Sunday, October 04, 2009

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

[Continued from previous post.]

"To Helen" celebrates the antiquity of Beauty and the diffusion from and contraction back into the original unity of Beauty. "Israfel" explains that this Beauty is the very substance of poetry itself, and it is the duty, even the obligation of every poet to bring his reader to at least a realization of, and ideally a contemplation of this supernal Beauty. In his poem, "The Departed," Poe describes man's reactions to having glimpsed at one time this Beauty and his lament at being separated from it. He begins in the first stanza with a faint, and perhaps unconscious, allusion to paradise. The flowing river and green grass are faintly reminiscent of the apocalyptic vision. Here the narrator of the poem wanders with beating pulse and "bold advance" in his effort to regain a meeting with something he holds dear (the reader does not know what yet), but which eludes him. In the second stanza the reader discovers that the narrator is "Musing on the past," his soul remembering "Joys too bright to last." In the third stanza, the reader learns that it is a woman who stirs the narrator's soul and memory so strongly. It is also in this stanza the narrator's bitter lament begins. The fourth stanza describes the narrator's peace and happiness when his search is successful; when he meets with his soul's desire. The fifth stanza asserts the importance of these infrequent and irregular meetings to the narrator. If it were not for them, he would soon have nothing to live for and end his days wandering in darkness and sadness. We are reminded of Edward's and Emerson's assertion that Beauty is the sole object in this world that makes life worth living.

Through this surface topic of a lover searching for his lady love, Poe constructs an allegory of man's soul's search and longing for its lost unity with the original One. He places the reader at the very beginning in Paradise, the dwelling place of Beauty. The early unvarying trochaic rhythm of the poem carries him along through the poem like the flowing of the river carries the narrator through life. If he is in paradise, this must be the River of Life. Through his life, then, the narrator wanders yearning to regain a moment in time, in his past, when he caught a glimpse of the Supernal Loveliness. In the first line of the third stanza the reader is told that she whom the narrator loves is "earth's bright and loveliest flower." Since she belongs to earth, the reader knows that the narrator is struggling to regain a memory of the Supernal Loveliness, whose proper dwelling place is heaven. This may be the cause of the narrator's lack of success and his bitter lamentation. Nevertheless, he is at times successful in his struggle to regain the sublimity of this memory. When this happens, the narrator learns of "things past and to come." From the ecstasy he feels in his soul when he regains even the shadow of unity with Beauty in his memory, his soul is reminded of that original unity, the present disunity, and the inevitable reunion with Beauty. During these times the soul rests peacefully in its temporary unity while all of nature is mute in awe of this sublime moment.

The last stanza reflects the soul's enlivening need for these moments; without them the man would soon pine away "to clay" and wander endlessly "Where the nightly blossoms shiver,--/Dark and sad as they!" in a continual lament for his lost unity.

Poe uses very definite images of a river, grass, stars, blossoms, the moon, a lady; but he places them in indefinite settings. The river, grass, and stars lie somewhere "Where the moon-lit blossoms quiver." This place could be everywhere and nowhere. The blossoms themselves, are made indefinite by the indistinct moonlight. The indefinite images coupled with the incantatory rhythm combine to form a powerful charm upon the reader leading him in an almost unconscious state to a realization of a similar longing for Beauty in his own soul.

The almost unvarying rhythm is broken at regular intervals in a most subtle manner. Poe does not interrupt the trochaic rhythm, but he does interrupt the flow by interjecting a line of three metric feet into the established flow of the trochaic tetrameter line. A closer analysis of these trochaic trimeter lines reveals that each interruption is designed to define what is happening in the preceding lines, carry on the story line of the poem, and press home into the reader's consciousness various aspects of Beauty, or of the narrator himself.

These poems are apt examples of Poe's belief that the contemplation of Beauty is the sole purpose and aim of poetry and that this aim can be best realized through a careful handling of sensory images and rhythm. By arranging the rhythm of a poem in as unvarying a manner as possible, Poe creates a sort of sing-song accompaniment that lulls the reader into an almost trance-like state. He interrupts this trance-like state at strategic points in his poem by changing the rhythm or the flow of that rhythm, the meter. This interruption jolts the reader back into consciousness at just the point in the poem where Poe is able to bring to his reader's consciousness a higher realization of Beauty, an elevation of his soul, if you will, and guide him toward his ultimate purpose--the contemplation of Beauty, before lulling him again into that trance-like state that opens his unconscious to Poe's suggestions which prepare the reader for the next jolt into consciousness on a yet higher level of realization until the highest realization is attained and the reader finds himself in the presence of Beauty itself.

Note: The poems cited here are all taken from
Campbell, Killis. The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. N. p.: n. p., 1917.


Edwards, Jonathan. "The Beauty of the World." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 2nd ed. vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985, 353-54.

Ellis, Charles Mayo. An Essay on Transcendentalism. Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1954.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Beauty." The American Transcendentalists. Ed. Perry Miller. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.

Fletcher, Richard M. The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe. Paris, France: Mouton & Co. N. V., 1973.

Huxley, Aldous. "From 'Vulgarity in Literature.' " Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1967. 31- 45.

Levine, Stuart. Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Deland, FL: Everett Edwards, Inc., 1973.

Parks, Edd Winfield. Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1964.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "On 'The Tone Transcendental.' " Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Ed. Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." The Enigma of Poe. Ed. W. U. Ober, et al. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1960.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Poetic Principle." The Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. T. O. Mabbott. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random House, 1951.

Stovall, Floyd. "The Achievement of Poe." Critics on Poe. Ed. David B. Kesterson. Reading in Literary Criticism 22. Coral Gables, FL: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Wilbur, Richard. "Edgar Allan Poe." Major Writers of America. Ed. Perry Miller. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1962.

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