Reading an Edgar Allan Poe tale

2020-11-02 @Literature

I recommend approaching almost any Edgar Allan Poe tale the way you might a lengthy philosophical epic: slowly, engagingly, and with plenty of cognitive fuel. At least in my case, I struggle to assert a mere quarter of the pertinent matter with anything less than 100% focused attention, and at that agreeable time of day.

Unless you’re seasoned in this sort of pursuit, I wouldn’t treat it as casual bedtime reading. But the effort proves worth every drop of sweat and blood (and blotched ink among all the circling and underlining).

Perhaps not all those short stories fit the profile. The most divulged five-ten percent (I’m thinking of the detective stories, and something like Tell-Tale Heart or The Gold Bug) I feel more catered for mass appeal over a passionate exercise of unwinding exotic literary device.

But the heavy majority come more nutritionally packed than most prosaic reading I’m accustomed to. In fact, Poe leverages such a diverse array that I’d forgotten or simply not known to properly classify it, less explain. This especially applies to the tales of dark humour, satire, or allegory (which constitute a respectable portion), although the horror and the Gothic are of no exception.

On that topic, for the unacquainted, I should denote the genres encountered throughout Poe’s opus. The major categories involve primarily the horror and the humorous, and sometimes detective and even a brand of sci-fi. Then they further branch in accordance to the elements of heavy satire, farce, parody, criticism, slapstick, introspection, prose poetry and last (but not least), allegory. The convolution and the juxtaposition of elements really don’t cease to astonish.

I recently explored an entire site devoted to literary device just to feel better equipped to write on the matter, rather than fabricate my own terminology per custom.

What gives the task further challenge is precisely the short-story nature; not an epic (although cryptic) work like the Ulysses (of which I’ve perused mere fragments), but a short story - wherein we usually expect a more tractable cadence. But Poe’s stories make for a different type of short-story narrative.

As I glance over some recent stories read, I’m finding extravagant detail per word count:

Allusion to some older work, philosopher or historical figure is frequent. Latin quotes are frequent. As are poetry excerpts of varying languages whose significance I struggle to identify; and not necessarily for the inability to interpret literally (although my edition lacks any footnotes or annotations), but for the uncertainty whether it not be encased in further layer of parody or farce.

The prose is heavily imbued in similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, euphemisms, intricate naming conventions (or portmanteaus), circumlocutions.

The sentences tend to run exceptionally long, although in this I find hardly anything extraordinary for the genre.

Miniscule detail pervades every step. Situations otherwise hopelessly mundane are captured with severe flair for novelty, humour and dramatization; all by virtue of the elements delineated above.

Let’s take the short story A Predicament. The first paragraph alone produces the following continuous sentence:

What a host of gloomy recollections will ever and anon be awakened in the mind of genius and imaginative contemplation, especially of a genius doomed to the everlasting and eternal, and continual, and, as one might say, the—continued—yes, the continued and continuous, bitter, harassing, disturbing, and, if I may be allowed the expression, the very disturbing influence of the serene, and godlike, and heavenly, and exalted, and elevated, and purifying effect of what may be rightly termed the most enviable, the most truly enviable—nay! the most benignly beautiful, the most deliciously ethereal, and, as it were, the most pretty (if I may use so bold an expression) thing (pardon me, gentle reader!) in the world—but I am always led away by my feelings.

Note the exotic use of simile in the following four cases. Each occurrence commences with the word ‘thus’, terminating the respective paragraph, thus to spawn an additional layer of poetry:

I thus formed the third of the party. There was the poodle. There was Pompey. There was myself. We were three. Thus it is said there were originally but three Furies—Melty, Nimmy, and Hetty—Meditation, Memory, and Fiddling.

I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.

The rat!—it was there—that is to say, it was somewhere. Diana smelled the rat. I—I could not! Thus it is said the Prussian Isis has, for some persons, a sweet and very powerful perfume, while to others it is perfectly scentless.

As it dangled among the cordage of the bell, I fancied it alive. I fancied that it stood on end with indignation. Thus the happy-dandy Flos Aeris of Java bears, it is said, a beautiful flower, which will live when pulled up by the roots. The natives suspend it by a cord from the ceiling and enjoy its fragrance for years.

One step of a steep cathedral staircase remains. Yet this one measly step spawns the following multi-textured train of thought:

We still ascended, and now only one step remained. One step! One little, little step! Upon one such little step in the great staircase of human life how vast a sum of human happiness or misery depends! I thought of myself, then of Pompey, and then of the mysterious and inexplicable destiny which surrounded us. I thought of Pompey!—alas, I thought of love! I thought of my many false steps which have been taken, and may be taken again.

A trivial act of clumsiness yields the following sensational passage:

Pompey alone remained behind. I stood at the head of the staircase, and encouraged him to ascend. He stretched forth to me his hand, and unfortunately in so doing was forced to abandon his firm hold upon the overcoat. Will the gods never cease their persecution? The overcoat is dropped, and, with one of his feet, Pompey stepped upon the long and trailing skirt of the overcoat. He stumbled and fell—this consequence was inevitable. He fell forward, and, with his accursed head, striking me full in the—in the breast, precipitated me headlong, together with himself, upon the hard, filthy, and detestable floor of the belfry. But my revenge was sure, sudden, and complete. Seizing him furiously by the wool with both hands, I tore out a vast quantity of black, and crisp, and curling material, and tossed it from me with every manifestation of disdain.

The following exemplifies a sort of postponed narration. What the ‘cabbalistic-looking’ machinery here entails isn’t unveiled until later in the narrative:

Windows there were none. The sole light admitted into the gloomy chamber proceeded from a square opening, about a foot in diameter, at a height of about seven feet from the floor. Yet what will the energy of true genius not effect? I resolved to clamber up to this hole. A vast quantity of wheels, pinions, and other cabalistic—looking machinery stood opposite the hole, close to it; and through the hole there passed an iron rod from the machinery. Between the wheels and the wall where the hole lay there was barely room for my body—yet I was desperate, and determined to persevere. I called Pompey to my side.

Here we have a bit of peculiar nomenclature:

I accordingly grew angry, and told him in plain words, that he was a fool, that he had committed an ignoramus e-clench-eye, that his notions were mere insommary Bovis, and his words little better than an ennemywerrybor’em. With this he appeared satisfied, and I resumed my contemplations.

A mixture of allusion and whimsical references that juxtapose a ticking machinery next to performance arts, something transpiring in midst of an otherwise lamentable situation:

The ticking of the machinery amused me. Amused me, I say, for my sensations now bordered upon perfect happiness, and the most trifling circumstances afforded me pleasure. The eternal click-clak, click-clak, click-clak of the clock was the most melodious of music in my ears, and occasionally even put me in mind of the graceful sermonic harangues of Dr. Ollapod. Then there were the great figures upon the dial-plate—how intelligent how intellectual, they all looked! And presently they took to dancing the Mazurka, and I think it was the figure V. who performed the most to my satisfaction. She was evidently a lady of breeding. None of your swaggerers, and nothing at all indelicate in her motions. She did the pirouette to admiration—whirling round upon her apex. I made an endeavor to hand her a chair, for I saw that she appeared fatigued with her exertions—and it was not until then that I fully perceived my lamentable situation.

Now this is altogether amusing:

… could not help repeating those exquisite verses of the poet Miguel De Cervantes:

Vanny Buren, tan escondida
Query no te senty venny
Pork and pleasure, delly morry
Nommy, torny, darry, widdy!

Or this:

In the concluding sentences it quoted the noble words of Ariosto—

Il pover hommy che non sera corty
And have a combat tenty erry morty;

thus comparing me to the hero who, in the heat of the combat, not perceiving that he was dead, continued to contest the battle with inextinguishable valor.

This simple bit of simile too had me smiling from ear to ear:

The fellow opened his mouth from ear to ear, and shut his two eyes as if he were endeavoring to crack nuts between the lids.

Enjoy those highlights. This sort of quality one can expect all throughout the short story; all throughout much of every of Poe’s short stories. Thus the author belongs among my top favourites of the English language.

Questions, comments? Connect.