MUSIC AND POE'S ‘POESY’
Chair: Barbara Cantalupo, Penn State Lehigh Valley
Scholars such as Robert Reagan have long noted the influence Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales had upon Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” They sometimes even speculate that Poe’s rereading of Twice-Told Tales inspired (1) a new appreciation for the tale as an art form and (2) a more intense creativity applied toward its execution. I focus upon one aspect of that new aesthetic sensibility: the careful infusion of poetic devices into prose fiction to create a “unity of effect” that would engage readers more viscerally. A careful reading of the text reveals a stylistic and poetic scrupulousness that exceeds what Poe practiced in previous tales. In effect, the proliferation of simple language effects—such as alliteration and assonance, cadence and metrics, cacophony and euphony, and the like—render the tale a prose poem, anticipating the subtitle of Eureka by six years. Moreover, several works published after 1842 also qualify as attempts at prose poems.
This aesthetic rethinking owes its inspiration to Hawthorne’s experiments with fictional style. Interestingly, one of the texts that Poe singles out in his famous 1842 review is “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” a tale replete with poetic effects. F. L. Pattee’s notion that the tale’s prose can be rearranged into lines of iambic pentameter suggests to me that this early text is a prose rerendering of one of the narrative poems Hawthorne composed while at Bowdoin. While it does not aspire to the level of blank verse, the text of “The Masque of the Red Death” indulges itself with poetic parallels to Hawthorne’s prose style. Poe’s aesthetic growth becomes apparent through comparisons with “The Hollow of the Three Hills”—to measure the extent of influence—and with a pre-1842 Poe tale such as “King Pest”—to measure the extent of transformation.
competitive nature would not allow him to settle for mere imitation, however.
Just as Prospero tried to “out-Herod Herod,” Poe tried to
“out-Hawthorne Hawthorne,” which he accomplished by introducing
a complexity not present in Hawthorne’s sensibility. Several critics
(such as Helen Ensley) have commented upon the musicality in Poe’s
poetry. I believe that Poe injected musical qualities into the poetic
aspects of “The Masque.” One significant metaphor in the tale
is the waltzing of Prospero’s revelers. As a musical form, the waltz
approximates the cadences in the tale’s prose as well as hints at
the symbolic progression of its plot. As a dance form (the first in which
partners held each other closely), it functions at several levels. As
a thematic device, it parallels the psychological and physical relationship
each reveler has with the red death, thus allegorizing how all humans
are locked in death’s embrace. At the same time, the waltz suggests
the way a text embraces its reader. In sum, Poe’s synthesis of poetic
and musical designs increases the seductiveness of the prose, uniting
the reader’s appreciation of the sublime with his despair regarding
the human condition. Not only do these affinities among poetics, music,
and dance contribute to Poe’s approach to language in
Edgar Allan Poe’s short, dark lyrics about love and death find their true home in an anthology of Renaissance songwriters like The Book of Gems which Poe reviewed twice. The many similarities between suggestions that Poe makes in “The Philosophy of Composition” and characteristics actually found in the Renaissance short poem suggest that Poe studied the poems of Thomas Campion, Shakespeare, Dowland, Sidney, Jonson and others. The Renaissance song writers’ lessons about the refrain, and about metrics, length, and imagery were with him when he wrote his poetry. Studying “Israfel” opens a path to Poe’s Renaissance influences. Poe’s poem “Israfel” may be based on Thomas Campion’s Ad. Io. Dolandum, Campion’s poetic tribute to lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626). The first stanza of Campion’s poem and the first lines of Poe’s have so many similarities that “Israfel” at first may seem to be a translation of Campion’s Latin tribute. Lines and images in Poe’s poem indicate that “Israfel,” if not a paraphrase of Campion’s poem , is modeled on Campion’s tribute to Dowland.
Chief amongst Edgar Allan Poe’s complaints about Henry W. Longfellow’s poetry was his rival’s too frequent insistence upon the “inculcation of a moral.” By putting poetry in service of “the true,” Poe held that Longfellow squandered his own gift and simultaneously degraded both truth and poetry. “The demands of truth are severe,” Poe explained. “She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that is indispensible in song is all with which she has nothing to do.”
Poe’s confident assertion about the irreconcilable differences between
truth and “song” or poetry belies a premise to which he returned
throughout his career, namely the intimate connection between poetry and
mathematical precision. This is the principle upon which he based his
revisions to the established means of scanning “the exact relative
value of every syllable employed in Verse” in “The Rationale
of Verse.” Extolling the “simplicity” of his system
for measuring poetic meter, as well as the “time, labor, and ink
saved,” Poe provides a sample of the notations necessary to two
A numerical charting of relations of stress and value is preferable because it comes closer to conveying specific and accurate information. “Does the common accentuation,” he asked, “express the truth, in particular, in general, or in any regard? Is it consistent with itself? Does it convey either to the ignorant or to the scholar a just conception of the rhythm of the lines?” Poe concluded that each of these questions requires a negative response because a series of graphic marks—crescents or bars—“express precisely nothing whatever.” Building, and punning, on the intimate historical association between numbers and verse, an association Alexander Pope pointed to when he chimed “As yet a Child, not yet a Fool to Fame,/I lisp’d in Numbers, for the Numbers came,” Poe suggested that we translate the poetic line back into a numerical equation. The economy of such a system is evident in the time saved and in the accuracy about time imparted. Linking time, rhythm, mathematics and poetry, Poe concluded that “the pleasure received, or receivable” from poetry relies on “mathematical relations.”
Is the suggestion that numerical relations are an important element of what counts as beauty complicated by the parallel assertion that numbers provide access to something that should count as paradigmatically verifiable, factual and accurate? When the Greeks associated mathematics and poetry, they were doing so in a culture that did not believe that numbers were especially privileged vehicles for expressing or conveying the true; how does the cultural shift that elevated numbers to the fact of choice reshape this basic relationship? This shift is further complicated in the American context by the growing importance of moral economy, the equation of status and financial success, and the assumption that time is money.
In “The Business Man,” published in 1840 and re-printed in 1845 after significant revisions, Poe satirized the materialism of a society increasingly obsessed with success measured in terms of numbers, money and things, anticipating Walden in his discomfort with the normative association between mathematics, utility, value and appearance. Included in this under-studied tale is an invoice that I will argue must be read as indistinguishable from a poem. If Pope could babble numbers as a babe, why can’t Poe rhyme them as an adult, playing in all seriousness on the metaphorical association of numbers with poetry and the contemporary commercial debasement of literature? That Americans had already accepted the equation of time and money further clarifies this point; if poetry is predicated on time, and time and money are exchangeable, then an invoice is surely hard to distinguish from a poem. Following Stanley Cavell, who observes that in “Poe’s tales the thought is being worked out that, now anyway, philosophy exists only as a parody of philosophy, or rather as something indistinguishable from the perversion of philosophy,” I will argue that “The Business Man” forces us to think about the difference between the real thing and its cheap imitation, or, put differently, how we can prevent being swindled in a society wholly committed to the conflation of beauty, virtue, and exchange. The triumph of the market, the success of poets like Longfellow who waste their gifts on unworthy but profitable subjects meant for Poe that, sadly, the poems we should expect were those with tedious morals that added up, inexorably, to a specific bottom line.
POE AND DRAMA
Chair: John Edward Martin, Louisiana Tech University
"Poe-litian: Camp, Conscience and Character in Poe's Play."
Considering how important the tropes of theater and dramaturgy are for Poe’s descriptions of the creative process, it is surprising that Poe wrote no plays besides the fragment, “Scenes from ‘Politian’” (1835). On the other hand, critics who have read this text may not have been surprised that Poe never attempted another drama. Certainly, no other text of Poe’s has been so universally ignored by criticism. Nevertheless, the unfinished play is not without interest.
From a dramaturgical point of view, it displays a rare gift for rapidly creating dramatic tension through suggestive dialogue and complex characterization: Castiglione’s feigned interest in his impending nuptials to the superficial and scolding Allessandra in the first scene, the cruel freedom with which the servant Jacinta treats her grieving mistress Lalage in the second, the suicidal Lalage’s willingness to accept Politian’s courtship, and finally, the curious ambivalence of the duel between Castiglione and Politian. In this latter scene in particular, the characters reveal a psychological complexity rarely seen in Poe’s fiction (e.g. Castiglione’s self-reproach and Politian’s “softening” toward him). The curious intensity of the scene is only heightened by the fact that the two men are linked by a love triangle in which both apparently still desire the same woman, one of the very few moments in Poe’s work where desire figures clearly at all.
The queer resonance of the play is heightened still further by the fact that the historical Politian was probably gay (a Renaissance poet and scholar who never married, wrote poems about boys and was companion and housemate to Lorenzo de’Medici). One of the more interesting characters created by Poe, Politian is both dramatically very active in the play (courting Lalage and dueling Castigliano) and intensely mysterious. His reputation has him as a gay and decadent sensualist on the one hand, and a melancholy philosopher on the other. (One wonders to what extend Poe was not already aware of the extreme polarization that would become his own fate in the hands of popular and literary history.)
Another mystery is the “fearful riddle” that haunts Politian when he first appears in scene three, where he speaks of an “imp” that follows him everywhere and causes his melancholy. Any careful reader of Poe will recognize the word “imp” as a possible trope for “conscience,” since the famous “imp of the perverse” in the tale by that tale is, among other things, the narrator’s conscience which causes him (perversely, in the eyes of the remorseless murderer-narrator) to impulsively confess his crime. The personified figure of Conscience appears again in the play inthe following scene, where Lalage imagines she sees “the spectral figure” of Conscience (this time evoking “William Wilson,” which is prefaced by an epigram figuring Conscience as a “spectre”). Not only does this image haunt the margins of the play, Politian himself assumes the role of conscience in the final scene, where instead of killing Castiglione, he promises to publicly expose him (again recalling the confessional role played by exteriorized figures of conscience in the two tales mentioned earlier). According to my analysis, then, Politian functions both as a figure for conscience within the play and as a figure for Poe himself.
This kind of ambiguity or interpenetration between a real figure and the role he or she plays is characteristic of “camp,” the hyper-theatrical aesthetic sensibility first discussed by Susan Sontag in her seminal essay, “Notes on Camp” (1964?). According to more recent critics who have built on her essay, one of the things that defines camp celebrities is an ambiguity about the distinction between the private person, their public persona, and their public performances. Certainly Poe would have to be defined as one of the most camp literary celebrities of all time. What I will explore in this presentation is the connection between these issues in this most queer of Poe’s poetic performances.
Poe’s Politian, although unfinished, presents a complex nexus where the stage, the American literary marketplace, and the transatlantic Romantic Movement intersect. Using David Reynolds’ method of reconstructive criticism outlined in Beneath the American Renaissance in which “the historical critic [reconstructs] as completely as possible the socioliterary milieu of literary works through the exploration of a broad array of forgotten social and imaginative texts” (561), my aim is to reframe Poe’s play according to its historical moment. Through comparative analyses of other American and foreign dramatic works, I demonstrate the pervasive influence of the historical, social, and political forces of America, particularly the South, on Poe’s drama. Contemporary reviews of Poe’s and others’ dramas, in addition to the reviews of actors and actresses, buttress the argument. Admittedly, the reviews themselves are not consistent in describing what makes a “good” drama; however, these controversies often allow the reconstructive critic to determine competing views between critical demand and popular taste.
In my study, I show that Poe engages the popular genres of his time in order to appeal to his audience. As these appeals shift, he changes his presentations (i.e., the three versions of his play); however, these revisions must be viewed as both tailoring to his audience and in alignment with his own goals as a serious writer. Through discussing elements of sentimental, melodramatic, Gothic, and Romantic drama in his play, we see that Poe’s drama engages prevalent, contemporary social issues, particularly as they relate to the South: the individual versus community, vigilantism versus law, good versus evil, love and betrayal, vengeance and mercy. Moreover, the failure to finish and stage the play also reveals the difficulties of producing works for the stage in America during this period.
Allan Poe is one of the great writers of ritualized violence, and many
twentieth century adaptations of Poe's fiction and poetry succeed as drama
(drama broadly considered: stage, opera, ballet, and radio) precisely
because of the consolations offered by ritual violence. I explore why
Poe returns to the stage at times and in places when the
I first consider a 1953 French/American musical production of the "The Raven" by Byron Schiffman-who also made "Annabel Lee" into a "prelude et ballet aria" influenced by Stephane Mallarmé. I then consider two dramatic radio adaptations of Poe's fiction made in 1971-72, in which Peter Lorie and Ira Cook do the voices for versions of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado." What fascinates me here is that the dramas were made expressly to send out over the airwaves to troops in Vietnam via American Forces Radio. What does it mean that these violent tales were selected to entertain troops invested in the late stages of the Vietnam War?
I end with consideration of Lance Taite's recent collection, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Plays. Taite's stark one acts are influenced by ritual Japanese Noh Theater, and in his "suggestions for the actor," he stresses the importance of "detachment" from character and naturalist emotion. Taite's reading of Poe through Noh Theater makes sense because both reify character in order to contain and even domesticate ritual violence. In each of my examples I show that performing Poe helps disparate audiences, players, and adaptors make sense of the cultures of violence that surround them.