Monday, January 19, 2009

Edgar Poe's Two Hundredth Birthday

So, two hundred years ago today (January 19th, 1809), Edgar Poe* was born. In commemoration, here are two of his poems that can pretty well represent the precocious start and sudden end of his career. The first poem was written when Poe was about twenty (and when he already had his first two books behind him) but never published in his lifetime; it survives because he wrote it in the guestbook at a friend's house during a visit.

(I) Alone

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 loved, I loved alone.

Then -- in my childhood -- in the dawn
Of a most stormy life -- was drawn
From every 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 rolled
In its autumn tint of gold --
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed 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.

The second dates from the last year of Poe's life, when he wrote many of his best poems (including "The Bells", "Annabel Lee", and "El Dorado"):

(II) 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

. . . 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?

*Poe's name is often given (wrongly) as "Edgar Allan Poe"; while he sometimes used the middle initial 'A' (in memory of Frances Allan, his foster-mother), the "Allan" was added after Poe's death by his slanderer/biographer Rufus Griswold, probably to match the custom of the day (cf. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, &c.).


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