The Carolinas are shut down by a devastating winter storm. Snow up to the eves...okay, they're expecting just three inches here, but in Tar Heel terms that would seem to be a blizzard; considering the two lane country roads all around, and drivers inexperienced on snow, I'm thinking I'll be going in late if at all.
Any unfortunate double-entendre in today's header is unintended; after all, politically if not economically speaking, we are looking at a relative embarrassment of riches starting today at noon.
No, the title refers of course to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who, I happened to see, turned 200 yesterday. He led an interesting life, if one marked by much suffering and a premature death that deprived us of who-knows-what wonders. As part of a venerable literary tradition, he was, of course, severely alcoholic.
I had forgotten, until I reviewed his bio, that he spent some ill-suited time at West Point (a less likely military man can hardly be imagined) and that he married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was thirteen. I am sure some psychobiographers have worked up that relationship. Come to think of it, Samuel Taylor Coleridge ludicrously signed up for military service as well--is there something about poets and martial reaction formation? It's a bit like cats presenting for obedience training.
Poe has a special place in my reading remembrance--at an impressionable time he was one of several "gateway" authors for me. Encountering stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Masque of the Red Death" in Junior High School was a kind of dark revelation (well, there were a number of those in Junior High, but this was of the good variety). His work opened up vistas of alternative reality, Bizarro-worlds in which everything was as it is "here," but rotated one quarter turn, with highly morbid consequences.
The plots were ingenious, but literature has never been primarily about plot for me, but rather about place and about character. Like the infernally enchanted worlds of Robert E. Howard, but refined beyond literal and figurative barbarism, Poe's places seemed to exude an eldritch kind of energy, powered by the use of words like "eldritch" that are irresistible to many thirteen-year-olds with a Y chromosome. And I suppose his tales may have provoked an early interest in abnormal psychology--who would not want to treat the distinctly dysfunctional dynamics of the Usher family?
What attracted me in Poe's mystery was not the puzzle of ratiocination, but rather the deeper, metaphysical mind-benders that have no solution. So my adolescent literary interests proceeded more to fantasy and science fiction than to detective or horror fiction; I have always found wonder to be a more primal and a more interesting experience than either fear or wordplay.
Some authors are great, but great chiefly at a certain crucial age, after which their pleasures diminish. So when I reread Poe now it is still with interest, but an interest imbued with a good deal of reminiscence. As is the case with much of so-called genre fiction, he seems more gimmicky now--one can hear the creak of the literary machinery. An interesting comparison for me is H. P. Lovecraft; I somehow never read him until I broke down and bought the Library of America edition a few years ago. I appreciate the deep strangeness of his style, and am glad that I have finally encountered Cthulhu in the original, but somehow it is not something that I can take seriously at this point (but had I read him twenty five years ago I would have thought him fantastic).
It may seem obvious, but it bears noting that the most significant thing about Poe's worlds is that death is not merely always a heartbeat away, but indeed keeps intruding inconveniently into life. His young cousin-wife died early from tuberculosis, and considering his lifestyle and his milieu he cannot have expected a comfortable old age. So we have "The City in the Sea:"
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
And the grievous "Annabel Lee:"
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the side of the sea.
And this cheering lyric:
Out--out are the lights--out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.
May he inspire adolescents, including the grown-up kind, for another two centuries at least. He is for the ages now, as was said of another American of his time, and if he was obsessed with death, he could now say, with John Donne, "And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!"