Tag Archives: poetry about death

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.