Search This Blog

Monday, October 31, 2011

Number 292: Edgar Allan Poe "Ulalume"


The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped 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 and 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) -
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:
Ah, hasten! -ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! -let us fly! -for we must."
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until 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 splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight! -
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 crisped 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,
Ah, what demon hath 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,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

-- Edgar Allan Poe

Hap Notes: These gloomy verses were written by Poe expressly for recitation so if you haven't done so, go back and read it aloud. He wanted you to hear the words and their sounds– he even repeats them for dramatic effect. He's very fond of "L"s- Ulalume, Annabelle Lee, Eulalie, Lenore. It is commonly pronounced Ooh-La-Loom or Yoo-La-Loom. Gloomy sounding name, I think. Here is Jeff Buckley reading it with appropriately spooky music as a background: Pretty haunting stuff.

First, let's clarify a bit about the verses before I give you my shocking interpretation of the poem (not kidding– it's an unusual one.) The poem tells the story of a guy so distraught with grief at the loss of his love that he knows neither where he is wandering nor what day it is. He wanders through a gloomy forest by a lake (he's been there before but doesn't recall this until later). The lake and forest are fictional names made up by Poe (some scholars think they are possibly named for a composer (Auber) and an artist (Weir).) He travels with Psyche who is the personification of his soul/rational consciousness.

As he walks along he sees a vision in the sky of Astarte (who in Greek mythology becomes Aphrodite and in Roman mythology is Venus) a goddess of fertility, sexuality and, often, war. One of her symbols is the lion (although the pathway to which she beckons in the sky is probably the constellation Leo). The "lethean" peace refers to the mythic waters of the river Lethe and its powers to make one forget if one drinks from its waters. Astarte is seductive and lovely but Psyche is wary and begs him to go away from this place and this vision. It's interesting to note that Poe felt his rational/soul is this lovely goddess with wings who was, in mythology, the wife of Cupid after a great deal of trouble with-- hmmm-- Venus. Although, Psyche is a generally accepted word for the soul/companion in most explications of this poem.

Let's get out of that tangled forest and go on. As the speaker of the poem walks down the path urged by Astarte, he comes to the door of a tomb and realizes with horror that it is the tomb of his dead love Ulalume that he laid to rest a year ago to the day. All his memories come flooding back and he realizes he has been down this path before, by this lake, when he buried her the year before. The horror, the horror.


(Don't read the next part of my explication if you like the idea of a fella so stricken with grief over the loss of his beloved. Seriously. Don't. You'll just hate me and I'll feel bad that I ruined something you loved.)

I have this feeling every time I read this poem that the speaker isn't telling us something very important about his grief. He keeps referring to his feelings as volcanic and lava like in arctic cold settings. Maybe it's that word "treacherous" and the way he calls the body of his love a "dread burden" that strikes me as odd but it seems as though the speaker in the poem may have been responsible in some way for the death of Ulalume. He seems, at first, very taken with Astarte, a goddess of sensuality, beauty and, yes, sex. His "good girl" conscious tells him to get away from her. I get the feeling that this guy is afraid of the sexuality of women and wants them to be like his Psyche. Ah, but he's seduced by the sensual. So, can you see where this fella could be the kind of guy who loved a sensual, sexual woman and then maybe, killed her from his own twisted view of love and sex? And then, wandered around in delirious grief for his misdeed– because he did love her but she had power over him. And still does. And who the hell calls the body of a loved one a "dread burden"? Sounds more like a murdered corpse. Just sayin'. And maybe the tomb brings back his addled guilty memory of the dastardly deed done in a fit of passion.

I don't think Poe intended this interpretation, by the way, just telling you what I think when I read the poem. I think my version is scarier, too.

Happy Halloween, by the way. Hope you eat some candy and read more poetry (sounds like a perfect holiday to me.)

Here's where we've talked about Poe before:

No comments:

Post a Comment