Thursday, September 9, 2010

Edgar Allan Poe Revisited

I chanced upon a collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe at a second-hand bookstore earlier this year, and was transported back to fifth grade when our English Literature teacher included To Helen and some few lines from Israfel in our syllabus. I cannot pretend to have been too impressed with poetry of any kind back then, so it was very surprising to find that I remembered Helen word-for-word, some fifteen years later. Since that day in February I have spent many Sunday afternoons enjoying Poe's poetry, and, intrigued by the fastidiousness of his craft, read through a few biographical sketches and articles of this great American poet.

Poe had the misfortune of being derided and dismissed by his contemporaries and critics in his day, and generally ignored by the public. His own proclivities and erratic behavior did nothing to help him here: from his stillborn career in the Army to his sacking from an editorial position at a literary periodical to his elopement with a 13-year-old cousin; Poe was alleged to have made a thorough hash of everything he did. Oh, and: Yes, thirteen. Yes, cousin. Classy, classy guy. 

TS Eliot called Poe "meretricious," implying perhaps the more tawdry of the word's meanings. Emerson, deriding Poe's obsession with the scale and meter of his poems, referred to him as a "rhymester." I do not quite understand - not unexpectedly, for I am no poet - why a poet would be attacked for being poetic. James Russell Lowell was somewhat more measured in his criticism of Poe when he described him thus:

"He has written some things quite the best of their kind,
"But the heart seems all squeezed out by the mind."

It was not until long after his death that his work came into its own and Poe's reputation as a poet was not only rehabilitated but greatly embellished. Of course, Poe was not - not even in America nor indeed in his own time - the only literary figure to be attacked thus; just bait Hermann Melville with a giant white whale, although he might see that as vindication instead. In my reading of Poe's poetry, which is by no means either exhaustive or profound, I have failed to notice this lack of "heart" that Lowell deplores. Indeed, there is a certain nudity of emotion in some of his less macabre works that parallels that of the greatest Romantics.

The one poem of his that resonates most strongly with me in this context is Israfel. Grander and infinitely more coherent in whole than the few snippets we suffered through back in school. I view it as Poe's declaration of surrender, his admission of defeat, and his confession of a preposterous ambition and an apology for untamed arrogance. Poe views the Archangel Israfel as the true inspiration for his craft, wondering how monumental Israfel's song must be for it to bring an abrupt end to the Universe and revive all beings for the day of Judgment. Poe's hubris, typically, lies in seeking to identify with and be inspired by Israfel's perfection; more earthly standards of poetry having been judged and found wanting. The bitter taste of an over-reaching, impotent greed runs through the length of the poem, manifesting mid-way as a resigned acceptance of Poe's failure to do justice to his muse, whom he praises lavishly. Israfel ends on a conciliatory note, however, as Poe ascribes the Archangel's success and his own failure to the vast difference in their respective circumstances, realizing belatedly the sheer impossibility of his quest for Israfel's perfection. It is, in this view, a classic case of sour grapes and unrequited love, and Poe is quite the fox in salvaging some dignity. There is, however, a perplexing choice of a single word in the last line of verse. When Poe may reclaim his ambition by comparing his heavenly music to Israfel's favorably, he instead chooses to settle only for being better off than he is at present. In this Poe demonstrates a sensitivity and maturity one would never expect, and perhaps therein lies the root of his remonstrations.

I threw together the video below somewhat quickly as a tribute to Edgar A Poe. The Raven remains a very readable poem, even though one may hear Ramadan-fatigue dripping from my voice.

Enjoy, and you're welcome.

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