreciation for the aesthetics.

In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a passionate man, enamored by the creative possibilities offered by scientific thought and rigor:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.  In other studies you go so far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is food for discovery and wonder (Chapter 4, page 49).

He is the quintessential child of the Enlightenment, not content with merely contributing to the understanding of life, but seeking to challenge the conventions that have traditionally constituted the definition of life itself:

Whence, I asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?  It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice and carelessness did not restrain our inquiries (page 50).

In this pursuit he labors, and theorizes, and experiments, until his desire for reanimating life in the lifeless is actualized.  The philosophical origins of the French Revolution followed a similar intellectual path.  The Enlightenment writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Locke (among numerous others), too, sought to instill the spark of life in a lifeless body; the lifeless body being the decaying corpse of the common populace, whose dire condition was sustained through the traditional conventions that maintained its own authority by reducing the worth of the powerless to little more than a living death.  Like the feverish thrill of excitement that accompanied Dr. Frankenstein’s climactic success in creating life, the uprising of the lower caste of society against the social order that governed them–most vividly symbolized by the popular storming of the Bastille in 1789–served as a reinvigorated yelp of life echoing the labors of the minds that planted the seeds of its ascent; or, as articulated in Dr. Frankenstein, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (page 51).

Within the context of Shelley’s narrative, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t a malicious figure.  Indeed, he is a rather sympathetic character, whose intellectual feats and desire to push the frontiers of knowledge are quite admirable; even benign.  However, the man allows his zeal to take control of his reason, causing him to lose track of the reality he is bringing about before him:

But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the results (page 51).

The excitement of the event blinded the young scientist from contemplating either the means by which he was arriving at his desired results, or the possible consequences that these results would bring to fruition.  Thus, upon reaching the final hour of his work, Dr. Frankenstein at last stood back to observe and reflect on his creation, only to gasp in horror at what he had brought about into the world:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!  Great God! / I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. / I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (Chapter 5, page 56).

Unable to deal with the reality of his creation, Dr. Frankenstein abandons it in disgust and fear.  Forcing the creature to venture into the world without order or guidance to nurture his maturity.

One can imagine the philosophical architects of the French Revolution having a similar reaction to the Reign of Terror that arose out of the hopeful revolt in 1789.  The events that disposed of the royal ruling order of France were instigated by the widespread uprising of the exploited masses against the forces that sought to keep them in chains.  It was seen as the will of the people at long last triumphing over the tyranny of their rulers.  Oppression and persecution at the hands of the monarchy was at an end, and the calendar could be set back to Year One, to symbolize the dawning of a hopeful new era of liberty and justice.

Unfortunately, the hope for change proved short-lived, as the concept of liberty and justice, rather than being put to practice, became mere cult devotions in the new regime, which swiftly began to denounce all who failed to properly adhere to the new revolutionary system as heretics to both.  Therefore, like Frankenstein’s creature, the Revolutionary model was arguably created with the most virtues of intentions, assembling together the most intellectually viable parts and ideals available.  Yet, outside of the containment of philosophical musings, where hypothetical entities and situations obey the whim of the ponderer, this idealistic goal turned into a nightmare.  Or, more astutely, once “rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (page 57).

Frankenstein’s creation begins life innocently, but the grotesque circumstances of his existence fuel within him an unyielding destitute and hate.  At first, he wants to uphold the greater aspects of the human spirit (and contribute to it positively, if possible), but his abandonment by his creator, and the scorn leveled at him for his monstrous appearance, causes him to become evermore vengeful and destructive:  “Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?  I will keep no terms with my enemies.  I am miserable and they shall share my wretchedness” (Chapter 10, page 96).  His creation came about through the feverish frenzy of a strained mind, and his continued presence, incapable of assimilating with his greater surroundings, must therefore be justified by virtue of force and, if need be, destruction.   Particularly towards the person that gave him life and subsequently wishes to deprive him of it.

Similarly, the Revolutionaries who spearheaded the rise of the new order, and had zealously advocated the use of terror as an instrument against all possible dissenters, began to see their creation turn against them, as even the most powerful of them were duly marched to the blade of the guillotine.  Signifying how, in the end, the Terror ultimately managed to subdue even its own makers, who failed (or refused) to restrain it when they still held the power to do so.  This shift in control between creator and creation is a sentiment best captured when Frankenstein is confronted by his creature’s haunting words against him, “Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (Chapter 20, page 160).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gives a body to the monstrous history that spurred the Romantic literary tradition she was an immutable figure in.  However, in doing so, she also diverting from the standard premise promoted by her Romantic counterparts, by emphasizing on the fact that while man’s creative nature and passions can bring about unspeakably valuable works of creation and wonder, allowed to go unrestrained, this same nature can bring about monstrous consequences; for both the innocent and guilty alike.  No matter how well-intentioned the initial motivations may be.

Bibliography

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, (Signet Classics:  New York), 1818.  1983 reprint.