Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Edgar Allan Poe Christmas

After David Copperfield I spent the next several months devouring the canon.  I didn't know it was the canon, but I knew they were the "important" books, the ones that time couldn't kill.  The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Sawyer, Gulliver's Travels, Tale of Two Cities, maybe a few others.  I read them, like Copperfield, without analysis, with the assumption that they were the paradigm and I was experiencing pure awesomeness.  (I had a professor in college who said the best way to read Shakespeare is to assume that Shakespeare is perfection, and that his plays reach a depth you can only hope to glimpse.  Whenever he said it, which was often, it always made me think of those first tomes I discovered.)  And, like Copperfield, only bits of them remain with me.  Lilliput and the small end of the egg, Gulliver pissing on the capital city; peasants trying desperately to slurp spilled wine from the mud, everyone calling each other Jacques, whatever-his-name-was making my heart rise on his way to the guillotine; Tom watching his own funeral from the rafters (or was that later, in Huck Finn?), the abandonment of the white fence . . .  They were all above me and I was only peeking under their skirts.  Never saw their faces.

When Christmas rolled around that year, and my parents asked what I wanted, I said simply, "Books."  They might have asked me what kind of books, and I probably said, "Really good books."  A difficult charge, but they carried it.  Under the tree that year I found the complete works of Shakespeare, some Mark Twain, an Alice in Wonderland, several I can't recall, and four collections of Edgar Allan Poe.  It was these last that would really captivate me.

When you read Poe for the first time, you come away with the impression of having just walked through a mist and catching a glimpse of a shadow.  The shape of the shadow is strange, and it's gone before you can focus your eyes.  Sometimes you're not even sure what the story is about, but you can feel the dampness of it, the darkness in it - you can sense that you're trapped in someone else's otherworldly tomb.  You don't have to know what Gothic is, you don't have to read Poe's essays on mood, you don't have to know that the Murder at the Rue Morgue is the first modern detective story, (or, by the by, that Poe is credited with being the first person to suggest that the universe is expanding) - you don't need any knowledge whatsoever to experience the dank woods of Weir or the inevitability of Montressor.  The language itself has a texture, and it's cold to touch.

I read most of it, but just two short stories and one poem have really stayed with me: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amantillado, and The Bells.  The Fall because of its quiet strangeness, its shadowy unreal dreamscape, and because one of my first short stories (The House on Quamba Lake) ripped it off completely.  The Cask because the tension in those Italian catacombs clawed at my brain and I remember squirming in my chair as Fortunato was slowly - so slowly - immured.  The Bells because, if I hadn't read these lines -

Hear the loud alarum bells,
          Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
    In the startled ear of night
    How they scream out their affright!
      Too much horrified to speak,
      They can only shriek, shriek,
          Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
      Leaping higher, higher, higher,
      With a desperate desire,
    And a resolute endeavor
    Now—now to sit or never,
  By the side of the pale-faced moon.
      Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
      What a tale their terror tells
          Of Despair!
    How they clang, and clash, and roar!
    What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
      Yet the ear it fully knows,
          By the twanging
          And the clanging,
      How the danger ebbs and flows;
    Yet the ear distinctly tells,
          In the jangling
          And the wrangling,
    How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
          Of the bells,
    Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
          Bells, bells, bells—
  In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

- I might still be entirely sane.  Which I hold to be evidentially useless.  I also have the wonderful memory of reading The Bells for the first time as thunder rattled the house; the lights went out and I finished it by candlelight.  I spent the rest of the night looking out into the storm, listening between lightning strikes for the groaning of the bells.

If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there somewhere. -------->


  1. It looks like that's part III and IV; would you feel dirty posting I and II? That is an engaging set of words though. I could see how you could get caught up in that tornado of tongue - could rewire your head. Damn, dude...


  2. In addition, I think 'The Bells' would make an awesome song where every line with an exclamation point was song chorus and the other parts were sung individually. Maybe I'd have to think about this line - " What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! " But you could do some trucked up harmonies with that line. It's awesome to think that great Poe-ts like Poe, where the poems they hear lyrically and are written as they are heard, are quite different in my interpretation. It's a struggle to read poetry; scholars such as yourself invest a lot of time in understanding to be able to "hear" the lyrical content sometimes of a principal poet - not understanding and hearing other poets. 'The Bells' by itself is a hit, but the best version of 'The Bells' will always be how Poe heard it to himself lyrically. I am sure it was truckin wicked. WICJID!


  3. Adam, here as promised! Great blog, lightyears ahead of mine. You have followers!!! Well done, I have no idea how to contact you privately, thats the level of my knowledge. Its interesting to see you are in Korea. I am in the UK and have lived in the South Pacific. Happy to swap tips. Please delete this "comment" if you need to , no offense taken. I am a helpful chap, and keen to learn more about the art of audience generation! Cheers, Abel.

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  6. This is books is really dark. I feel a little bit of fear when I read it but nevertheless, it is one of his best novels