28 January 2017

The Raven: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of Story

In his memoir, "On Writing," Stephen King describes being nearly killed by a motoristalmost a character from his books.
In "The Raven," something like that happens to Edgar Allan Poe.  

Nobody knows just where Poe was before he turned up October 3, 1849, and friends took him to Baltimore's Washington College Hospital. The makers of the movie seem to say he was tracking a serial killer. But as the bodies pile up, so do clues something else is going on.

What surprised me, after I woke up one night and on impulse caught a midnight showing, is how well the movie bears re-watching and how it opened a door to Poe's work that hadn't been there before. 

The movie achieves that effect not because it translates Poe onto screen. There is no biography to translate. And though the movie interweaves with Poe's works, the movie does not explain them.

Instead the filmmakers confront the viewer with the mystery of the story as well as the mystery in the story. It makes one wonder what more one needs to know in order to unlock the meaning of those layers. 

Some will notice Rufus W. Griswold makes the movie victim list, though history records he wrote the biography in the first collected edition of Poe's works...after Poe died. 

Some notice the significance of the movie's use of Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream."

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Poe saw the world as a rational place and the pursuit of art as a rational process. In the "The Purloined Letter" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue," he saw detective work as a deductive process. And it was keen observation and deduction that saved the narrator in "A Descent into the Maelstrom." 

In his essay “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe breaks down the process he used to write his poem, “The Raven.”

"It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

This is not to say he did not believe in emotion or empathy, which we commonly contrast with rationality today. He saw them as the goal to be achieved through the rational process.

He writes, "Keeping originality always in view...I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'"

Everything then—from the length of the poem to the vowel sounds he wanted in the refrain and the use of a raven rather than a parrot—served the effect he sought to create.

Perhaps Poe's poetic belief in beauty—the elevation of the soul—which he took to be the central principle of poetry, gives Poe's idea of death its searing quality…as in these last lines of "Anabelle Lee."

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: —
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea —
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.  

Or, to take a poem not referenced in the film, "Ulalume":

The skies they were ashen and sober;
   The leaves they were crisped and sere —
   The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
   Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
   In the misty mid region of Weir —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
   In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
   Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
   Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
   As the scoriac rivers that roll —
   As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
   In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
   In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
   But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
   Our memories were treacherous and sere —
For we knew not the month was October,
   And we marked not the night of the year —
   (Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber —
   (Though once we had journeyed down here) —
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
   Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
   And star-dials pointed to morn —
   As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
   And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent
   Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
   Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said — “She is warmer than Dian:
   She rolls through an ether of sighs —
   She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
   These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
   To point us the path to the skies —
   To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
   To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
   With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
   Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
   Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —
Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!
   Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
   Wings until they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
   Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
   Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming
   Let us on by this tremulous light!
   Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendor is beaming
   With Hope and in Beauty to-night: —
   See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
   And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
   That cannot but guide us aright,
   Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
   And tempted her out of her gloom —

   And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
   But were stopped by the door of a tomb —
   By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
   On the door of this legended tomb?”
   She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume —
   ‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
   As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
   As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
   On this very night of last year
   That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
   That I brought a dread burden down here —
   On this night of all nights in the year,
   Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
   This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,

   This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

Whatever effect director James McTeigue and writers Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston were going for, they created a place where Poe—his life, death, and works—come swirling together with their attending questions and meanings.

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