“Works of art or literature profoundly reveal their creator’s psychology”
In this chapter, the detailed analysis would focus on the aspect on different attitudes adopted by Edgar Allan Poe to portray his conception of death in selected poems. Poe himself sees death in various experiences and his transformation of death from one poem to another is noteworthy. The bedrock of analysis would be The Raven, Annabel Lee, Lenore, The City in the Sea, Eldorado, and The Conqueror Worm.
Although the theme in these poems is the same, the attitudes and the nature of description are entirely different in all of them. The chapter is allocated to three subtitles, man’s attitude towards death of the beloved, man’s description of death and the third corresponds to the reasons behind these attitudes adopted based on Poe’s biography.
3.1 Man’s attitude towards the death of the beloved:
3.1.1 The Raven
The poem follows an unnamed narrator who is also a lamenting lover of his dead beloved Lenore. Lenore is thought to be the deceased wife of Poe and holds the central element in this poem. The narrative poem begins on a dreary night of December, where the lover is seen as tired and weak. Remembering his dead beloved he experiences ennui and tries to overcome this by diverting his attention to an old book. As the narrator is seen feeling at unease and weak, he hears a tapping on his chamber door. He consoles himself that a visitor may have tapped the door to seek asylum and nothing else.
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 someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘T is some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Only this and nothing more.” (The Raven 112)
Since the beginning of the poem, reader can feel the ambience of death surrounding the narrator. The use of “I” is the poem indicates unnamed narrator being fearful and irritated as he describes the sound in rather negative term “rapping”. According to TheFreeDictionary, the word corresponds to a series of rapid audible blows in order to attract attention. This rapping sound generated which is described is making the narrator aware of his surroundings more and he begins to fear for himself. Narrator also uses “gentle” which portrays yet another descriptive aspect, the gentle tap made the narrator aware of his situation and was able to respond to it. The narrator also shows his irritated nature: “Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door / Only this and nothing more.”
Narrator now moves on to remembering his lost beloved Lenore. He can be evidently seen to showcase his unconscious through a moment of flashback, a specific time that he is reliving again in that chamber. The use of words “dying embers” showcases a trigger generated in the narrator about his lost Lenore. It is said that “we unconsciously tend to run away from our distressing thoughts and painful experiences by believing and convincing ourselves to forget them.” These repressed thoughts and experiences remain in our unconscious in a dormant phase, and as soon as similar situation occurs, these recurring experiences surfaces. The past has surfaced again when the narrator moves into flashback, feeling sorrow for having lost his beloved forever:
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. (The Raven 112-113)
Here, narrator uses “bleak December” to signify cold, and consequently death. The very first line creates a conception of death as cold and unwavering in the reader’s eyes. Nothing lives in the winter, for those who live goes into hibernation till the winter surpasses. December is the month of winter. This symbolizes death as cold, unforgiving and larger in magnitude. The cold of winter wipes out the warmth effortlessly as the narrator explains it as “dying ember”. This dying ember generated the flashback of his beloved and this in turn instils the narrator to think about his beloved’s death. He calls her the “fair maiden” whom the angels took away, leaving narrator sorrowful and mournful in attribute. To surpass his sorrow, he sought refuge in books: “Eagerly I wished the morrow; —-vainly I had sought to borrow / From my books surcease of sorrow—-sorrow for the lost Lenore.
Now narrator moves to open the door, fearing, grieving, and contemplating that it might be Lenore that seeks entrance in his chamber. The depiction of this fear is uncanny as narrator shows his inner fear which enthralls in him terrible yet fantastic horrors that he has never felt before. This uncanny attitude towards death is evident of the nature of Poe. Poe regards death as an inevitable concept in this narrative poem. The horrors that the narrator faces are portrayed through the musical effect of silken purple curtain, sad, uncertain rustling of purple curtain, narrator is now terrified of this sound and reassures himself that it might be some visitor who seeks entrance at his chamber door. From the initial concept of death as an inevitable phenomena, the transformation has made death generating fear inside narrator. The narrator is now fearful of the ambience around him as it generates the flashback of his lost love.
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
“‘T is some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:
This it is and nothing more.” (The Raven 113)
The narrator’s state is been showcased as he tries to forgo his fear and establishes himself adamantly for the visitor. He converses with the person on the other side of the door. Narrator, completely unknown of the visitor, tries to communicate his thoughts by saying that he was nearly napping, and the visitor’s tapping was so distinct and clear that he was able to hear it, therefore, asks for their apology for he was napping and opens the door wide. However, the narrator meets nothing but darkness on the other side.
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door:—
Darkness there and nothing more. (The Raven 113-114)
The narrator now resonates with his fear again, wondering, fearing “dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before. In absolute fear, the only word that narrator could think of was of Lenore and as he speaks it, it reverberates back to him. This can also be subjected as his inner loneliness, the narrator, weak from his mourning of his beloved feels alone and forgotten, and as he hears the tapping, thinks of his lost love coming back to him. According to Freud, the fear of death dominates us more often than we know. This fear of death allowed the narrator to recollect his memories of Lenore and call her out when he opens the door.
Later a loud tapping is again heard and when he checks again finds a stately Raven of saintly days of yore entering his chamber.it sought bust of Pallas just above his chamber door to settle on and gave no attention to the narrator. The Raven plays a crucial role in this poem. This Raven not only acts as a simple animal doing its bidding, but acts as a pivot to unleash the emotions narrator carries with him.
Now the conception of death has yet again transformed. Death has now materialized in the form of The Raven. The raven is first and foremost, considered a bird of evil. This bird has long since been associated with different mythologies. In Norse mythology, for instance, Raven signifies as a messenger. Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory; flew across the world to collect news of the day and report back to Odin. It is also associated to be a harbinger of death and doom, with strong associations with storms and floods.
Narrator now fascinated and excited of the entrance of the Raven “ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling” asks the creature of its name. The raven surprises the speaker by saying “Nevermore”. Narrator curious to know more starts inquiring the Raven of its whereabouts. He thinks for a minute as to what can he ask from the bird when his mind starts to wander back to his lost Lenore. The speaker feels the air becoming dense around him and scented with perfume from some heavenly being Seraphim. According to Christian angelology, Seraphim mean “burning ones” or in other words, nobles. They are also known as “ones of love”.
Here the narrator believes Raven to be a messenger, a prophet which could predict if he could meet his beloved Lenore in Heaven to which he replies “Nevermore”. A constant to and fro is showcased between the narrator and the Raven. By saying nevermore, the Raven suggests that the narrator would never be able to let go of his beloved’s memories and they would haunt him till the end of times. Narrator, enraged, calls the raven “thing of evil”, “devil”, and commands the devil to return to the “Night’s Plutonian shore”. Pluto is the god of the underworld; Hades. It is presumed that the Raven has the knowledge of the dead and therefore its response “Nevermore” is deemed relevant. Through this, narrator realizes that death is the ultimate end to everything and he will never meet with his beloved again. This makes him even more melancholic and depressed and commands the raven to leave his chamber, Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door / Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore! (Raven 119-120)
These lines clearly indicate the perception of narrator. Despite the constant name calling and ordering the Raven to leave his chambers, the creature doesn’t move. This can be linked back to Death itself. No matter how one individual tries to make it go away, the course of nature undertaken by death would never shift from its original path. The Raven does not move as is “still sitting on the bust of Pallas just above my chamber door”. The repetition of the word “Nevermore” adds to the mood of the poem. Nevermore is a negative word, which means never again, which evokes emotions of helplessness and despair, sadness and melancholy; all the attributes concerning the death of someone. In this poem, this word evokes emotion concerning the death of a beloved.
According to Freud’s theory on death, the speaker attitude towards the death of his beloved is unconsciously portrayed. The speaker travels in flashbacks, remembering the past encounters with his love and re living those emotions unconsciously. He could not sever his dependence from his lover’s memories. Even if he tries to keep himself occupied with reading old volumes of books, he still somehow, retracts back to her memory that is infused in his unconscious forever. As a result, his attitude towards the raven and his answers are the manifestation of his unconscious mind’s needs. “Unconscious motivations and needs have a role in determining our behavior”.
Looking at Poe’s own life, it may be possible that the poem refers to his experiences of his mother who dies early and who Poe believes would never return back, or it could also be possible with the death of his wife, which could indicate the fear and anxiety revolving the death of his wife Virginia, “The raven is symbolic of all the loves he had lost as well as a foreshadowing of Virginia’s fate”.
Poet treats death as an enemy in Annabel Lee. He talks about his beloved again as he has lost her forever. He visualizes his beloved in a dark, uncanny picturesque where he sees himself and his beloved in a faraway “kingdom by the sea”. He calls his beloved a maiden who lived with him with no other thought than loving him only. The poet moves on to describing the love him and his beloved had for each other; their love was somewhat poetic and erotic in nature.
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea; (Annabel Lee, 141)
Here the poet describes himself and his beloved as children, and a need to feel loved is that like of a child’s need to feel loved. Childhood is an important stage in human’s life. Any kind of unpleasant experience leaves an everlasting impression on the psychology of a human being. It has been said that there is always an intimate connection in our present emotional experience with something that occurred in the past. Poet is able to imprint his emotion onto the readers as he mourns his beloved.
Poet blames the seraphs of the heaven which has given them the power to love each other, for taking away his beloved. The poet describes this in a peculiar manner; A wind blew out of the cloud, chilling / My beautiful Annabel Lee. These lines provides a sensory image when the reader feels the cold air blowing against them, ingraining in them a sense of death around and the readers feel at unease trying to comprehend death itself. Not only does the poet blame the seraphs for taking his beloved away, the poet further puts forth his blame on the highborn kinsman of his beloved who took her away from him, and placed her in her final resting place, sepulcher. The sepulcher is used for a cold reality of death, as it stands for death, sadness and horror.
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulcher
In this kingdom by the sea (Annabel Lee 141-142)
Poet mourns the death of Annabel Lee. Mourning is considered one way of controlling grief and channeling it into socially appropriate customs. The ritual of mourning has three different purposes according to Randolph Trumbach: “it indicated the outsiders that one has properly valued the relationship: it kept peace with living relations for whom such public ceremony was important; and it allowed one to cope with one’s own grief”.
Poet also uses “sea” to illustrate his emptiness and isolation that he possess after losing his love. The use of phrase “In the kingdom by the sea” suggests isolation that portrays that although he and his beloved were together, it is now only him that lives in the kingdom by the sea. Death has taken his one true love and now he is all alone, living in his own isolation and blaming everyone who took her away from him.
The poet furthermore, now shows dislike for the angels as he feels angry on them to take away his beloved. The poet believes that angels felt jealous of the “fair maiden” that he possessed and out of sheer jealousy, they took his beloved from him. This relates back to death itself as the angels called over death to take his beloved away. He calls these angels her highborn kinsman who took her away from him and locked her up in the sepulcher, the final resting place of every human being; So that her highborn kinsman came / And bore her away from me / To shut her up in a sepulcher
As per the poet, he believes that this was the only reason that the angels took her away from him, and their mode of transporting his beloved was through the wind that came out of the cloud by night. Night represents darkness, solitude, and emptiness and ending of life, it also associates itself with secrets and dark potentialities. As the night came, it killed his Annabel Lee, leaving him isolated and grieving his beloved’s death.
That the wind came out
Of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee (Annabel Lee 142)
The repetition of several phrases and words also shows an impact of the death of Annabel Lee on the poet. The death has taken its toll and took Annabel Lee from the poet. The poet, isolated and saddened by it, still believes in his love for Annabel Lee as he is optimistic. The poet expresses his profound love for Annabel which is much stronger than those who were much older than they are, and those who are wiser than they are, thus the angels envy them.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we —-
Of many far wiser than we — (Lee 142)
Poet, towards the end, reminds every celestial being and death itself that nothing can ever keep him away from his Annabel Lee, as they are not just together in physical world, they are bonded together through the souls, and neither can the demons down under the sea; that is the hell nor the angels above can dismember them for they are spiritually infused with each other.
And neither the angels in Heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: — (Lee 142)
Through this poem, it can be indicated that Poe talks about his beloved wife who died of tuberculosis at an early age. He believes that his wife never left him and that he would forever be connected through soul to his wife. Poe argues that he can see her everywhere he moves, in the stars, in the moon, and as he lies down he feels the presence of Annabel Lee, in her tomb by the side of the sea.
The speaker in Lenore is unlike that of The Raven and Annabel Lee. Speaker here is a third person narrator who tells the story of a lover Guy de Vere and his deceased beloved Lenore.
It is clear since the beginning that the setting of the poem is a funeral. Death has engulfed once again a lover’s beloved named Lenore as speaker describes her soul as “saintly”. Narrator starts by describing the breaking of a “golden bowl”. This golden bowl can be interpreted as life, and breaking of this bowl symbolizes death. The narrator orders the bell tolling. This bell tolling symbolizes the funeral tolling of a bell which is the technique of sounding single bell with significant gaps between each strike. It is used to signify the death of a person which is either rung at a funeral or burial service.
Ah, broken is the golden bowl, the spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll!—a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river; (Lenore 56)
To the speaker’s bewilderment, the beloved has not shed a tear for her lover’s passing. He orders the lover de Vere to cry over his lover as she is being transported by the stygian river. The “Stygian river” or River Styx is a river which forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld; often known as Hades in Greek Mythology. The souls of the newly deceased are transported across the river Styx and Acheron that divides the world of the living from the world of dead.
Let the bell toll!—a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river;
And, Guy de Vere, hast thou no tear?—weep now or never more! (Lenore 56)
The narrator further argues that let the burial be commenced and the funeral song be sung, for the “queenliest dead that ever died so young”. In the second stanza, the speaker changes, it is now the lover of Lenore; Guy de Vere, who is angry and lashes out on his friends, calling them wretches and considering the kind words spoken by them as hypocrisy. He calls out the friends that have gathered at the funeral saying that when she died, everybody around blessed her for being dead. The people around his beloved are so egotistical in nature, how one can read a ritual in their presence. The lover laments the death of his beloved by saying that his beloved is surrounding by self-centered who loved Lenore’s wealth and hated her pride, and they are responsible for her death: “Wretches! Ye loved her for her wealth and hated her for her pride, / And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her- that she died! The lover then questions how the requiem should be sung: “How shall the ritual, then, be read?—the requiem how be sung”. The requiem, in Christian prayer service, is considered the Catholic mass for the dead.
The lover further puts forth the ways in which these self-centered people who have gathered for his Lenore’s funeral be able to sing the requiem by their slanderous tongues. The word slanderous shows a negative impact on the readers. The death of Lenore has engulfed the lover to such an extent that he treats everybody around as hostile to his nature. This is a typical depiction of the psychological impression death leaves behind. When death occurs, the person closest to the dying entity is affected by most. For Poe, in a way, death is punishment for the wrong doers as James. W. Gargano also suggests that ‘death is paradoxically a scourge and a consummation, and life is simultaneously a harrowing and a delusive dream’.
The narrator moves back again into foreground by saying peccavimus, which is considered Latin for “we have sinned”. The narrator asks the lover not to rave about the accusations that he is placing on the beloved’s friends, for he believes that Lenore was a good person. He further adds to not rave with accusations and allow the Sabbath song to go up to the heaven so silently and quietly that the dead do not feel wrong for leaving the world. The Sabbath, according to the Old Testament, is considered God’s rest following the eight days of creation. The Old Testament takes the observance seriously as those who violates this observance qualifies for the penalty of death.
Peccavimus; but rave not thus! And let a Sabbath song
Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong (Lenore 57)
Another aspect that is seen of the lover here is that he is also angry because the death of his lover has left him hopeless for he could not yet marry his beloved Lenore: “The sweet Lenore hath “gone before”, with Hope, that flew beside, / Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride—; through these lines it can be argued that the lover’s anger is directed towards death as death is the one who took his Lenore away at an early age.
The lover Guy de Vere addresses the speaker now, saying that he believes that his Lenore has risen up to Heaven, a safer place next to her creator, due to which he will not mourn his Lenore’s death; for he is the firm believer of Heaven taking up the righteous souls.
The Lover believes that Lenore has risen from the Stygian depths and has torn away from the underworld and been taken to Heaven, to take her place on the golden throne beside God himself. Therefore, no bell should be toll for her, no tear should be shed for her, for the pain would disturb her contended soul. This portrays a subtle effect death has on an individual. According to Freud, “The civilized adult also likes to avoid entertaining the thought of another’s death lest he seem harsh or unkind” this can be clearly seen in the Lover’s displacement of his melancholy with the happiness as he believes that Lenore is now in Heaven, where neither sadness nor grief can ever harm her:
Avaunt! Avaunt! From fiends below, the indignant ghost is risen—
From Hell unto s high estate far up within the Heaven—
From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven!
Let no bell toll, then, lest her soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note as it doth float up from the damned Earth! (Lenore 57)
Through this poem, it can be argued that the lover, Guy de Vere’s attitude is optimistic towards death. He believes that Heaven has fulfilled his duties of taking the soul of Lenore in, and she is no longer in the clutches of the Stygian depths where death lingers for eternity.
Man’s description of death:
Death is taken as a companion in this poem. It is yet again in a form of a narrator, talking about a gallant knight, who seeks Eldorado. Eldorado, in Spanish, means “the Gilded One” or “The Golden One”. Eldorado also relates to a legendary city of gold hidden deep in South America. This popular folklore, have appealed a lot of hunter and historians in search for the lost city of gold. Despite the numerous attempts at finding the city, this still remains a legend, and no physical evidence have ever surfaced into existence. In this poem, the transition of this companion is shown by the use of “shadow” in every stanza. The first stanza shows a physical journey of a gallant knight searching for Eldorado. The knight has journeyed for days and nights; “In sunshine and in shadow”; to look for this land and be the conqueror of Eldorado.
In the second stanza, however, it is seen from a grand sense of optimism, narrator moves to the threatening gloom. This is seen as the word “shadow” appears again, this time inculcating a complete opposite meaning. The shadow here represents the presence of death, lingering above the knight growing old. This death might be in a form of some incurable disease that has gripped the knight and will let him go only when he dies. It could also be seen as despair or depression that has overshadowed the knight as he is unsuccessful in finding the land of gold and wealth. The narrator laments over the thought that as death itself is encircling the knight, he has still not found his true destination which is Eldorado.
But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado (Eldorado 149)
Narrator further describes the slow but inevitable journey of the knight towards death. In the third stanza, narrator describes the knight moving towards his death-bed. One also feels, while reading the poem, that the knight’s whole life can be considered a living-death. The knight has been so aptly obsessed with the idea of a land of gold that he himself forgot to lead his life in a proper manner. It is as if he never lived, rather existed. Now, as death approaches him, he has lost all his strength and soon he meets a pilgrim shadow, and asks him where he can find the land of Eldorado.
The “pilgrim shadow” here could be symbolic for many things. It could be referred to the ghost or a spirit which symbolizes death. It could also be deciphered as death itself, which has come to take his soul to the Underworld. The poem nearly reaches its point of completion, as the knight strength has totally failed, but still he manages to stay afloat before descending into despair.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow ––
“Shadow” said he,
“Where can it be ––
This land of Eldorado?” (Eldorado 149-150)
In the final stanza, death takes over as the shadow that appeared before the knight and tells him where Eldorado can be found. This stanza clearly depicts that everything a man searches for only ends in death. This shadow that the narrator sees is the harbinger of death or perhaps even Charon- the guide himself, bringing forth the news of his death. In the final lines of the poem, this harbinger of death, this shadow tells the knight of the location of Eldorado. He clarifies that through the Mountains of Moon and over the Valley of Shadow, the knight would find his Eldorado.
This final stanza shows the death being authoritative and demanding in nature. This “shadow” has given the knight another tangible goal to follow, to complete his quest beyond the life of living. “The Mountains of the Moon” are a metaphor for passing into the after-life, whereas “the Valley of Shadow” is regarded as death itself. Not only does this shadow ask the knight to travel beyond, he asks him to “ride boldly” for only then would he be able to achieve his Eldorado.
Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride.’
The shade replied—
‘If you seek for Eldorado’ (Eldorado 150)
The City in the Sea
Here, death is the key character which is been introduced as he takes his position as a King to the throne. The poem revolves around a simple city which was a civilization who worshipped material wealth and grandeur under the influence of idols. The city is described to be full of magnificent and majestic architecture, yet nobody lives in the city anymore. This is depicted as the civilization’s way of life soon dies and nothing but death remains within the walls of the city. The Gothic expression used in this poem shows the poet’s perception of death as the means to an ultimate end.
The poem starts with a deserted civilization now presided by Death on his throne. This strange land is depicted as the only land which can be seen far and wide. The precise location added creates more mystery and apprehension felt by the reader. This land, once filled with life had all kinds of virtues in it. The land described now is nothing but emptiness and gloomy on its own, where Death looks with all his pride and glory. The land is fully described with a sense of comparison to it. How it was before and how it is now shows a clear emphasis that death is the ultimate end to everything.
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.
The stanza shows a clear picture of Death being the all-powerful on the land that once had life. The virtues that resided in this land can no longer be seen as their way of life vanished, leaving nothing but beautifully sculpted architecture and buildings. This is portrayed through the image generated by the shrines, palaces and towers that no longer can be described as lively and magnificent. These inanimate things are nothing but a product of death and decay which no living would be able to decipher: There shrines and palaces and towers / (Time-eaten towers that tremble not!) / Resemble nothing that is ours. The “melancholy waters” also creates an air of despair around the city, which Death proudly claims forever. The virtues “the good and the bad and the worst and the best” shows the once living entities that claimed to have all kinds of virtues that were needed to survive. However, all these virtues contributed to the ultimate goal of life, the death still seems inevitable and nothing can overcome death.