Thursday, January 19, 2017

Edgar Allan Poe: "Dreaming Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared To Dream Before"

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.'*

In our home we have a shelf reserved for treasured books. Among the first editions, autographed copies, rare titles, and nostalgic family favorites is a small and well-worn paperback from my high school years. Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe has been a part of my life for over 55 years. I'm happy to report that virtually every high school graduate in the U.S. still encounters the suspense, mystery, and magic of Poe even if it is nothing more than a reading and discussion of The Raven.*  The poem brought Edgar Allan Poe instant fame in 1845 and ensured him a secure place in American literature. His appeal to readers, especially young ones, rests in his dark and stormy subjects, his fantastic plots, and rich, descriptive writing. There is a timelessness about his work as well that in part accounts for his appeal to contemporary readers. 

I don't recall when Poe's work first entered my life, but it was long before high school. Little did I know that we would eventually share a bit of history at Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. He was stationed there for about a year beginning in 1827. The fort and island are the setting for his short story, The Gold Bug. During my career, I spent several weeks walking the damp tunnels, the grassy terreplein, and studying the character of this historic fort and those who garrisoned it over the centuries. I watched the sun rise and set over its walls, and stood at the gun emplacements at midnight listening to the invisible surf breaking on the beach or watching ship traffic moving in and out of Charleston harbor. For all I know, Poe's shadow watched my every move. For certain his work and legacy will continue to provide all of us with fantastic entertainment.

Poe was born in Boston on this day in 1809. He spent his lifetime living and working between the coastal cities of Boston and Charleston. Death found him in Baltimore in 1849 wrapped in the mystery and tragedy that surrounded him during much of his life. Here is his last complete poem written a few months before his death.

Annabell Lee

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 wingèd 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 highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Few American writers have had such a broad impact on the arts. In his 2009 commentary on the bicentennial of the author's birth, Jeffrey A. Savoye, Secretary/Treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore said this:

We can see that his writings still work their magic on succeeding generations of readers, and yet Poe’s secrets remain distinctively his own. We can ape and parody the form, but legions of would-be disciples have too often created mostly pale imitations, and scholars have laid waste to forests of trees in printing articles and books that attempt to explain the essence of his genius. Yet, traces of Poe’s influence can be seen in the writings of such diverse authors as Jules Verne and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ray Bradbury, Charles Baudelaire and Allen Ginsberg. (His writings have also been translated into every major language. One Japanese author and critic so greatly admired Poe that he changed his own name from Tarö Hirai to Edogawa Rampo.) And this influence has not been limited to the written word. Such artists as Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham, and Édouard Manet have illustrated his works. Sergei Rachmaninov, Leonard Slatkin, Philip Glass, and many others have composed musical tributes. In an interview published in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock, the great movie director, commented that “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

Today there is another mystery surrounding Poe. Between 1949 and 2012, an anonymous toaster appeared at Poe's grave in Baltimore's Westminster Burial Ground in the early hours of his birthday. The toaster left three roses and a half full bottle of cognac. Over time he became somewhat of a celebrity himself appearing suddenly in the cemetery only to do his duty then disappear as mysteriously as he had appeared. In 2012 the tribute stopped. Did the toaster lose interest? Was he tired of the media circus and copycats? Was he infirm? Had he passed away? The world has no answer for these questions. The Toaster adds a fitting mystery to Poe's legacy, a window into fantasy that lives on in classrooms, in private libraries, on glowing Kindles or anywhere readers enjoy imagination at its best.


Photos and Illustrations:, public domain photograph by Edwin H. Manchester taken November 9, 1848 in Providence, Rhode Island


Monday, January 16, 2017

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. 2017: Visions Of Peace And Justice

Today is the official holiday commemorating King's birth on January 15, 1929. From the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington:

Sources:, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial website, National Park Service

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Dancing Pattern Named Alan Watts

By the 1960's he had become rather well-known on the American scene as much for living "in the moment" in alcohol, experimental drugs, and other excesses as for his writings. Classical Zen masters criticized him for practicing a light version of Buddhism. Many in the youth rebellion of the time latched on to his eccentrism and independent thought as a beacon in what they viewed as a western world in decline.  Either way, he would say that he was what he did. We can do nothing more or less than accept the full man. So who was this man whose portraits seemed to remind me of a clever and mischievous child?

His name was Alan Watts. He was born January 6, 1915, in Britain where he developed a keen interest in Asian studies. He moved to the U.S. in the late 1930’s and became an Episcopal priest in 1943. After seven years Watts left the church and returned to the study of Asian philosophy and religion full-time. When he died in November 1973 he left the world over two dozen books, hundreds of pamphlets and briefs, and well over a thousand hours of audiovisual recordings offering his original thoughts on the Western expression of Zen/ Zen Buddhism and Asian thought. For further reading I recommend his autobiography, In My Own Way, published in 1972. It is an entertaining book providing readers with a memorable glimpse at American culture and character in the generation following World War II.

And how did I come to know of Watts and his world?  In 1968 documentary filmmakers, Irving and Elda Hartley, produced a fourteen-minute film entitled Buddhism: Man and Nature. Watts wrote the script and provided the narration. For the Hartleys, it was an award winning addition to their series on spirituality and religion. For others, particularly those studying or working in natural resource management, ecology and related fields, the film was a compelling prescription for understanding and appreciating our natural world. It is in that context that I encountered it in the early 1970’s as a new employee of the National Park Service.

Within days after seeing Buddhism: Man and Nature I transcribed the narration and proceeded to carry it with me for more than 36 years fulfilling my employer's mission to help people appreciate, understand, and preserve some of the finest natural and cultural landscapes throughout the nation.

The film never influenced my personal religious convictions but it certainly impacted my understanding of the human place and role in natural landscapes. Alan Watts’s powerful script writing as well as his transcendent narration motivated me to look deeper into the man and his writings. Over the next decade his books on Zen, Asian philosophy and the West's response, and human behavior grew to occupy well over two feet of shelf space in my library.

The transcript I typed on my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter way back when? Well-tattered and coffee stained, it sits enshrined in the household safe.


Photos and Illustration:


Friday, January 6, 2017

Epiphany 2017

Adoration of the Magi                                                           William Blake, 1799

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and their recognition or revelation of Him as the King of Kings.  There is but one popular American carol for the celebration of Epiphany. It was written by the Episcopal clergyman, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., and appeared in print in 1863 in a collection of his sacred music.

In closing this series on Christmas and Epiphany 2017 we contrast a 19th century hymn above with one written by Saint Romanos the Melodist in the 6th century at a time when Christmas and Epiphany were celebrated on the same feast day. As joyful and beautiful as the familiar hymns are to us there is something mysterious and dreamlike in the ancient and unfamiliar. One could easily imagine the three kings returning home and eventually hearing this hymn in their own tongue.


Photos and Illustrations:


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christmastide 2016: The Twelfth Day

Twelfth Night activities in New Orleans, 1884

Today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. For some, it will end with feasting, music, dancing, and theater at Twelfth Night festivities. When all the party goers have arrived, each will select a small festival cake or cake slice. Three of those cakes contain a hidden bean or token designating them as the king cake, queen cake and fool cake. The lucky holders of the royal cakes oversee the evening's activities before returning to their normal lives, most likely "below the salt." These Twelfth Night traditions have been part of western culture for over a thousand years.

The King Drinks                                       David Teniers, Flemish, ca. 1669-1690

This day is important among Christians who maintain liturgical traditions: it marks the end of the twelve day festival celebrating the birth of Christ, it is the eve of Epiphany, and it is the beginning of the carnival season ending with Mardi Gras. Those who are reluctant to bid Christmas farewell can take heart knowing that the tradition of Christmastide extends through February 2 or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Here at the our household, we trust that you have experienced a wonder-filled Christmas. May you live throughout this new year in the spirit of Twelfth Night, finding joy and happiness in what often seems a disordered world. In the words of William Shakespeare, who had a bit to say about this evening in Twelfth Night, (Act II, Scene 5):

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Great or common, what you will!


Photos and Illustrations:


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Christmastide 2016: The Eleventh Day

According to the many versions of the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, this day could see your true true love bringing you pipers piping, ladies dancing, ladies spinning, badgers baiting, lads a-louping, lords a leaping or bulls a beating. Take your pick. Unfortunately, one item not found in any version is the gift of good fortune. Tradition tells us that gift should come in the form of a wish from a chimney sweep on New Year's Day. I like tradition but I certainly don't like the odds of readers and friends ever meeting a chimney sweep these days. To rectify the situation I'd like to introduce you to some sweeps from the imaginations of Wiener Werkstatte artists from the early 20th century.

And if three chimney sweeps, pretty girls, and a pig don't lift your spirits and leave you with high hopes in the new year this should do it.


Photos and Illustrations:


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Christmastide 2016: The Tenth Day

On this tenth day of Christmastide we'll focus on two short stories, one well-known, one obscure.

In the last week or so, many of us watched or heard bits and pieces of the film, A Christmas Story, during its annual television marathon broadcast by Turner Broadcasting System. Its author, Jean Shepherd (1921-199), was a wonderful storyteller, humorist, and radio personality who left us with enduring images of growing up in America in the '30s and '40s. He assembled the script from several earlier publications, personal notes, and his stand-up comedy routine. A book based on the script emerged in 2003. Millions of people across at least two generations have memorized the best lines of dialogue. Some have gone so far as to purchase and exhibit the "electric sex" of the infamous leg lamp in a prominent window. In our home we choose to have a small version of the item on our tree and surprise our guests will finely decorated leg lamp sugar cookies. 

". . .the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window."

While Shepherd spent his childhood in the Midwest, the poet and writer, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), grew up in Swansea and the surrounding farmlands of south Wales. In his brief life Thomas would turn experience and observation into some of the most beautiful and lyrical imagery ever written in the English language. Two years after his death his story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, appeared in print. It was an instant hit in Great Britain and in the United States. The story was adapted for a television film in 1987 and broadcast for several years on public television in the United States and the BBC and affiliates in Great Britain. Although true to Dylan's beloved story and well-received by viewers the film never achieved the broad national exposure as a holiday film by 2000. 

A Child's Christmas in Wales Poster

Image result for a child's christmas in wales 1987
"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground..."

Although both men approached their craft from very different perspectives in terms of geography and style, each has left us with an enduring story of Christmas. Shepherd's work is easily accessible, but Thomas's is obscure, if not lost, to most Americans.  To rectify the issue, listen to the hypnotic and unforgettable voice of the author telling his story: