Edgar Allan Poe and Engineering Poetry

There’s no better time than October to revisit Edgar Allan Poe, and since I already covered his short stories last year, this year I thought we’d move on to his poetry. Unfortunately, we risk doing so at some thematic loss. Yes, his short stories are mostly horror, and so is his most famous poem, “The Raven,” but most of his poetry doesn’t really fit that category. Some of it’s still morbid, though, as beautiful young women have the same astonishing mortality rate here as they do in the stories, but to keep things seasonal I’ll focus on his most popular work.

Before diving in, though, it’s worth considering how Poe approached poetry. He describes at some length in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” not only his general theory of what a poem should seek to accomplish, but illustrates it by describing how he wrote “The Raven.” The whole thing is worth reading, but there are a couple main points relevant here. First, he says that when he begins writing, he “prefer[s] commencing with the consideration of an effect.” In his short stories, that effect or impression is typically horror; in “The Raven” Poe says that the poem’s province is beauty, and melancholy the tone.

Now, to the second point. Poe is surprisingly mechanical in how he writes. We often like to imagine poets just writing their poems from pure inspiration, as if delivering a divine oracle. Even in school, when we learn about poetic metres and rhyme schemes, it often comes with a disclaimer that poets don’t actually write that way, that these things are just tools for understanding a poem. Says Poe:

Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic — the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically — the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet — the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds) — the third of eight — the fourth of seven and a half — the fifth the same — the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

Writing methods vary, of course, but I feel safe assuming that very, very few poets fit the popular image of a man basically taking dictation from his dreams (“Kubla Khan” notwithstanding). However, I also doubt that many approach their work so much like an engineer. I’ve seen people express scepticism that Poe actually did compose “The Raven” as described, but honestly, I do think that this is a genuine, mostly accurate description of his writing process. Take a look at the first three stanzas of his finished poem here:

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.”

This could’ve been written specifically for a textbook on poetic technique. Notice the internal rhymes? The repetition of the “rapping” and “tapping,” which also rhyme with “napping,” and how this suggests the sound of tapping on a door? How about the way the repeated ‘s’ sound in “the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” sounds like a rustling curtain? Obviously, these things are poetic staples, but I don’t know of any writer who packs them in as densely as Poe does. There is a danger of this engineer’s approach to poetry of coming out as lifeless and too mechanical, and many of his early poems are a bit rigid and, frankly, rather boring. My collection of his work, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, published by Dorset Press in 1989, arranges the poems chronologically and for the first half I was afraid that this review would be significantly more negative than I’d anticipated. Fortunately, matters improve notably over time and the second half of the collection makes it more clear why he’s so popular.

“The Raven” is Poe’s best and most famous poem, and it’s close to the most extreme example of this focus on sound. However, he outdid himself on this score in another of my favourites, “The Bells,” in which he revels in the sound of words to get across various moods, almost closer to music than poetry in some places. Here are the first and third stanzas:

Hear the sledges with the bells–
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

[…]

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!

You think that’s enough? It’s almost self-parody, but I just love this stuff. Like his stories, Poe’s poems won’t teach you the meaning of life or whatever, but they’re a lot of fun to recite.

Now, one may ask, does all this make Poe a great poet? He is a staple of American literature classes, which almost always include “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and a few others. However, I would answer “no.” He is an excellent poet, but the greatest poetry, and art generally, uplifts the audience in some way. Poe is a great entertainer, but not a great artist the way that, say, John Donne or T. S. Eliot are.

There is one more thing I’d like to cover, though. Ever since I first read Poe in high school, I’ve heard that he was more successful in France than here in the United States because of Charles Baudelaire’s translations of his work. So, I’ve always been curious about how Poe reads in French. Looking into this recently, though, I found that Baudelaire focused almost entirely on the short stories, which surprised me since Baudelaire is among the most famous of French poets. He did do a prose translation of “The Raven,” (“Le Corbeau“) though. Again, the first three stanzas:

« Une fois, sur le minuit lugubre, pendant que je méditais, faible et fatigué, sur maint précieux et curieux volume d’une doctrine oubliée, pendant que je donnais de la tête, presque assoupi, soudain il se fit un tapotement, comme de quelqu’un frappant doucement, frappant à la porte de ma chambre. « C’est quelque visiteur, — murmurai-je, — qui frappe à la porte de ma chambre ; ce n’est que cela, et rien de plus. »

Ah ! distinctement je me souviens que c’était dans le glacial décembre, et chaque tison brodait à son tour le plancher du reflet de son agonie. Ardemment je désirais le matin ; en vain m’étais-je efforcé de tirer de mes livres un sursis à ma tristesse, ma tristesse pour ma Lénore perdue, pour la précieuse et rayonnante fille que les anges nomment Lénore, — et qu’ici on ne nommera jamais plus.

Et le soyeux, triste et vague bruissement des rideaux pourprés me pénétrait, me remplissait de terreurs fantastiques, inconnues pour moi jusqu’à ce jour ; si bien qu’enfin, pour apaiser le battement de mon cœur, je me dressai, répétant : « C’est quelque visiteur qui sollicite l’entrée à la porte de ma chambre, quelque visiteur attardé sollicitant l’entrée à la porte de ma chambre ; — c’est cela même, et rien de plus. »

Now, the sense is still there, and as far as I can judge sound it works alright, but obviously Poe’s beloved alliteration and such just aren’t going to transfer between languages, and only bits and pieces of that remain. Stéphane Mallarmé also took a shot at it, again in prose and with similar results. After some searching, and an assist from Ron Carrier on Twitter, I did find a verse translation of Poe’s complete poems by Gabriel Mourey, specifically a facsimile of an edition published in 1910. So finally, “Le Corbeau” in verse:

Une fois, par un triste minuit, comme je méditais, faible et las,
sur quelques bizarres et curieux volumes de science oubliée –
tandis que je baissais la tête, presque assoupi, tout à coup il y eut un heurt,
comme de quelqu’un frappant doucement, frappant à la porte de ma chambre.
« C’est quelque visiteur », murmurai-je, heurtant à la porte de ma chambre –
seulement cela et rien de plus.

Ah, je me souviens distinctement que c’était dans le froid Décembre,
et chaque tison, mourant séparé, façonnait son fantôme sur le parquet.
Impatiemment je désirais le matain; – vainement j’avais tenté d’emprunter

I’m stopping there because it goes on to another page, and that page is missing in my edition (tip: don’t buy anything published by Forgotten Books). Anyway, the question of which of these translations is best is one that I’ll leave to the Frenchmen, since at this stage I’m only just able to read these at all. Mostly, I’ll admit, this is a novelty for me and this is the only opportunity I’m likely to have to talk about it, though there is some historical significance. Poe’s influence on Baudelaire, and Baudelaire’s influence in France, interestingly makes Poe about as important to French literature as he is to English.

In any case, Poe isn’t the most fashionable poet, and his work is rather hit-and-miss, but I’ve always loved it, anyway. His poems are like the verse equivalent of a special effects show, not profound, perhaps, but always a spectacle and great fun to read.

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