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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