Edgar Allan Poe was born in the first decade of the nineteenth century, to actor parents. He was involved in a variety of literary works including critical writing, poetry, plays and fiction stories. He is appreciated as the pioneer of modern detective stories, and praised as a poet.
This paper looks at the common theme that appears in majority of his tales and poetry; mystery and macabre, in five of his published poems. These literary pieces are mostly thrilling and venture into the depths of the human psyche, such that they have even inspired television and film adaptations (Gioia and Kennedy 65). The five poems that we shall look into are mostly gothic fiction works, with a similar theme of death and lost love. In a way, these poems can be considered as part of a dark romanticism genre.
A Dream within a Dream
The first poem that we shall analyze is ‘a dream within a dream’. In this poem, the narrator implies that our existence is a dream inside another dream. In addition to this, the narrator signifies that the dream has an inevitable end that cannot be avoided, just like sand cannot be kept from running when held in ones hands.
Poe captures the element of lost love and death differently, in two scenes, with each scene appearing in its own stanza. In the first scene, the narrator is seen to be parting with a person he dearly loves, in a serene farewell. The second scene is more passionate, as the narrator desperately tries to contain a handful of sand in his hand, which is symbolic to trying to hold on tight to a loved one, while in their death bed. The desperation with which the narrator tries to cling onto life is seen in the rhetorical question and exclamation. ‘O God!’ (Poe 2140).
When considering the element of death, there is also the aspect of passing time. In the first stanza, the departure of the lover marks the end of their love, while the second stanza uses the dropping of sand as symbolic to the passing of time in an hour glass. The narrator implies that once the lover is gone, and the sand has fallen and is washed away, all that is left is an impression of their existence, and just like a dream, they cannot be re-acquired.
In this poem, Poe uses the sea as a setting for death and time, as seen in the metaphor “the surf tormented shore” (Poe 2140). The metaphor is significant in expressing the inevitability of departure, as the sea water will inexorably wipe the shore.
While the two stanzas are different, the narrator unites them by using the same phrase at the end of both stanzas, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream” (Poe 2140). This line portrays despair with the passing of time, whereby ‘what we see’ refers to the first dream, while ‘what we seem’ is the dream within a dream, but both are dreams.
The second poem ‘The Raven’ is a dark and haunting narrative poem, with ghastly imagery and internal musicality. The dark literary style that is tied to Pie is introduced to the reader in the first line, “once upon a midnight dreary, while pondered, weak and weary” (Poe 335).
Like the previous poem, this one too, has the element of death and lost love, which is indicated by the raven. The raven is symbolically used to show something dark and sinister. This poem is similar to the first one, as the protagonist appears to be in despair, frantically searching for his lost love (Poe 335). The poem focuses on what appears to be a painful departure of a person who is dear to the character, as seen in the repeated use of ‘lost Lenore’ and ‘radiant maiden’ (Poe 335).
The lost love, Lenore, expresses herself in the form of a raven, and it appears to torment the narrator to a point of insanity. This lunacy is expressed via literary styles, including rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia, as seen in the words ‘rapping’, ‘tapping’ and ‘napping’ in the first stanza (Poe 335). Poe elaborates further on the aspect of death in the second stanza, where he informs us that the thoughts of the protagonist are actually from memory, and that the narrator sees death all around him.
Poe provides an opportunity for the protagonist to free himself from the torment of his lost love by introducing a ‘visitor’. The use of ‘visitor’ in the poem appears to be a symbolic representation of the need to occupy oneself with other things. The protagonist opens the door to the ‘visitor’, which could be representative of the knowledge sought in order to overcome the grief of a loss. This is emphasized when Poe tells us that the character turns to his books for “surcease of sorrow” (Poe 335).
The City in the Sea
The third poem by Edgar Allan that we shall use to evaluate the element of death is ‘The City in the Sea’. The gothic poem has five stanzas of unequal length, with each describing a level under the sea that is lower than the previous one, with regard to a beautiful mysterious city, beneath the sea.
Poe describes the wonder as a ‘throne’ for the devil (2142) that is surprisingly stable, despite its long existence. This beautiful land is observed to gradually sink, which is symbolic to human nature and sin, leading to death, and eventually going to hell. We get to discover that the city does not receive any light from the sun, which means that is far beneath the water surface.
While Poe may have portrayed the city beneath the sea as a happy throne for ‘Death’, he later depicts it as empty, and filled with despair and death, which is rather ironical. Poe looks into the concept of death from a different angle, when compared to the two previous poems. In this poem, Poe looks at the journey that people take in death, and attempts to describe the feeling of death itself, by comparing the beautiful city to loved ones.
He portrays the city at the bottom of the sea, or death, as a lonely place, with no hope or joy; a place that is silent, with only time to conquer (Poe 2142). Poe focuses on death from he beginning of the poem, and uses various aspects of symbolism to depict it, such as ‘gaping graves’ (line 30) and ‘dim west’ (line 3), which is symbolic of a sunset and death according to the Egyptians.
Poe uses allegory in this poem to show us that sins cause death of the human soul. The sins are a result of wealth, as depicted by Poe’s use of the word ‘exotic architecture’. The poem has no rhyme scheme, though Poe manages to alert the reader of the descending trend, as in the phrase “down, down, that town shall settle hence” (line 50), which is useful in acknowledging the eventual disappearance of the city, which is symbolic of actual death of the human soul.
In another of his poems, ‘Alone’, Poe portrays a character who does not seem to belong; a person with different interests from those of other people. As a result, the character has difficulties connecting with other people, despite being a caring person. While the previous poem, ‘City in the Sea’ tells us of the journey taken by dying people, this poem takes us through the life of people who have been bereaved of loved ones. It is highly likely that Poe is expressing his own sad life, and how he felt towards the people that he loved and lost.
The loss of loved ones through death is observed to result in solitude of the bereaved. Such people are observed to see things that others may not be able to see, a mystery, which causes him to be alone. This is depicted in the twelfth line, “The mystery which binds me still” (Poe 928).
These observations are mostly negative, as seen in the lines that follow. The last two lines indicate that there are good and positive things happening around, though he is unable to join into the happiness, “demon in my view” (line 22). The poem is a reflection of any person who is suffering from lost love, or death of a close person. It looks at the hardships that people face in life, struggles and losses; the ‘demon’ that keeps people from enjoying life like other people do.
The last poem that we shall look at by Poe is ‘Ulalume’. This gothic poem has a mournful tone, and it is clear that Poe was not keen in enhancing its clarity.
This poem has been identified to have an elusive quality, with various levels of consciousness, and a tone that portrays deep remorse that is irreparable. Ulalume is symbolic of a longing that has been forgotten, though on its return it brings with it a sense of horror upon the protagonist, causing him to roam aimlessly in despair.
This poem gives us yet another perspective of lost love and death. It is one year since the protagonist lost his love, and it is apparent that he had difficulties dealing with the loss. Poe portrays death using gloomy layers to develop an atmosphere that depicts a ghost-haunted underworld. This poem is about moving past the loss of a loved one, or death.
To express this, the narrator exists in a world that is neither fictional nor real, as he unconsciously mourns the death of Ulalume, who is only known to us by name. The fact that his soul has an independent identity, a female named psyche, implies that the narrator has an inner conflict. His obsession with his quest is seen as he refers to the moon as Astarte, in recognition of its beauty. His inner soul appears to be composed, and may be symbolic of his late wife wanting the narrator to escape his anguish (Poe, Poe’s Poetry Summary and Analysis 1).
In his writings, Poe uses intricate vocabulary to relay his message. The five poems discussed above are part of a dark romanticism genre, with focus on the element of death and lost love. The poems have different perspectives of lost love and death, from the effect of departure of a loved one through death, to the process of death itself.
We also get to see the torment that results when people are unable to get past their grief of losing a loved one, as in the poem ‘Ulalume’. In order for Poe to create the dark and sombre scenes, as well as highlight the main themes, he uses repetition and complex vocabulary. Such style requires the reader to deliberate, as opposed to simply reading for enjoyment.
Gioia, Dana and X. J. Kennedy. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, Compact Interactive Edition (6th Edition). London, England: Longman, 2009. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Poe’s Poetry Summary and Analysis. 1999. Web. <https://www.gradesaver.com/poes-poetry/study-guide/summary-ulalume>.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Literature Network. 2000. Web. <http://www.online-literature.com/poe/>.