Sunday, December 2, 2018

Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

Source of book: I own the complete poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe

Poe wasn’t a particularly prolific poet, concentrating more on his stories. But the ones he did write contain some of the most memorable poems in the English language. Even those who can’t remember the exact lines will understand “Nevermore!” and think of the dark bird of the title. Likewise, “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” are familiar to nearly everyone who has completed high school here in the United States. A few more may be familiar to avid lovers of poetry, but beyond that, few know the rest.

I decided to go ahead and read the entire set. The big three are, obviously, great - I really enjoyed re-reading them. However, I also enjoyed getting into the back catalogue a bit. Poe’s mastery of the rhythms and sounds of the English language make his lyrics memorable, and delightful to recite out loud. (Which is really how poetry is meant to be read. I think more people would enjoy poetry these days if they would just do it that way.)

Here are some which stood out for me this time.

To My Mother

Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of “Mother,”
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you—
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia's spirit free.
My mother—my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.

I love sonnets, so I had to include this one. I cannot confirm this, but I suspect this may well be the only poem written to a mother-in-law. My own MIL is a good one, so I understand; and Poe owed a lot to his MIL - who was also his aunt - as she often supported him and his wife during his periods of financial stress. I am pretty sure this was written after his wife died (at age 24) of tuberculosis - a tragedy that Poe never really got over, turning to alcohol to numb the pain. The poem, in any case, is a great tribute to a remarkable woman.

Poe’s poems are often dark, gloomy, and atmospheric. I might say they are the best of this genre, honestly. I found this one particularly engrossing.


By a route obscure and lonely,   
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,   
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly   
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
       Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,   
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,   
With forms that no man can discover   
For the tears that drip all over;   
Mountains toppling evermore   
Into seas without a shore;   
Seas that restlessly aspire,   
Surging, unto skies of fire;   
Lakes that endlessly outspread   
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—   
Their still waters—still and chilly   
With the snows of the lolling lily.

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,—
By the mountains—near the river   
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,—   
By the grey woods,—by the swamp   
Where the toad and the newt encamp,—   
By the dismal tarns and pools
   Where dwell the Ghouls,—   
By each spot the most unholy—   
In each nook most melancholy,—   
There the traveller meets, aghast,   
Sheeted Memories of the Past—   
Shrouded forms that start and sigh   
As they pass the wanderer by—   
White-robed forms of friends long given,   
In agony, to the Earth—and Heaven.

For the heart whose woes are legion   
’T is a peaceful, soothing region—   
For the spirit that walks in shadow   
’T is—oh, ’t is an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,   
May not—dare not openly view it;   
Never its mysteries are exposed   
To the weak human eye unclosed;   
So wills its King, who hath forbid   
The uplifting of the fring'd lid;   
And thus the sad Soul that here passes   
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

By a route obscure and lonely,   
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,   
I have wandered home but newly   
From this ultimate dim Thule.

Thule, for those not up on their geographer’s mythology, is the supposed northernmost inhabited land of legend. But also of interest in this poem is the fact that this dark, sad, damp place is referred to by Poe as an Eldorado - the city of gold. To the sad soul, with a heart of woe, it does, paradoxically, serve as a utopia.

Connected with this dualism is another: the word “Eidolon.” There are two competing definitions. The first is “A specter or phantom.” In Greek mythology, this would be the human-seeming apparition of a dead - or even living - person. The second definition, though, is “An idealized person or thing.” The personified Night, ruler of this dark yet utopian land is both a ghost in human form, and an ideal. These ideas are carried through the rest of the poem too - the shades of the past, the Ghouls, the amphibians with their slimy connotation - all of this is both ephemeral and desirable. I re-read this poem a few times because I loved it so much.

I considered quoting only the less famous poems, but I had to include this one, which will always be a favorite. Again, read it out loud! Its genius is apparent when you hear and speak the sounds.

The Raven

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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” 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.
    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.

    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
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”

    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.

    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.

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
            She shall press, ah, nevermore!

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “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!

I’m not even going to attempt an analysis - I think it speaks for itself. But the rhythm! The repetitions, the consonances, the hesitations: it is delightful writing. I love the little touches like “pallid” and “Pallas” (referring to Athena), which is an unexpected and evocative wordplay.

Here is another that I like:

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?

I think he captures that fact that while things feel real to us when they happen, our memories feel like dreams - and time passes so fast that we cannot really grasp and hold our experiences.

Also on the theme of time, and the difference between youth and age, is this little beauty.


Romance, who loves to nod and sing,
With drowsy head and folded wing,
Among the green leaves as they shake
Far down within some shadowy lake,
To me a painted paroquet
Hath been—a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild wood I did lie,
A child—with a most knowing eye.
Of late, eternal Condor years
So shake the very Heaven on high
With tumult as they thunder by,
I have no time for idle cares
Through gazing on the unquiet sky.
And when an hour with calmer wings
Its down upon my spirit flings—
That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away—forbidden things!
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.  
The two metaphors are apt: the parakeet and the condor. I love condors, so I can just see stately glide, with no time to waste on wingbeats. And the contrast with the noisy and flighty parakeet.

This short poem caught my eye. I was unable to find any information on who it was dedicated to, but I wonder if it was one of the several women who Poe courted after his wife’s death, who broke the relationship off fearing Poe was after their money.

To ___

I heed not that my earthly lot
Hath little of Earth in it,
That years of love have been forgot
In the hatred of a minute:
I mourn not that the desolate
Are happier, sweet, than I,
But that you sorrow for my fate
Who am a passer-by.

Whatever the case, it is a sad and bitter poem.

I also want to mention the longer poems, “Ulalume” and “Tamerlane.” Both of these have fantastic language, evocative descriptions, and are worth reading in full. “Tamarlane” is about a historical figure, who makes an extended appearance in The Possessed by Elif Batuman, which I read recently, so that was a fun connection. One line was really excellent - and devastating.

You call it hope - that fire of fire!
It is but agony of desire.

A succinct and poignant thought.

Poe’s poems often have that quality of non-conformism. He sees things differently - see “Dream-Land” for just a few. Here is another where he flips the script, preferring the distant Venus to the “too cold” moon.

Evening Star

'T was noontide of summer,
    And mid-time of night;
And stars, in their orbits,
    Shone pale, thro' the light
Of the brighter, cold moon,
    'Mid planets her slaves,
Herself in the Heavens,
    Her beam on the waves.
        I gazed awhile
        On her cold smile;
Too cold- too cold for me-
    There pass'd, as a shroud,
    A fleecy cloud,
And I turned away to thee,
    Proud Evening Star,
    In thy glory afar,
And dearer thy beam shall be;
    For joy to my heart
    Is the proud part
Thou bearest in Heaven at night,
    And more I admire
    Thy distant fire,
Than that colder, lowly light.

The layout of this poem is fascinating too, changing at the fulcrum point: the cold smile of the moon.

I’ll close with this one, which is the second to last poem in the collection. I have felt different since I was a child. Too introverted. Too brainy and bookish. Too interested in music. Too emotional to be a “normal” male child. Even now, with no real place for me in organized religion any longer, I feel the difficulty of finding my tribe, so to speak. Perhaps this is why Poe speaks to me.


From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

I’m glad I took the time to read through this collection in its entirety. Poe was a skilled writer, but I think his true soul shows more in the poems than in the stories - as fantastic as those are.


  1. I can't help but think that the torrent / fountain line in the last poem is in reference to "Kubla Khan", another poem about great dissatisfaction.

    1. That's a great point. Coleridge's poem would have come first, and Poe would certainly have been familiar with it. There is no evidence that Poe had an opium problem, but he was an alcoholic, so one might wonder about that too.

  2. I just finished teaching an English class where we discussed Poe's poetry. The students weren't really into it. I went on YouTube and found a wonderful reading of The Telltale Heart by Christopher Lee. We turned the lights out and just listened. That actually got them enthused.

    1. That would be seriously spooky. I introduced some friends to The Telltale Heart around a campfire earlier this year.