September 16, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe's Fantasy

        Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) dabbled in many genres, particularly horror and mystery.  (His work was influential in multiple genres, too.)  If you count ghosts, angels, demons, and the supernatural as Fantasy then a large proportion of his work includes at least elements of fantasy.

     And travellers now, within that valley,
     Through the red-litten windows see
     Vast forms, that move fantastically
     To a discordant melody,
     While, like a ghastly rapid river,
     Through the pale door
     A hideous throng rush out forever
     And laugh -- but smile no more.
                                (from "The Haunted
                                        Palace," (1839))

     But see, amid the mimic rout
        A crawling shape intrude!
     A blood-red thing that writhes from out
        The scenic solitude!
     It writhes!  it writhes!  with mortal pangs
        The mimes become its food,
     And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
        In human gore imbued.
                                (from "The Conqueror
                                        Worm," (1843))

        An interesting element of Poe's work, though, is that his stories and poems are usually ambiguous enough to admit of at least one interpretation in which everything has a logical explanation, as in "The Fall of the House of Usher."  Even when fully supernatural things occur, Poe's narrators are often insane or drug-addled to the point where the reader is not required to believe in the accuracy of anything they report, as in "The Black Cat," "Ligeia," and "The Tell-Tale Heart."  That makes them a little questionable as fantasy.  Into that category falls his most famous poem, "The Raven," (1845).
        Like much of Poe's other work, I think "The Raven" hovers near the edges of the fantasy genre.  But if nothing else, the dense, magical-sounding language evokes that fantasy feeling of wonder, mystery, and possibility -- even if it is the Gothic possibility of horror.  Horror has definitely never been my thing, but the language of "The Raven"
is so seductive that I memorized most of it.  (I never did bother with a couple of the middle stanzas, but I made sure to memorize the beginning and end, and enough of the middle to fill in the progression of the plot, such as it is.)
        Here are a few of my favorite sections for your delectation (or go ahead and read the complete poem.)

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. 
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door — 
            Only this and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.[…]

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" —
            Merely this and nothing more.[...]

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore —
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
            Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting —
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
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!"
            Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

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!

[Pictures: Something at my window lattice, wood engraving from an illustration by Gustave Doré, 1884.  To my delight credit has been given to the actual engraver, too: Frederick Juengling.  (And thanks to ArtPassions for the image);
Raven, wood block print on chine collé, by AEGN, 2000.]

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