Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Toad's Favo(u)rite Poem ~ Hedgewitch

All of you fellow toads and readers who frequent my blog probably know I have a page there called 'Off The Shelf,' where I feature my favo(u)rite poems as often as I can get around to doing it, so this assignment was both a reprise and a pleasure to  me. I truly believe there's nothing more important to writers than reading, and the wider and more adventurously we read, the more insight and inspiration we get for our own expressions of the craft. For us to share our favourite poems is a way to learn about each others' deepest impulses to write, about who we, as writers, really are.

I was very conflicted about choosing a poem, though. I have a LOT of favourite poems, and favourite poets as well. I almost went with the ultimate poet's poet and a strong influence of mine, Wallace Stevens and his fine and evocative 'Farewell to Florida,' but I thought that as this feature continues we might want to look at our favourites chronologically, to see how we have built up our inner libraries over time, how our tastes have changed, expanded or developed, so I went with my first love, Edgar Allan Poe. (Thank you Susie, for not going with him last week, so I could!)

By Oscar Halling [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have probably at least twenty favourites by Poe, so this didn't exactly narrow things down as much as I'd hoped. I considered some of his well known pieces first. Here are some adaptations of them on you tube--the Alan Parsons Project with their take on  'The Raven,'  and a rather tongue in cheek film clip by Tom Hanks reciting 'To Helen,'  but I decided everyone had probably read those a zillion times in school or in the Poe years of adolescence.  'The Conqueror Worm'  read here in its full deliciousness to Chopin's Funeral March by Vincent Price, also severely tempted  me, but in the end, I went with the poem that is my absolute Poe favourite, though it is extremely long and complex, not just because I love it, but because it really illustrates the genius of Poe.

Like much of his best work, it concerns the death of a beautiful woman, which Poe maintained was the most poetic subject that exists. It is both an erudite and very human piece which deals eloquently with grief, love, hope and fate, and the precarious psychic balance of a mind disturbed by death. It's a true pleasure to read out loud, full of riotous imagery, rich, delicious language, perfect rhyme and meter that rolls off the tongue, and an incredible mastery of form.

It is called 'Ulalume: A Ballad.'

I include both the text, in the public domain, of course, and a recording which I thought might be preferred by those who get into poetry auditorially. There are innumerable versions of this on you tube, among them (Tim Buckley's son) Jeff Buckley's, who does a workmanlike and clear, clean job, or for those who want to sample something more....dramatic, there is Nico's, of Velvet Underground fame, who gives it a bit of stagy Sixties flavor with her totally out there Ancient Egyptian motif, and her exotic accent.

So without further ado, here is the poem [Note that like Emily Dickinson, Poe had no problem with the liberal use of the dash..]:

Ulalume: A Ballad

By  Edgar Allan Poe

The skies they were ashen and sober;
      The leaves they were crispéd 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)—
We 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 till 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 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."

Said we, then—the two, then—"Ah, can it
      Have been that the woodlandish ghouls—
      The pitiful, the merciful ghouls—
To bar up our way and to ban it
      From the secret that lies in these wolds—
      From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds—
Had drawn up the spectre of a planet
      From the limbo of lunary souls—
This sinfully scintillant planet
      From the Hell of the planetary souls?"

And the reading:

Thanks all, for indulging me by reading this long beauty. I hope you will come to enjoy it as much as I do. I'm curious to hear everyone's favorite passage--mine is the lovely bit about the senescent night, and the cheeks where the worm never dies, but really I love it all.


Kay L. Davies said...

The entire poem is ever so ever so Poe, but I love the last two lines best:
"This sinfully scintillant planet
From the Hell of the planetery souls?"

This poem is new to me, but I have a Poe-loving friend, now with seriously compromised sight, and I will happily pass on the links to the readings for her.

Margaret said...

The whole seventh stanza and how it ends

"We safely may trust to a gleaming
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."

...is so full of hope. But like I know with most (all?) things Poe, it has a sad ending. How precious these kernels of trust, of hope (that is if I am reading and understanding it properly)...

I have a book, amazingly illustrated, of his short stories. I hope to get to it this summer.

Kerry O'Connor said...

Oh sweet heaven.. to hear Jeff Buckley read this poem has reduced me to tears.

I will say, in this present company, that I am not a fan of Poe, but this poem is just brilliant from a technical aspect and for the layers of emotion he guides the reader through, until we must face what the death of a beloved means at the core.

My favourite parts are the repetitious lines, so cleverly altered to vary meaning, but retain the choral sound:

The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere..

Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul—
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul...

She rolls through an ether of sighs—
She revels in a region of sighs...

I also note his repetition of end rhymes, which makes the whole so haunting and melancholy.

Many thanks for sharing the words and a variety of links to other pieces. You have really brought me closer to Poe today.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks so much all, I love sharing this poem. So much of Poe is over-exposed, and a lot of his writing can be perceived as very melodramatic, but he had his own voice in a way that only a few really great writers have, and for me this lesser-known poem really illustrates that.

@Kay--I am really fond of the readings myself, and I am a visual person--but sound is such an element in Poe--I hope your friend enjoys!

@Margaret--yes, Poe I think wanted very much to believe in the light, despite a life that held a great deal of tragedy, loss and darkness, and I think that comes through in this one.

@Kerry--I am so glad you were able to get into this one. To me, besides being a great lyric poem, it really shows the beauty and grace of what writing to form can be. There's not a beat off in the meter hardly, and the rhymes are all fresh and striking, as well as the repetition you describe, always used to underscore and intensify, never dull, the underlying words. An inspiration to those of us who love to write to form, I think.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I most loved the final stanza, with its "limbo of lunary souls" and "the Hell of the planetary souls." Amazing poetry!

Mark Kerstetter said...

I love when Psyche lifts her finger and the narrator enters a debate with his soul. Thanks for sharing this. I can see why you love it so much.

You mentioned above that his writing is sometimes perceived as melodramatic. Perhaps that's why it is so often pushed toward the YA crowd. But I think the melodrama is delicious, especially in the prose (verging on satire sometimes), and his work clearly is not just for kids. It's way too sophisticated for that.

Susie Clevenger said...

I am glad I stepped away from Poe to open the door for this wonderful sharing of his work. To hear it read by Jeff Buckley is an unexpected treat.

This piece writes so profoundly of the mind's journey through grief. There is despair and hope in it. He puts into words the whirlwind that overtakes the heart mind and soul at the time of heartbreaking loss.

I won't attempt to write my favorite parts of the poem here. There are far too many.

Thanks again Hedgewitch for sharing Poe. :)

hedgewitch said...

Thanks, Sherry--yes that is a great line.

@Mark--I agree--I definitely think satire is there--a lot of Poe is referential tongue in cheek in a way we don't always appreciate in our less classically educated culture. And really, who among the greats, including Shakespeare, doesn't sometimes blur the line between drama and melodrama? It's like all cliche being based in a profound truth. Thanks for reading.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks, Susie! I too have so many favorite lines that I can't really pick, though a few, like the verse that has 'thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her.." especially have stuck in my mind for years, and that's unusual with my memory. ;_) Thanks for holding off and giving me the opportunity to share this one.

Grace said...

The entire piece is lovely Hedge, thank you ~ I will have to listen later to the read when I get home ~

My favorite part is this (the refraining lines are also part of the opening verse) :

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispèd and sere—
As the leaves that were withering and sere,

I too noted the repetition and rhyming verses ~ Thank you again ~

Anonymous said...

So interesting - I cannot listen (at my office right now!) but will try later.

For me what is most striking is the repetition - it is such a very interesting approach - it is like someone trying very hard to get something right even as they croon a melody over it. There is something terribly human in that. k.

Fireblossom said...

What a great article! I read with interest your process of choosing. You know, I see *you* in this writing. You could have written this and it wouldn't have surprised me one bit.

There are so many incredibly well-turned phrases and lines here, but my favorites were:

" 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. "


" In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings till 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. "

Thanks for sharing this with us!

hedgewitch said...

@Grace--yes it's a neat trick comparing the leaves to 'their' thoughts, thoughts that have changed from alive and green to withered and sere.

@Karin-yes, an intensity that comes when the mind is in confusion and desperately wants clarity, repeating those odds and ends like a charm. Thanks for reading.

@FB--that's my favorite too--the night aging, becoming senescent--plays into the imagery of life to death, and also, makes a rhyme with liquescent, which is not your common and garden marmalade of a rhyme. There's no doubt this one has wormed its way deep into my subconscious--thanks for the compliment about it being in my own style. If I ever write anything half this good I can die happy. ;_)

Lolamouse said...

Thank you for sharing this poem. It was a new one for me. The repetition was used to great effect, almost like a keening. I love the final four lines, especially "sinfully scintillant planet."

It may be just my warped nature, but I sense some sort of trespass or sin involving Ulalume. Poe speaks of a "secret" and a "burden." The "worm" that never dies seems to speak of eternal torment for some sin. Then again, I may be totally off!

Ella said...

I too see you in Poe! Thank you for sharing! I am torn about my pick, but after reading yours...I think I know~ Thank you Joy-I had not heard of this one! :D

I agree with Lolamouse there does seem to be some dark dangerous secret in most of his poems!

hedgewitch said...

@LM --yes, there is some sort of undercurrent...perhaps Ulalume did not meet an entirely innocent end? Or perhaps there is just some terrible guilt, which death often leaves us with, for something done or not done.

@Ella --Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed.

Hannah said...

Ooo!! Hedge! A gem...and I love your opening to this post...such truth!

Thank you for this great and complete feature I love the part that talks of star dials and the pallor of stars...such a magical poem...the reading is so enjoyable! :)