Today is the 160th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe.
I was a fan of Poe in my younger days, but lost track of him around twenty years ago. I recently went back to re-read some of my old favorites and discovered some new things about Poe that surprised me. Namely, that Poe was not the drug addict we had always been led to believe.
The day Edgar Allan Poe was buried, a long obituary appeared in the New York Tribune signed "Ludwig". It was soon published throughout the country. The piece began, "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." "Ludwig" was soon identified as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor, critic and anthologist who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe's literary executor and attempted to destroy his enemy's reputation after his death.
Rufus Griswold wrote a biographical article of Poe called "Memoir of the Author", which he included in an 1850 volume of the collected works. Griswold depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman and included Poe's letters as evidence. Many of his claims were either outright lies or distorted half-truths. For example, it is now known that Poe was not a drug addict. Griswold's book was denounced by those who knew Poe well, but it became a popularly accepted one. This occurred in part because it was the only full biography available and was widely reprinted and in part because readers thrilled at the thought of reading works by an "evil" man. Letters that Griswold presented as proof of this depiction of Poe were later revealed as forgeries.
Perhaps, for a sixteen year-old, the idea of a drug addicted writer dying under mysterious circumstances had some romantic power. But now, twenty years later, one can see in Poe, a human being quite similar to all of us. His tortures were really no different from ours. And it is now clear that his words arose from his daily life, and not from some kind of chemical 'assistance.'
Now, when I return to Poe, I am sure to find something different than before.
Poe's Most Famous Work
The Raven is easily one of the most famous poems ever written. It tells of a talking raven's mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man's slow descent into madness. It is a wonderful expression of rhythm, rhyme, and lamentation.
When I was a teenager, I could recite the poem verbatim, but have now long since forgotten. (And in fact, I wanted to recite the poem on video for this post, but could not re-memorize the damn thing in time!)
It has been said that The Raven can evoke the sadness of the loss of Lenore in every human being that reads it. And while that can never truly be known, if Takuin's experience can be used as a guide, that statement is certainly not false.
What follows is the full text of the final authorized printing, from the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, 1849. (You can also find a video performance of The Raven at the end of this post.)
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 visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door — Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door; — This it is and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, "Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, That I scarce was sure I heard you" — here I opened wide the door; —— Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?" This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" — Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. "Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice; Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore — Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;— 'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door — Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door — Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, "Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven, Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore — Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!" Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore; For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door — Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, With such name as "Nevermore."
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour. Nothing farther then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered — Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before — On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before." Then the bird said "Nevermore."
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken, "Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore — Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore Of 'Never — nevermore'."
But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door; Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore — What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core; This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er, But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er, She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. "Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee Respite — respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore; Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!" Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil! — Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted — On this home by Horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore — Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!" Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore — Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore — Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore." Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting — "Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore! Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!" Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted — nevermore!
Or, if you would like to read along, or just see a recital of this poem, watch this performance of The Raven by American Actor, John Astin.
Wow...he really looks like Poe.