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Edgar Allen Poe often criticized fellow writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow because of what he called "the heresy of the didactic." Simply put, he disliked how Longfellow's work skimmed the surface of profound issues and did not evoke a tragic condition in humanity. For Poe, the "heresy" was in how light he perceived Longfellow to be. This only accentuates the darker regions of consciousness that Poe enjoyed probing. One particular aspect of the human predicament that Poe's work embraced was the analysis and study of death. Poe recognized death as a significant aspect of his writing. In his poetry, Poe treats death as a dividing force that causes profound loss, significant uncertainty, and leaves a legacy of pain and hurt in the survivors.
Such an intense treatment of death is forged out of Poe's own personal background. The abandonment of his father and the death of his mother as well as being estranged from his original loves through either death or separation loomed over Poe's thoughts. Death was a shadow for Poe, one that he never tired of exploring in his writing.
This exploration of death can be seen in a poem like "Lenore." Poe believed that there was no more poetic image than the death of a young girl. He felt it captured so much about the human experience. It is not a surprise that death and women are so closely related in his poetry, and is evident in "Lenore." The repetition of the line "died so young” is significant in the poem's treatment of death. The speaker feels robbed by the force of death. It is for this reason that the speaker refers to aspects associated with death through noticeable scorn, as communicated in lines such as "let the burial rite be read -the funeral song be sung," "Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth and hated her for her pride," and "the requiem how be sung By you -by yours, the evil eye, -by yours, the slanderous tongue." These lines communicate how death creates a sense of bitterness in its survivors.
Poe's speaker voices noticeable anger towards the world around him, reflecting how death separates individuals from others. Death divides loved ones. It creates a separation between those who it claims and those it leaves behind. It is in this reality where the speaker in "Lenore" experiences a sense of bitterness and disdain towards others. In the world of Poe's writing, death is not a communal experience that bonds and forms solidarity. Rather, it is an isolating experience, where the survivors openly wonder how someone who was "so young" could be taken, and where one has no real voice against such an overpowering force. This insecurity haunts the speaker throughout his mourning for Lenore. The ending of the poem offers some hope in that the speaker wishes that Lenore ascend to the heavens an angelic form:
But waft the angel on her flight with a paean of old days!
Let no bell toll! -lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damned Earth.
Death is seen as an experience that liberates its victims, while imprisoning those that are left behind. On the "damned Earth" where the speaker lives, profound hurt resonates without any answers to such profound questions of being.
There is a sense of yearning constructed in "Lenore." The yearning is to avoid the pain of death and to find some reconciliation in a condition where there is only fragmentation and isolation. Such a notion of yearning resonates in "Ulalume" as well, where there is a profound desire to overcome the hurt and sadness of death through reunification. This compulsion to overcome the division that death causes is best seen when the speaker pleads with the divine to remain as one with his beloved:
Let us on by this tremulous light!/ Let us bathe in this crystalline light!/ Its Sybillic splendour is beaming/ With hope and in beauty tonight!-/ See!- it flickers up the sky through the night!/ Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,/ And be sure it lead us alright-/ We safely may trust to a gleaming, That cannot but guide us alright./ Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.
The hurt that death causes in "Ulalume" lies in its division and isolation. This condition is something that the speaker wishes to overcome.
The plea to the divine is a form of yearning to overcome the hurt that death causes. It is a means to overcome the uncertainty of how to live without a beloved. The "ashen and sober" condition of the speaker is one where death's impact is felt, and serves as the basis for his yearning. In "Ulalume," death is a profound force where there is no answer, only hurt. Within this, the poem pivots to a condition of hope that it can be overcome. In such a plea, one notices the profound level of sadness that death creates as its legacy in those who are condemned to witness it.
"Tamerlane" continues Poe's reflection of death through the lens of a young girl. In this setting, the speaker reflects on the choices he has made in life, in particular embracing "a kingdom" that resulted in "a broken-heart." The context of death is a bit different than in the previous two poems. Poe's speaker is not mourning the death of a young maiden. Rather, he is mourning the death of opportunity. Consistent with Poe's vision of death, this is not the Tennysonian embrace of "crossing the bar." Rather, it is meeting one's end with a sense of regret and hurt. Echoing the division seen in the previous poems, "Tamerlane" offers a vision of death that causes separation in the individual between what was chosen and what could have been:
Father, I firmly do believe-
I know-for Death, who comes for me
From regions of the blest afar,
Where there is nothing to deceive,
Hath left his iron gate ajar,
And rays of truth you cannot see
Are flashing thro' Eternity-
Death is a force that "comes" for individuals. It is not an entrance into a world of peace and serenity. Rather, Poe sees it as one comprising of an "iron gate" and with "rays of truth" that can reveal the futility of one's choices and one's autonomy. The insecurity of not knowing which path is the right one is heightened with the reality of death that repudiates individual choice. The pain of death lies in how it renders human choice as meaningless in the face of an adversary from which there is no escape:
How was it that Ambition crept,
Unseen, amid the revels there,
Till growing bold, he laughed and leapt
In the tangles of Love's very hair?
While different from the hurt and pain in the situations of "Lenore" and "Ulalume," the treatment of death is still one of hurt and pain.
There is little room for equivocation about the legacy of hurt and pain that death causes in "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven." Both poems speak to the mournful condition of agonizing hurt intrinsic to death. In "Annabel Lee," Poe does not mince words that death is cruel. The innocent beauty that death targets in "Annabel Lee" is something that the speaker cannot comprehend. It is a condition in which her purity is cast against the almost-malevolent nature of death. Lines like "To shut her up in a sepulchre/ In this kingdom by the sea" and the "envying" angels who were "not so happy" at the speaker and Annabel Lee's happiness contribute to how death is seen as cruel. Death is a force where "the wind came out of the cloud by night, /Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee." Essentially, death divided two happy people in love.
Poe does not seek to make any reason to justify why death took Annabel Lee. Rather, there is a tone of strict defiance permeating the poem. The speaker challenges death in the way that he asserts that her death does not change her beauty. The refrain of "my darling" is almost a forceful challenge to death, one where the speaker does not make peace with death. Rather, there is an open challenge to it. The pain that death causes is met with resistant anger and resentment. While the defiance is present, one gets the impression that it conceals a sense of hurt of loss. There is an uncertainty in the speaker for there is little understanding as to why Annabel Lee died, an insecurity that lies at the heart of the speaker.
In Poe's "The Raven," the treatment of death is one where hurt and loss reign supreme. When the speaker screams at the raven to “Leave my loneliness unbroken," it is a reflection of the emotional experience that death causes within its survivors. Poe's treatment of death is one where cruelty results because of what it does to those who are condemned to live. The memories of "the lost Lenore" haunt the speaker. Such reflections are as painful as the raven's reminder that death waits for him, as well. In this light, one can see the "balm in Gilead" in an almost chiding light. Poe asks if there is any unguent that can be applied to soothe the pain that death causes in its survivors. The "beak" that is embedded within the speaker's heart is the pain of death and mourning for that which is gone. Poe does not see any vision of reconciliation in this notion of death. Rather, it is one that causes only hurt and loss.
The fact that the raven never leaves is a reflection that death awaits for everyone. The hurt and loss that one feels is moot. The insecurity and division from happiness that results from death is almost irrelevant. Its legacy of bitterness in the survivors is evident, but that, too, does not seem to matter. In the end, Poe's treatment of death is one where all of human experiences are recognized, but they do nothing to stop its inevitability. In this light, Poe offers a rather brutal treatment on the subject where there is pain and hurt, lose and separation, with feelings of insecurity and resentment. Death's response to this is a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, "And your point is?" while it sits above a "chamber door" with "eyes that have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming." It is here where Poe's treatment of death is far from "didactic."
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