“A Descent Into the Maelström”

Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .

Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.

The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.

Moskstraumen
Moskstraumen — Site of the Tale

On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)

200px-Maelstrom-Clarke
Harry Clarke Illustration for the Tale

The Sources

Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.

Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.

17fda241-6522-4fd2-8ca8-50ad4a7b6059-741x1020
Ian Miller Illustration for the Tale

The Style

Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward. Continue reading ““A Descent Into the Maelström””

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“The Tell-Tale Heart”

This week’s weird fiction …

Review: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Since this is one of the most read stories in all the English language, I’m going to dispense with a lot of plot synopsis.

You know the story. A crazy man, the story’s narrator, kills an old man because of his “evil eye”, buries the body under some floorboards, and, when the police come to investigate, confesses because he hears the beating of the man’s heart.

The opening sentence,

“TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

and the closing sentences,

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

is justly famous.

Stephen Peithman’s annotations and notes are quite useful with this story. Continue reading ““The Tell-Tale Heart””

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, October-November 1848.

ultima thule portrait of poe 1848
The “Ultima Thule” portrait of Poe taken by Edwin H. Manchester on November 9, 1847, four days after he attempted suicide.

This is a long essay, 45 pages long in my Library of America edition. It’s a technical theory of verse, and I won’t attempt a discussion of all its points or pass judgements on Poe’s opinions.

It’s mostly an attack on all existing theories of English “versification” with plenty of detailed analysis. My impression is, after looking at a couple of times, it probably is of value to would-be poets.

I suppose the heart of the essay is the falling paragraph:

So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Pannurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Illiad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand in stead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded – to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship” can lead a book-worm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over, for a few moments, any one of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Liebnitz’s principle of a ‘sufficient reason’.

The eighteenth century was a time of great English pedantry when it came to the English language. Various English writers, worshipping at the feet of classical civilization, insisted on Latin being the model for English. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way talks about some of this. All sorts of grammatical rules were proclaimed for English: no ending sentences with a preposition, no starting them with a conjunction, and no splitting infinitives. None of which described English as written or presented a rule whose violation obscured the sense of the language. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse””

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1846.

McDougall Portrait of Poe
Miniature of Poe by John A. McDougall, ca. 1846 from The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas

A questionable choice, perhaps, for this series since you may know at least one phrase in this essay:

 . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

This is nothing less than Edgar Allan Poe explaining how, in a cold, analytical, and logical fashion how he wrote his most popular work: “The Raven”.

It’s not just that poem. Poe claims his essay describes the “modus operandi by which some of my own works was put together [sic]”.

The Poe steps of composition for the poem follow.

Pick your length. Poe felt the poems lost their effect after a certain length. He aimed for 100 lines. “The Raven” is a 108 lines long.

Next decide on the impression you want to leave. Poe wanted something “universally appreciable”. For Poe, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. But beauty, for Poe, is not a quality but the “intense and pure elevation of soul”. “Truth” and “Passion” are better addressed in prose. The precision to depict Truth and the “homeliness” needed for depict Passion are “antagonistic” to creating a sense of beauty. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition””

Obscure Poe: “Letter to B—“

Obscure Poe is a series I’ll be running from time to time.

When I say “obscure”, I mean Poe’s essays, reviews, and letters

I’ve read some of those at the Edgar Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, but I picked up a Library of America volume of Poe’s non-fiction, so I’m going to briefly post on some of the pieces there as I read them. Honestly, though, I suspect I’ll have nothing to say on most of them. Poe, the first American who tried to live by the pen alone, had to write a lot of stuff of no interest now.

“Letter to B — “, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, July 1936.

McKee Portrait of Poe 1842
Thomas J. Mckee Daguerreotype, dated to 1842 by Michael J. Deas in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe

This was essay was first published in 1831 as the preface to Poe’s Poems under a different title.

Who “B” was is uncertain.

Poe firmly argues that only poets are fit to judge the worth of other poets. The fool may know Shakespeare is great, but it’s received wisdom from his neighbor who “is a step higher on the Andes of the mind”. The neighbor, in turn, got his opinion from someone else. It’s not that Poe disagrees with the valuation of Shakespeare, he just thinks the non-poet is giving an opinion, an opinion he got from somebody else, while the poet gives an informed judgement. Poe likens the opinion of the common man to a book he bought. He owns the book, but he didn’t create it.

Poe goes on to gripe about how the American writer has to work against the “combined and established wit of the world’ for a public that has traded the antiquarian’s love of age for a love of distance. The works of foreign authors are revered automatically because they are foreign.

He then goes on to further develop his idea that only poets can judge poetry and that includes the worth of his own.

Even then, a poet can assert what he does not believe. He thinks Milton’s Paradise Regained is the equal of Paradise Lost no matter what the poet said. The real reason people hold that opinion and Milton accepted is that “men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary”. Milton’s readers were “too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second”.  (Poe did not like epic poetry thinking it too long to preserve a unity of effect.)

Poe spends most of this short essay attacking the idea of metaphysical poetry designed to instruct, and he cites Wordsworth as the big offender. For Poe, the end of poetry is happiness, of course, since happiness should be the “end of every separate part of our existence is happiness”. Instruction of the kind Wordsworth offers is just an end to that happiness. Why not skip the intermediate step?:

… he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness.

Then the 25-year old Poe criticizes Coleridge and Wordsworth since he doesn’t think learning has much to do with imagination or age with poetic skill.

Both poets, for Poe, think great truths are found in beneath life’s surface.

Wordsworth, in particular, is disappointing to Poe. His youthful work had “extreme delicacy” but his best work is behind him. He talent was squandered in philosophizing.

If you have to explain why your poetry is great, you’re in trouble. Poe says of Wordsworth

The long wordy discussion by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favor …

Poe is much more an admirer of Coleridge of whom “I cannot speak but with reverence”. But Poe thinks Coleridge buried his talent in his metaphysical pursuits.

Poe concludes with his definition of poetry. (If it sounds familiar, Orson Welles intoned something similar on the second side of the Poe inspired 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the Alan Parsons Project.)

A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.

It stands as Poe’s complete definition of what he thought poetry should be and some of his own work attained. I think it’s a reasonable definition though I’m not sure good poetry can’t have a “definite pleasure”.

And, in case his opinion of the metaphysical poets wasn’t clear, he concludes by saying he holds them in “sovereign contempt”.

How Poe reconciled his disdain for metaphysical poetry with his Eureka — A Prose Poem, a very metaphysical work presented in 1848, I don’t know.

 

More reviews of Poe related work are indexed on the Poe page.