A commonplace observation on art states that a successful painting or photograph is not a picture of something beautiful but a beautiful picture of something. It follows that it could be a beautiful picture of something grotesque or horrific, if we use the word “beautiful” rather loosely to mean artistic, or even artful. Artistry lies not so much in the choice of material as in the treatment of it by the artist and the reception by the beholder. So it is with poetry, and dark poetry is certainly a case in point.
In my youth, I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe by a teacher who was fonder of his poetry than of his macabre short stories. This teacher (I’ll call her Miss Goodly) assured the class that Poe’s “Annabel Lee” was a tender love poem in memory of Poe’s wife and cousin Virginia Clemm, whom he had married when she was thirteen and who died of tuberculosis in her mid-twenties.
I had a hard time swallowing Miss Goodly’s interpretation because she glossed over certain parts of the poem that I fixated on. I didn’t know then quite what to make of “Annabel Lee.” I still don’t. But sometimes it seems to me a grotesque practical joke on the reader.
Poe spends five of his six stanzas building sympathy for the speaker and his loss of his beloved Annabel Lee, when her highborn kinsmen “bore her away” to “shut her up in a sepulchre.” The speaker emphasizes the depth and uniqueness of the love the two shared, a passion that not even the angels could match. This continues into the sixth and last stanza.
We have been set up.
All that prep work is to make the speaker’s bizarre behavior seem almost natural when Poe reveals it in the last four lines:
- And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
- Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride;
- In her sepulchre there by the sea—
- In her tomb by the side of the sea.
Poe keeps his revelation for the very end, and so arranges it that it almost slips by unnoticed. Miss Goodly caught not the slightest whiff of necrophilia. And she probably never wondered what the speaker would have done with Annabel Lee’s corpse if her kinsmen hadn’t borne it away to the family vault. Would her fate have been similar to that of Norman Bates’ mother or the lover in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”?I think Miss Goodly opted for some kind of dreamy metaphorical interpretation of these lines, if indeed she thought about them at all. Or perhaps, as some others have done, she might have insisted that the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave and that he is really entombed beside Annabel. I tend to be more of a literalist. Hence my suspicion that the poem is a clever practical joke of sorts.
Did Poe really intend the ending to be funny? Not likely. (Still, there are reports that when Franz Kafka read some of his own dark stories aloud, he and his companions laughed hysterically.) Regardless, Poe has left us in a very dark place, a crypt which has become a bedchamber where the speaker himself will probably eventually expire.
Now imagine what today’s tabloid journalists would do with virtually the same material:
- HUSBAND FOUND DEAD IN CHILD BRIDE’S TOMB---
- HAD BEEN SLEEPING WITH CORPSE FOR EIGHT YEARS
- A bizarre story emerged yesterday from Kingdom by the Sea Township. Robert L. Highborn reported finding the body of his brother-in-law Edgar G. Pym dead on the floor of the family vault beside the sarcophagus of the late Annabel Lee Highborn Pym, Highborn’s sister and Edgar Pym’s child bride.
- Evidence suggests that for a period of eight years, Pym had been creeping into his wife’s tomb every night and sleeping on or beside the marble coffin. Apparently, he often brought flowers on these nocturnal visits and even a bottle of wine with two glasses, as though he hoped to share a toast with the corpse.
- “Edgar always was a little peculiar,” Highborn told Dishdirt reporters. “That’s one of the reasons why the family objected to the marriage. But we never dreamed how peculiar he would turn out to be. When Annabel died, we had to get a court order to get her body away from him and get her interred. And now this!”
- Faithful readers may remember the scandal eight years ago, when Pym refused his wife’s Highborn kinsmen permission to take the body from the small cottage he had shared with her. The woman had been dead for over a week. “Neither the angels in Heaven above,” Pym screamed, “nor the demons down under the sea, can ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”
- “He often ranted on like that,” Highborn said in a later interview, “even when Annabel was alive. Once he said that she and he ‘loved with a love that was more than love.’ Naturally, I was worried that he might be luring or forcing her into unnatural acts.”
- This reporter had first-hand experience with Pym’s ravings eight years ago when covering the story. Pym blamed supernatural agents for sending a cold wind to kill his wife because they “went envying her and me.” He said everybody knew who was to blame—“the winged seraphs of Heaven,” in short, a bunch of angels.
- Dishdirt’s angel expert, Gladys Prysm, said at the time that Pym was very confused about the nature of seraphs, or seraphim. “Seraphim are noted for their very loving nature,” she declared.
- When Annabel Pym died and the court order gave the Highborns possession of the body, an autopsy was performed. The verdict was death caused by hypothermia, although the Highborns originally suspected foul play.
- “We have reason to believe our sister was going to leave Pym,” said Highborn in a third interview. “He was very possessive, always calling her ‘my darling, my darling, my life and my bride.’ And he insisted that she ‘lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.’ Always the ‘my’ and the ‘me.’ He thought her entire life should be devoted to him.
- “Even if he didn’t directly cause her death, I still blame him. He often insisted she go with him on long walks on the beach on windy moonlit nights. I guess he thought it was romantic, but she was in delicate health all her life. And living in that drafty cottage didn’t help any.”
- A piece of paper found clutched in Pym left hand was at first thought to be a suicide note, but proved instead to be what Robert Highborn called, “That hideous poem.” Highborn went on to say it was “disrespectful toward Annabel and our whole family. Why, he didn’t even capitalize our family name.”
- The cause of Pym’s death is yet to be determined. His only living relative is a brother, Arthur G. Pym, who is traveling and could not be reached for comment.
The tabloid article gets the sensational aspect of the story right up front in the headline and then fills in with the juicy details about Pym. (The name is, of course, my parody’s nod to another of Poe’s characters.) There is no hint of sympathy for the bereaved husband, much less for his bizarre behavior.
By contrast, Poe, using first-person narrative viewpoint, lures us into accepting the speaker’s normalcy before letting us in on the secret nightly visits to Annabel’s tomb.
Poe’s poem makes use of the conventions of both romantic love (eternal devotion, tragic death, etc.) and gothic horror (darkness, crypts, etc.). Like countless others, I have also worked out of the gothic tradition. Consider one of my own poems.
Thought you’d escape that? Not a chance.
Come to think of it, you could just stop reading. Maybe you should.
Still with me?
Both of you?
I never bought the entirely virtuous nature of Jonathan Harker, who is the first one to visit Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s original novel. Wasn’t he tempted, just a little? Wasn’t there maybe a part of his journal he never would have shown his fiancé Mina? That was the origin of this dramatic monologue:
A PAGE TORN FROM JONATHAN HARKER’S JOURNAL
The pen I use scratches the surface
of the paper more with metal than with ink,
tearing fibers from the page and leaking
darkness like black blood into the wound.
I resist the temptation to suck the liquid
from the split point as I did not resist
sucking blood from the paper cut
I received from the Count’s documents.
He was most interested in my deed,
made me feel like a long-lost brother,
ennobled by that simple act
of self-cannibalism. In that instant
my senses grew more acute.
I can smell the rich loamy
comforting soil, the castle’s bed.
The musty scent of ancestral crypts
delights me. I seem to hear
from women in white dresses,
their breath warm on my neck.
The faint odor of garlic
rising from the village down below
disgusts me—and the people too, so fearful
of high places, of fluttering wings,
of the long-drawn howl of wolves,
who are also my brothers. It is almost
dawn now. I have written through
the night. Time now to sleep.
I draw bed curtains against day.
Both of you still with me?
Okay, one of you anyway.
Of course, sometimes the darkness isn’t literal. Sometimes the darkness is in sunlit Nature. Here’s a dark little ballad-stanza tour. (Think Alan-a-Dale in black.)
THE GARDENS OF THE SANE
Who tends the gardens of the sane
Must chuckle at the rose
And prune with care the trellises
Where deadly nightshade grows.
The death cup favors shady paths,
The fox grape thrives on sun.
See jimson weed in stately rows,
Transplanted one by one.
Wisteria in strangling twists,
A fatal Valentine.
The succubus of graves and crypts,
The purple columbine.
The green blooms of the hellebore
Exude a fine bouquet.
Beneath the soil the cutworm curls.
The earwig loves decay.
The gardener hangs up his tools
And smiles his work to see,
Puts up his feet, and sips a mug
Of steaming hemlock tea.
Explaining a poem is, of course, much like explaining a joke, so I’ll keep my remarks to a minimum:
- I was once impressed with the gardens on the grounds of an asylum, and the title “The Gardens of the Sane” just popped into my head.
- I chose ballad stanza to keep the verses light and ironic.
- The first line is intended to be read as a question, and stick in the reader’s head even though the next three lines make clear it’s the subject of a longer, declarative sentence.
- The plants and insects mentioned are all poisonous or harmful in some other way (even the rose has thorns), but some (not all) also have medicinal or other beneficial uses.
- The last stanza echoes the next-to-last stanza of Blake’s “The Tyger” and provide my answer to Blake’s penultimate question to the tiger, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The answer is “Yup.”
- Who is the gardener? Insert the name of your favorite natural or supernatural force.
- Oh, yeah. The sentence fragments in stanza 3 are intentional.
Archibald MacLeish once wrote “A poem should not mean/But be.” Let’s let them be.