Edgar Allen Poe

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Edgar Allen Poe
November 2010

Hello, again Aaron. I don’t know about you,but I get lines of poetry that spring up from somewhere in me at the oddest times, and they often don’t have anything to do with what’s going on. Sometimes I think I’m just adding a kind of musical accompaniment to my life. What came to me recently was a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, the first poem I was ever asked to memorize in school. Which just goes to show how LONG memory can last, when it’s attached to a strong rhythm. The poem is Annabel Lee, and it starts out like this:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

And so on. You’ve got all the great elements of tragedy there—love, loss, death—but what makes the poem stick with me is not its plot. The plot’s, well, pretty trite. But the sounds of it are incredibly seductive—a very strong ballad meter, 4 stresses, then 3, but with an added 4 and 3 in each stanza. There’s the strong end-rhyme, the repetition of phrases, too, that adds to the incancatory quality.

You and I were talking about Walt Whitman recently. Here’s what Whitman had to say about Poe:

Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page. … There is an indescribable magnetism about the poet’s life and reminiscences, as well as the poems.

Many people, when they think of Poe—that demonic undertone, the darkness in the work, they think of his short stories—The Black Cat, Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Gold Bug, Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe maybe best known for these—and he’s considered by many the inventor of detective fiction, and probably even science fiction. He lived from 1809 to 1849, in the middle of what’s generally called the Romantic movement in American literature.

And of course Poe’s life itself was full of the wild throes of romance—he married his 16 year old cousin, he drank, he was an opium addict, he was interested in all sorts of aracane fields, like cosmology and cryptography (looking for secret codes and hidden information in writing). Even his death prompted romantic gestures: For more than 60 years after Poe’s death, an unknown person visited his grave in Baltimore and made a toast of cognac and left three roses on the grave. But I don’t need to spend time on all this well-known information. Let’s look some more at the poems. Let’s look at his best known poem, “The Raven,” which I’ll bet both of us can quote at least some:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door–
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”

Well, and as we know, it goes on with essentially the same plot of lost love, overwhelming grief, and so on. But it is such a gorgeous bit of language, isn’t it?

Listen to just one line: And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain—

He’s repeated the “s” sound—silken, sad, uncertain, rustling—and then the repetition morphs into the rhyming of uncertain and curtain, so that one set of repeated sounds leads into the next, in one line. It’s as if a hypnotist stood over us—I can almost feel my eyes get heavy.

And I haven’t even said anything about the rhythm of the line—of the whole poem. It’s trochaic octameter (although Poe said it was a combination of some other variations). Trochaic octameter just means there are eight trochees—stressed, then unstressed syllables. Listen—I’ll exaggerate the first two lines of the poem:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–

That’s a reverse from our more typical unstressed and then stressed language—the kind that Shakespeare uses in his sonnets, for example. It feels to me plodding and darker, and certainly his images are dark! It’s set in December, the raven is a “devil bird,” and the sounds are mournful—all those “o’s”!

Here’s one that isn’t dark, but has the same wonderful obsession with sounds—that’s the word I’m looking for—obsession. The language with all its repeats and its heavy meter seems obsessive, and it makes us obsess about it, too.

This one is called “The Bells” –I’m only going to give you the first numbered section, but what makes the whole poem for me is one word. Listen and then I’ll tell you which word, if you don’t hear right away:

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells

It’s “tintinnabulation”—I was amazed to overhear my step-granddaughter, who’s nine,using that word. Her mother had read her the poem. It doesn’t matter what the word means—it just means the ringing of bells—it is ITSELF the ringing of bells, in its sound. Once you get that word in your head, you can’t get it out. You have bells in your belfry. That’s what Poe’s poems do for me—they put bells in my head. And that’s why, even though I’m a terrible memorizer of poems, allthese years since my 9th grade English teacher made me memorize it, I still remember “Annabel Lee.”