Tag Archives: 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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“One among the stars…”

13.7 billion years traveled.

100 billion galaxies crossed.

4.5 billion years endured.

170 million generations survived.

 

Crossed a distance beyond innumerable stars…

Endured dangers of every imaginable kind…

Until it was passed down to a…

…7 billion…

…billion…

…billion…

…string of chemical bonds.

 

And each atom in this bond…

is unique in its own regard…

so there isn’t a part of you that makes up who you are…

that doesn’t speak to your birthright among the stars.

“Sitting as I’m reclined to sit…”

Sitting as I’m reclined to sit, to watch the sages of my age

Rivet us with tales of worry ’bout the happenings of the day.

 

The scorn rises from the cynics lips; lisping laments for the lame.

The jester gestures at the festive scene of stalwarts’ silly seriousness.

While the content point to the sky on high, to avoid the pits below;

The discontent comfort in the pits beneath, to not be burdened by too much sunny hope.

 

And I sit, still inclined to recline, afar from these treats, and tricks, and qualms, and psalms,

Hearing these sages happily sing sorrowful splendors, soaring through a splintered sky.

 

“This age is lost, and masses stupid!” shouts the cynic from his stool.

The jester shrieks, “Oh, what fun it is to mock so cruel, and play the fool that beats the fools!”

“But hope is near, no need to fear!” come the voices from a happy few.

“I’ll hear no more, your hope I scorn!” snub back the hopeless legion, shrill and lewd.

 

And I sit, inclined to try and define, whilst still seated reclined,

How to approach the voices bestowing wisdom onto me.

How to understand these people eager to define the world for me.

What views to hold; what views to scold.

Which to mock…flock to…and which to block.

 

Only wanting to understand whose banner I am most inclined to stand under.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.