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


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