The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On Poe

Rereading the masterpieces.

Recently a friend let me borrow a collection of stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. It is the New York Post Family Classics Library edition, which is basically a volume you would buy as part of a collection of books if you were a parent trying to spark an interest in your kids for good literature.

My father, who although a high school dropout was well versed in the classics, first turned me onto Poe when I was a boy. Schools at various levels kept reintroducing me to Poe, but frankly it has been decades since I last seriously sat down to read him. To do so recently was interesting.

Of course Poe himself was quite an interesting person. An alcoholic drug addict with crippling morbid obsessions, he literally died in the gutter - being found lying there unconscious, some say of an accidental drug overdose although the exact cause of his death remains a mystery. Amazingly he wasn't even 40 at the time of his death, yet Poe left behind an amazing literary legacy, one that gives him credit for pioneering the modern detective story and early science fiction. But he will always be known primarily as the finest master of the macabre literature has ever produced, transforming the usually second rate shlock of the horror genre into high class art. Here's a thumbnail review of each of the pieces in the collection, from the perspective of my recent rereading:

The Gold Bug - This is the story most often referred to as pioneering the detective story. It's a fun read, although it hasn't aged well, as the ending, no doubt a surprise to original readers, seems a bit hokey to we moderns. All the numerology gets dull as well.

The Black Cat - A satisfying tale of revenge, where the avenger is an abused pet! Animal lovers will snicker at the end.

Eleonora - One of a series of morbid pieces Poe did about women who died prematurely. Poe once had a wife who died young, making some scholars speculate that this reoccurring theme in his work was in part biographical. The saving grace of these dreary pieces is that they often showcase Poe at his most philosophical:

I AM come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious- whether all that is profound -- does not spring from disease of thought -- from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret.

Is that heavy or what?

The Murders in the Rue Morgue - Another pioneering detective story, but readers of Sherlock Holmes will guess the murderer early on.

Ms. Found in a Bottle - A seafaring ghost story, with a spacy, otherworldy feel. Poe was a master at evoking a mood, and this story's mood is one of deep alienation and despair.

The Cask of Amontillado - This story, one of Poe's most popular, is also a rare example of Poe using irony and even humor. An insulted wine connoisseur exacts exquisite revenge, so perfectly that even his victim respects him.

The Pit and the Pendulum - A masterpiece of claustrophobic fear, this tale of a man sentenced to an unspeakable death is both exciting and deeply disturbing.

The Tale-Tell Heart - Poe wasn't much inclined to lecture on morality, but here is the ultimate tale of a guilty conscience unraveling the otherwise perfect crime.

The Purloined Letter - Another early detective tale, and a good read, but yet again Arthur Conan Doyle did it better.

The Masque of the Red Death - LSD hadn't been invented when Poe was alive, but it is hard from this tale to believe that Poe never took some sort of psychedelics - and that he had some really bad trips!

A Decent into the Maelstrom - A too often overlooked gem, this tale of disaster at sea will make you feel like you were actually onboard a ship in distress.

The Fall of the House of Usher - The plot of this famous tale is actually pretty weak and unbelievable, but the writing is absolutely amazing right from the first sentence.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

It is the uncanny literary craftsmanship that elevates this otherwise shallow tale of premature burial into one of the most famous short stories ever written. The subject matter is almost irrelevant when an artist works his craft this brilliantly.

Ligeia - A wordy bore about another beauty who died too young. Poe treated this theme much better elsewhere.

And where that theme of lost love was treated best was in his most famous poem, The Raven. The rest of the book is a collection of poems, and with Poe's most famous poem, first printed in 1845, presented first. The opening stanza is among the most famous in American literature:

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 visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

My father, after a drink or ten, used to read The Raven aloud to me and my siblings when we were kids. In all of poetry I don't think there is a better one to elevate a kid's interest above nursery rhymes into serious poetry.

The rest of the poems are not nearly as good. Annabel Lee is half as interesting on a similar theme, and A Dream Within a Dream is an effective mood piece if your mood is gloomy. Poe had only one great poem in him, and a few other decent ones, but it is primarily as an author of short stories that Edgar Allen Poe will always be remembered.

In Amherst on North Pleasant Street they are putting up a new wall.

The old wall, however, had a real old fashioned New England character to it.

The new wall looks like it belongs as part of a new office building.

"I don't see any resemblance!"


BF said...

I loved teaching Poe back in the day. While “The Raven” is without a doubt his most famous, and probably his best written poem… I have a real fondness for “The Bells.” The sheer rhythm of the poem makes it a great read and anyone who uses the word “tintinnabulation” in anything is A-OK by me.

I hope things are going well for you.

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