I don’t mean to offend any Poe fans out there. I mean, I love “The Raven” as much as anybody. And I thought of Poe today, not just because of Halloween and all things spooky, but because last weekend while digging around for my high school senior photos, I also found a pretty hilarious picture of my (future) husband and myself dressed as the Ushers for a Poe-themed party given by the Humanities department at our college. No, I’m not sharing that one.
Anyway. The thing is, while Poe definitely had a real talent for meter and rhyme, and a brilliant imagination… dude could sometimes stray pretty far into Melodramaville. Sometimes he was downright emo, even for a Victorian. Take this poem, “To — – –. Ulalume: A Ballad.” I mean, he even had to make the title mysterious making it clear it’s dedicated to somebody but he’s not saying who.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispèd 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.
Okay, pretty good so far, right? He’s doing what he does best: setting a spooky, supernatural tone; and that repetitive thing he’s doing is almost like a chant - maybe an invocation, maybe a talisman against some sort of malevolent power - which adds another layer of mysticism to the mix.
But read on.
We find he’s strolling with his personified Soul (named Psyche, natch), and against her advice he starts following a mysterious light. There are rhymes that involve “volcanic” and “Mount Yaanek;” not to mention “senescent,” “liquescent” and “crescent.” It’s hard at that point for me to even follow the plot of the poem because I keep getting distracted by his mad rhyming skillz. There’s a big build-up, and then the big reveal at the end - a grave. Which he buried his beloved Ulalume (rhymes with “tomb” AND “gloom”) in a year before.
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispèd 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,
Oh, 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—
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
Then he speculates that the “woodlandish ghouls” have been messing with his mind. And… that’s it. Poem over. It seems like a let-down to me. He works awfully hard to craft a mysterious mood and building up a tension in the narrative, but then it just fizzles out. It’s especially disappointing when you compare it to some of his brilliant short story endings, like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado.” I mean, TTH scared me so bad when my 4th grade teacher played a record of it (complete with sound effects) for Halloween that I had to hide my alarm clock in the closet for months.
But for some reason, maybe because of the extreme melodrama and the wacky word choices, I still find this poem entertaining. Not something that begs to be committed to memory like “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” or read aloud for solemn occasions or anything. No, it’s more along the lines of watching an Ed Wood movie. You admire the imagination and the passion, even while giggling over the more obvious attempts to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Works as a cautionary tale, too: even the great writers fall short of the goal sometimes. And for a writer, what’s scarier than that?
Happy Halloween! And do check out the Poetry Friday round-up at Sylvia Vardell’s blog Poetry for Children.