Friday, October 02, 2009

Poe's Poetry: Ascension to Beauty (Part 3 of 4)

[Continued from previous post.]

A scrutiny of some of his poems will illustrate his method. The incomparable "To Helen" ("Helen, thy beauty is to me") is a celebration of time, or antiquity. Poe personifies Beauty in Helen. A woman is an apt symbol of Beauty because of her very indefineableness and her air of mystery. The very name, Helen, invokes a memory of that most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy. Poe celebrates, in this poem, the idea of antiquity "which is gained through a virtual sensing of physical forms." There is an image in the first stanza of going out and coming back, the "barks of yore" carry the "way-worn wanderer" over a "perfumed sea" and back again "To his own native shore." This is an image of Poe's vision of the state of the universe: in the beginning there is Unity, which has become diffuse and has expanded. Then, having expanded, the diffusion returns to its original Unity. Poe works through the senses of his reader in conjuring physical images of a wanderer and barks (a type of ship sometimes spelled "barque") traveling over a sea. From these physical forms he guides the reader to a sense of the expansion and contraction of the universe. The indefineableness in the "barks of yore" and the "perfumed sea" contribute to the reader's growing sense of this flux in the universe. The iambic meter employed continuously through this first stanza enhances the physical images of going out and coming back by adding a rocking back and forth rhythm to the language. This rocking motion carries the reader much like the sea carries the barks and prepares him for the second stanza.

In the second stanza, the euphorial "perfumed sea" has become "desperate seas long wont to roam." This abrupt shift in the image may symbolize the desperate longing and yearning of diffused creation to return home to the quintessential One, the All. Then Poe lists Helen's beauties in her "hyacinth hair," "classic face," and "Naiad airs." These attributes of the woman take the narrator of the poem back in memory to that true, more perfect beauty that belongs to ancient Greece and Rome. Just as a man catches glimpses of a woman's beauty in her various attributes, so Poe tells his reader that the various beautiful things he sees in the universe can serve to guide him back to a realization of the Beauty that is the original Unity. Poe forcefully brings into his reader's consciousness a reminder of the supernal Loveliness by abruptly changing from iambic to trochaic rhythm in the last two lines of this stanza. The reader has been lulled by the rocking motion of the meter and by the images of a wanderer journeying home on a sea until the shock of the intrusion of the trochaic rhythm brings him face to face with a realization of his own ultimate end in the original One.

In the third stanza, Poe shows the brightness and sacredness of this supernal Beauty in the images of the "brilliant window-niche," "statue-like," "agate lamp," and "Holy Land." Poe has brought his image of Beauty (Helen) through diffusion and through time back "home" to the final stability of the original Unity ("statue-like"). He has returned to his iambic meter as further assurance, after the shock of the trochaic lines, to the reader that everything is as it should be; the world has returned to its origin and everything has coalesced in a sense of awe and holiness.

The poem, "Israfel" is an exposition of Poetry and the duty of poets. The reader finds himself in heaven in the first stanza, that place of perfect joy and beauty where all mankind hopes to spend eternity. In contrast to "To Helen," Poe begins with the sublime in this poem and descends to the physical world of mortal man. In this heaven, the highest of all places comprehensible to man, dwells a spirit "Whose heart-strings are a lute." Poe has created a disembodied image, first in the spirit, and increases its indefiniteness by giving it lute strings in place of a heart. The lute is a perfect image here. In this one image Poe embodies the praise of the Divine, which is the purpose of poetry, and music, which is the means to this praise and at the same time the most direct route toward elevating the soul of man. Both images of the spirit and the lute are images of indefiniteness. Poe has at the very beginning whisked his reader to the heights of the Divine where even the giddy stars (after such a fast trip to such a height, the reader may also feel giddy) "Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell/Of his voice, all mute." The music from these lute strings must be Beautiful, indeed.

In the second stanza, the reader is brought from a giddy height down to the "tottering" level of the moon and stars. Here, too, all of nature pauses to listen to the heavenly music; the red lightening pauses in its flashing and the stars, the Pleiads, hesitate in their journey across the sky. The beauty and attraction of this music is explained in the third stanza. Such beauty comes from "The trembling living wire/Of those unusual strings." Poe has brought his reader from a sense of indefiniteness in the first stanza through a sense of awe for this music in the second stanza to the first real object the reader can grasp--"those unusual strings." Yet, even they are still indefinite, but in that Poe has identified them as the source of and reason for the responses of the stars and nature, he has given them a certain almost tangible reality. This is Poe's genius. He has nullified everything the reader knows as real and tangible and made real--almost tangible--that one thing which is not, is even beyond the reader's comprehension. But by making it real, Poe brings it into the reader's comprehension, his consciousness. These living wires, these unusual strings are the stuff of Poetry. They must be unusual because they do not belong to anything in what the reader calls the real world, except as shadows of themselves. They are living because in their music, their praise of the Divine, the reader is wafted to the one Source of all things.

In the fourth stanza, the reader learns what kind of heaven this is where the angel Israfel, whom we now know is the Poet, sings his celestial music, which is Poetry. In this heaven, contemplation of mystical things is a duty in which the reader finds his every pleasure. The fifth stanza still holds the reader in this sense of reality first conveyed by the "unusual strings" in the third stanza to impress upon him the highest and wisest reality of the contemplation of the Divine. Poe has created in the reader an acute sense of reality. He holds this impression and increases it in the remaining stanzas of the poem. This has the effect of impressing, in an enduring way, upon the reader the reality of the Sublime. In his essay, The Poetic Principle, Poe avers that a poem must be long enough to make a lasting impression on the reader; "there must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax."

Israfel, the poet, is exhorted to "Merrily live, and long." Perhaps Poe is expressing here a wish that his conception of Poetry as a contemplation of Beauty will live after him and find expression in other poets' work. Israfel's dispassionate song is the wisest because it is unencumbered by earthly things and, therefore, worthy of immortality.

The sixth stanza celebrates the music of Israfel's lyre. This music is appropriate for all emotions and is capable of raising them to ecstasy--a purer form. Here Poe is saying that all topics may be used in poetry and raised to their highest form through the proper handling of prosody This same idea finds expression in "To Helen" in Poe's listing of Helen's beautiful attributes. By properly handling the meter and versification of a common, or earthly emotion, topic, or event, the poet can raise that common topic, emotion, or event to its most sublime level. This proper handling of prosody by the poet is Israfel's playing of his lyre.

Poe brings the reader down to this earth in the seventh stanza. The indefinite joys of Heaven are now but their shadows in the definite beauty of earthly flowers--the sunshine, the only comprehension of Divine Beauty, that mortals have on earth. The last stanza is almost petulant in its lament that men are earthbound. The poet laments that were he able to ascend to that heaven where Israfel dwells, this poem might be more beautiful, more aspiring than it is. Perhaps Poe felt apologetic that he was unable to express what he may have felt.

The basic rhythm of "Israfel" is iambic with an occasional anapestic foot. However, certain lines contain the most important message of the poem; that the contemplation of Beauty is the most sublime, indeed the only justifiable purpose of poetry. These lines begin with a trochee and, in a couple of instances contain a spondee. By inverting the stress, Poe draws attention to this message. In the second stanza, the first, fourth, and last line begin with a trochee. These three lines record the reactions of the heavenly bodies and of nature to the music of Israfel and emphasize that even nature, as powerful as it can be ("the red levin") pauses to attend to this sublime music. Stanzas three and four revert to a very musical, fluid rhythm which suits their expository purpose. But again in the first and second line of stanza five, Poe inverts the stress to draw attention to the contemplation of Beauty, which is embodied in Israfel's music. In the fifth line of this stanza, Poe emphasizes the superlative nature of this contemplation in his use of a spondee: "Best bard...." This impression is sealed in the reader in the last line of this stanza, which also begins with a trochee.

As a final parting emphasis on the sublimity of the contemplation of Beauty, Poe adds, in the last line of the sixth stanza, his own opinion: "Well may the stars be mute." In the last two stanzas of the poem, Poe returns to his basic iambic rhythm. These last two stanzas support and affirm Poe's statement in the earlier part of the poem that this supernal Beauty belongs in the realm of reality, although not the reality to which mortal man is accustomed. The musical fluidity of these last two stanzas contribute, in a sensory way, to this secondary message of the poem.

[To be continued. Sources for this paper will be included at the end of the final post.]

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