Like most holidays, Halloween in the U.S. has its many rituals and symbols. For many, reading the traditional horror tales and poems of Great Literature is a steady ritual that deserves at least token attention.
Last night as I was nodding over an old book in my study I heard a tapping at my windowpane. What did I hear? You know. But play along. Here is one of the most chilling readings I have ever heard of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” The chills come from a master at his craft. Sit back and listen, really listen as Christopher Walken reads. Then after you have finished, I have a few comments for you about the poem taken from my book, Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature, aimed at taking some of the chill off.
Edgar Allan Poe published his most famous poem in The Raven and Other Poems in 1845. In “The Poetic Principle” he details the process by which he originally composed “The Raven.” The speaker had been pondering over old volumes of “forgotten lore,” taking refuge from his mourning over his lost Lenore when he heard a tap at his door. Distracted and wild, he rises and opens the door and looks out into the “Darkness there, and nothing more.” He merely whispers the word “Lenore,” and it is echoed back. Soon another tapping occurs—this time at the window. He opens it and in steps a raven which perches upon a bust of Pallas above the door. The speaker asks its name: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.” Thus begins perhaps the most famous poem in the literature of the United States, one that has been parodied many times over. Nevertheless, Poe’s poem if read afresh proves to be almost without question his very best.
The raven seems surely to function as a symbol, for it is both believable and mysterious, Traditionally, it was believed that ravens and crows can be taught to speak, and a tame raven could easily escape and wander to someone’s door. On the other hand, ravens are associated with evil and the occult. The raven failed to return to Noah’s ark, and various other stories and myths relate that the raven or crow originally was white and was turned black for its evil deeds. Moreover, the color black is connotative of evil, darkness, mystery. The raven is also an ugly bird, a scavenger. Thus its presence in the room is ominous and scary. Perfect for a Halloween reading.
It’s October and Halloween and I have been trying to come up with something from great literature about Halloween. There are plenty of Christmas poems and stories and plenty of material about October and fall. I’m going to devote most of next month to American literature about Thanksgiving. But what about Halloween? So I asked my primary source, my wife Jeanine, if she had any suggestions on the literature of Halloween. “Duh,” she might as well have said. “How about Edgar Allan Poe?” I felt really stupid.
Poe is quintessentially the essence of American Romanticism. And of Halloween. There is so much in his complete works. But I am going for the poetry and, yes, the most obvious poems of all. Tune in Friday for my take on “The Raven.” Today, let’s look at “Ulalume,” sometimes called by wiseacres “Ulalume in Her Tomb.” (If any of you are looking for a great name for your soon-to-be baby daughter, what could be a more distinct name than Ulalume?)
Some of you may remember from your college English classes that for Edgar Allan Poe the ideal subject matter for poetry was the Death of a Beautiful Young Maiden. Some of you can probably still recite nearly every line of “Annabel Lee,” who lived by the sea, of course.
Edgar Allan Poe published this poem in Colton’s American Review under the name N. P. Willis in December 1847, the year after the death of his wife, and it evokes a strange collision of passions.
Here is a link to the poem with some other information: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174155 but for your convenience, here is the actual poem. You really need to read it aloud and in a truly ghoulish Halloween voice for the true effect. Try reading it to someone. But read it first, and then I have a few comments taken from my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere-
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir-
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul-
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
There were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll-
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole-
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.
Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere-
Our memories were treacherous and sere-
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year-
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber-
(Though once we had journeyed down here),
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
And now, as the night was senescent,
And star-dials pointed to morn-
As the star-dials hinted of morn-
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn-
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
And I said- “She is warmer than Dian:
She rolls through an ether of sighs-
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion,
To point us the path to the skies-
To the Lethean peace of the skies-
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes-
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”
But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said- “Sadly this star I mistrust-
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:-
Oh, hasten!- oh, let us not linger!
Oh, fly!- let us fly!- for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust-
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust-
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
I replied- “This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendor is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty to-night:-
See!- it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright-
We safely may trust to a gleaming
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom-
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb-
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said- “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied- “Ulalume- Ulalume-
‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere-
As the leaves that were withering and sere-
And I cried- “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed- I journeyed down here-
That I brought a dread burden down here-
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber-
This misty mid region of Weir-
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
This poem is a good example of Poe’s wishing to create a mood of suggestion. The poet is conversing with Psyche, his soul, in a mysterious landscape. It is October in the in the “ghoul-haunted woodland of Were.” They have wandered here before, and this night marks a significant anniversary for them. Suddenly a bright star arises, which the speaker believes to be Astarte, not Diana—or love, not chastity. But Psyche says that she distrusts the star and suggests that they flee. The speaker insists that the star will lead them aright. So they go on. Finally they come upon a tomb, which Psyche explains is the tomb of Ulalume, his lost love. Then he remembers that just a year before, on that very night in October, he had carried this burden there. Of course, it had to be Halloween. Wouldn’t you know it? But this, after all is Edgar Allan Poe.
The poem seems clearly to be a Platonic rendering of absolute beauty and love. No physical love can possibly requite this ideal of excellence. And evidently, Poe seems to be saying, such idealization of love is attainable only in death.
It was poetry such as “Ulalume” with its effect arising from implication rather than overt statement that attracted the next generation of poets in France, the Symbolists. Stephan Mallarme wrote his poem “At the Tomb of Poe” looking back on such poems as this one. He also declared it, “perhaps the most original and the most strangely suggestive of all Poe’s poems.”
Poe relies heavily here on a trisyllabic meter, emphasizing the anapests but occasionally alternating with dactylic and with iambic feet to begin several lines. However, he is not regular in this pattern within the stanza or through the stanza forms themselves. This trisyllabic meter gives the soft, rolling effect, which is common in Poe.
Poe himself is reported to have said that its ending “was scarcely clear to himself.” It uses again the hypnotic repetitions that he inaugurated with “The Raven,” and subordinates meaning to music. He was a superrational analyst, and the meaning of his poems often eludes any analysis.
Poe deemed that “a passionate poem is a contradiction in terms” so he tried rigidly to restrict “passion” to “sexual desire” as opposed to “ideal love.” Nevertheless, for the last century and a half, sensitive readers who respond to “Ulalume” are stirred by a deeply compulsive passion.
Images by Caspar David Friedrich
He shut the thorn up in his foot, and told his foot / Walk
Rickey Laurentiis’, Boy with Thorn, is simply lovely. In this book, winner of 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Laurentiis addresses the countless brutalization and sexualization accounts in which black, queer bodies endure. In addition, he comments on visual arts in relation to black bodies, and the representation said art holds, using narrative and ekphrastic forms of poetry. Moreover, he allows personal thought to “interrupt” the poem, adding a well needed (and loved, if you asked me) layer to this subjects that we might not otherwise get. As a whole, Laurentiis is stating how the black body struggles with itself, and its understanding of itself. Is seeks to survive through questions, realizations, and art.
In the first section of the book, Laurentiis talks about roots, black bodies, and their relation to the queer black male and the violent acts against said communities. The book opens, rightfully so, with the poem, “Conditions for a Southern Gothic”:
Therefore, my head was kingless.
I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field.
I was like any of those deserter slaves
whose graves are just the pikes raised for their heads, reshackled, blue
and plan as fear.
All night I whistled at a sky that mocked me,
that fluently changed its grammar as if to match desire in my eye.
My freedom is possible, it said.
As if my torn-off head in that bed swamped and whelming then
with water had one wish, and it did: to think stranger stuff,
to break that boring need to always have a shadow trail its maker, such that:
1. The shadow snaps, rising to kiss the head;
2. The kiss lands, the head flies up in airy revolt;
3. Cracked from the head come the crows of its thinking;
4. Three crows move in minstrelsy against the night;
5. And the head still singing: Last night, a Negro was axed . . .
Who among us was made to scratch a myth? Speak. If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of the imagination.
In this poem, we see a lot of Laurentiis’ tropes–imagery, narrative, personification, and others–to introduce to the book and his writing style. This piece comments on blackness and what it means to be black in America; how it correlates to blackness prior and presently. By taking on this role of being a slave, thus comparing his present blackness, to the violence black people endured, Laurentiis is allowing the reader into a hostile image. “I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field. / I was like any of those deserter slaves / whose graves are just the pikes raised for their heads, reshackled, blue / and plain as fear” (Line 2-5). There is something jarring about comparing oneself to a staked head. Here, he is saying how stark blackness is, and how even present day, blackness is seen as a threat. Yet, as we get back to him in the field as a head (which is simply a beautiful and rendering image), the reader is again introduced to this notion of blackness as it relates to “freedom.” In line 8, the sky says, “My freedom is possible.” As the poem continues, we understand that there is a risk while this head is in thought–to break away from this track that has been set out; this cycle of blackness. Of queer-blackness. He ends this thought with a pointed finger at God, suggesting that his act of creating man was indeed a failure. A bold statement.
As this section continues, Laurentiis gives us similar poems addressing the black body and how it consistently undergoes violent and trauma. In “One Country,” the body wants a release of itself and its thirst. In “Vanitas with Negro Boy” he is giving the reader the actual painting, Vanitas with Negro Boy by David Bailly. However, in this piece, Laurentiis is inserting the black boy’s thoughts/questions (personified as himself), as well as commenting on this black boy in the voice of David Bailly. There are lines here, that really give us another insight to the portrayal of blackness/black bodies–“That / was the boy’s job, this cage with a debt / in it (And whose boy am I, and what is / my name?) There is something beautiful about how Laurentiis inhabits two bodies at once. In addition, this inhabitation allows the reader involve themselves in the duality of art and the layering of the poem. He addresses more than how black bodies are portrayed, but comments on how the black body questions itself. Furthermore, this poem realizes the beauty in the black body, and how it has to endure the gaze placed on itself through various forms of art and media.
Of the Leaves That Have Fallen
Wallace Stevens, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”
In the imagination there is no daylight and,
Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial.
I sing, I grieve in it, I dream what haunts each night:
These bodies, even lynched, still are thinking.
Nothing is final, I’m told. No man shall see the end—
But them, my fathers, lifted into fire, like tongues.
To navigate the dark you must listen, you must listen
To the dark: the wind, a wind in the trees, the birds,
Birds shaping a sound around the green busyness in the trees.
It was when he only called for mercy as in “God, O Take Me
Higher,” while vanishing, shut up in heat, his eyes and veins
Rupturing, that I knew the night was made for many kinds of desire.
(Read the rest here.)
The entire second section is Laurentiis’ one poem, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen.” And it is completely brilliant. In this poem he is directly asking Wallace Stevens how he could write a poem, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” without commenting on blackness, black bodies, and the brutish acts towards both. In Stevens’ poem, death is meditated through imagery of the gruel landscape. Yet, there is a reference to the black body, seen in his title, but does not inquire or dive into the importance of the black body during this time. Laurentiis’ poem, directly comments on Stevens’ complete disregard for the black body. In addition, this piece evokes how this body is seen, attacked, and often overlooked. He even writes in the same exact form of Stevens, thus going through great lengths to correcting him. Moreover, this piece allows the reader into a conversation about history’s role in blackness by addressing specific accounts, such as, the Civil War and Emmett Till. The reader is understanding and welcomes a different outlook on blackness in direct comparison to how another poet disregards blackness.
The book ends with the third section addressing southerness and the history of blackness as it relates to such. It’s invigorating, actually, how Laurentiis completes this collection. In this section, we see how the black body is stretched and bruised. Also, there is a serene underlying tone in this section that we don’t necessarily see in the sections beforehand. In the poem, “A Southern Wild,” we see a young boy racing another boy to the top of a hill. Though the subject is simple, the commentary in the piece is rich–realizing the boy’s body in relation to the landscape and how much the body can handle. There are questions in this piece that further gives the reader insight on this constant inner battle.
The two poems in this section that can easily sum up the book are “You Are Not Christ” and “Take it Easy.” In “Take it Easy,” we are given this:
That the light stalks your skin,
no, that your skin makes it: a radiating
hum, jive, a freedom, a beehive
packed just as much with honey as does it
hazard; also, a balm for where the sting sits,
a treaty, country upon which I first
laid my claim, but was usurped; where
carefully do I move to cross it again. Now here
come my lips to it, pink over your body’s
good bark. Now here is my mouth, entire.
I’m scared of you, baby, it says, scared like a god
is of his faithful–and like the faithful. Light-
struck. Delighted. Terrorstruck. Come, lift up
your gates, your countenance spread like a lily upon me:
whip me, I am so whipped. These are my eyes.
Do you see it? How the black body responds to itself. How it understands.
*Purchase Boy with Thorn here*
Much Ado About Nothing
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee —
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand;
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band:
For others say thou dost deserve; and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
Painting By Frank Dicksee (1896) Public Domain
Measure for Measure
My husband bids me; now I will unmask.
This is that face, thou cruel Angelo,
Which once thou sworest was worth the looking on;
This is the hand which, with a vow’d contract, 2615
Was fast belock’d in thine; this is the body
That took away the match from Isabel,
And did supply thee at thy garden-house
In her imagined person.
Painting by John Everett Millais (1851)
A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled- 2650
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, 2655
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands 2660
But love, fair looks, and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
Painting by James Dromgole Linton : Katherine, from the Taming of the Shrew 1896
He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turn’d
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes,
For out o’ doors he went without their help
And to the last bended their light on me.
Painting by Pierre Auguste Cot (1870)
Columbus Day 2015
Here we are in the Americas 523 years after Christopher Columbus became ostensibly the first white person to discover the new world. At 2:00 am on October 12, 1492 Columbus’s crew spotted the island in the Bahamas that became the first point of contact. Columbus named the island San Salvador. Others called it Hispaniola. We do not know precisely today which island in the Bahamas Columbus visited first but Watling Island usually presumed the place today.
In February 1493 on voyage back to Spain Columbus described in detail his encounters with the Taino natives on the island in his “Letter to Luis de Santagel Regarding the First Voyage” which you can access at http://www.ushistory.org/documents/columbus.htm.
Columbus has served as a punching bag for historians at least since the 500-year anniversary of the original voyage. Maybe he deserves his fate. Let’s see what his interpretation of his first encounter was.
As always, I encourage you to interact with me and other readers with your comments and, I hope, discussion. And it doesn’t matter when you encounter The Literary Life blog or when you read this posting for the first time. I hope all discussions will be ongoing.
Early in the letter Columbus writes, “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.”
Let’s examine this passage. Notice his point of view: he is an outsider who has stumbled upon this island. But he offers no deference to those who inhabit the place. He finds a “people innumerable.” Now whatever island geographically this was, it had to be relatively small. Historians’ estimates vary widely from 100,000 to eight million. Even at the small estimate, there were a lot of people wandering around up and down the beaches when the Santa Maria landed.
Imagine you are in your boat at 2:00 am and you spot an island. Early after first light you land and go ashore. Thousands of people are swarming around everywhere. In the distance you can see the villages and towns. It’s as if you landed at Santa Monica beach near the pier with its Ferris wheel starting its first ride. The skyline of the entire LA area is visible. What would be your reaction?
For one thing, would you do what Columbus did? He says, “I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled.” Would you plant your flag on the Santa Monica beach and declare it all yours?
What are the underlying assumptions of Columbus’s late medieval worldview that he could blithely make such a statement? Columbus declares that he has “taken possession” of the islands for “their highnesses” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. What kind of attitude toward the native inhabitants’ rights underlies this ritual of possession that Columbus employed?
Columbus is clearly aware that the lands he “discovered” already have native names. In this letter, he explains that the Arawak Indians call their island “Guanahani.” Yet Columbus seems to have no reluctance about renaming the island San Salvador, for religious reasons, of course. Why in the world would he feel justified in renaming the islands? What might he have hoped to accomplish in bestowing these Spanish names?
Columbus sends two of his men inland to explore “to learn if there were a king or great cities.” Obviously, that’s not what they found. But notice: “They traveled three day’s journey and found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance.” Thousands if not millions of people all about, yet his scouts found nothing of importance. If Columbus’s men found nothing of importance, what were they looking for that would have been important? What was utterly unimportant to Columbus?
One last thing: at the end of this letter Columbus describes the New World. He describes it in almost Edenic terms and ends by saying “Española is a marvel.” What makes it a marvel, in Columbus’s eyes? Is Columbus simply admiring the beauties of nature?
So there you have it, your Columbus Day high. Enjoy your Monday.
Image: Santa Monica Pier from Santa Monica Mirror June 10, 2012
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Painting By Frank Dicksee (1896) Public Domain