Sunday, January 29, 2012

Walt Whitman and "The Raven"

Edgar Allan Poe the Raven Dore
"The Raven," as you may already know, saw its probable first publication (in the New York "Evening Mirror") on this day in 1845. I decided to celebrate the noble anniversary by spotlighting two of the poem's more curious homages.

On January 11, 1848, Walt Whitman, who was at that time the editor of the "Brooklyn Eagle," published in his newspaper "A Jig in Prose," one of the innumerable parodies of "The Raven." It ran:
"Once upon a evening dreary,while I pondered lone and weary--o'er many an olden paper, reading forgotten stories o'er; suddenly I heard a curious, lonely, ghostly, strange, mysterious grating, underneath the floor! "'Tis some little mouse, I muttered, underneath the office floor--and nothing more. And again I trimmed the taper--and once more resumed my paper--aged, forsaken, unique paper--poring its ancient contents o'er; when again I heard repeated, this same mysterious grating, but much louder than before--and it seemed like someone sawing wood beneath the office floor; 'tis no mouse thought I, but more. As I listened, each particular hair stood upright perpendicular--cold, outstanding drops orbicular soon my forehead o'er--while a strange mysterious terror, filled my soul with fear and horror, such as I never felt before; much I wondered what this curious grating meant beneath the floor! Thus I sat and eyed the floor. And thus watching, gazing pondering, trembling, doubting, tearing, wondering, suddenly the wall was sundered, as for Banquo's ghost of yore--and while gazing much astounded, there--from there bounded a huge rat upon the floor! Not the least obeisance made he, but a moment stopped and stayed he, and nothing more. And, while gazing at each other, suddenly out came another--somewhat greyer than the other, with the weight of years he bore; then with imprecations dire, I raised my boot and higher, a step advancing nigher, whirled it safe across the floor; but the little imps had scatttered, and the door was bruised and battered, that it hit and nothing more!"
Poe scholars have speculated that these lines were composed by Whitman himself, who was known to have greatly admired Poe's work--"The Raven" in particular. (Whitman briefly met Poe in 1845, when the "Broadway Journal" published one of his essays. He later recalled that "Poe was very cordial, in a quiet way, appear'd well in person, dress, &c. I have a distinct and pleasing remembrance of his looks, voice, manner and matter; very kindly and human, but subdued, perhaps a little jaded.")

An additional clue for his possible authorship is the fact that "Jig in Prose" was published anonymously, and it was Whitman's usual practice to give credit to "Eagle" articles he did not write. If Whitman did indeed write this little jeu d'esprit--surely one of the feebler "Raven" tributes--it would not be a great surprise that he'd hesitate to reveal himself as the author. (In an ironic touch, Whitman was--for political, not, as one would assume from the above doggerel, artistic reasons--fired from the "Eagle" shortly after this poem's appearance.) One can only say that the available evidence for his authorship is sparse, but certainly plausible.

Whitman certainly had a taste for "Raven" knockoffs, however strange they may have been. Exactly one year earlier, he published in the "Eagle" another exercise in transforming Poe's celebrated bird into a turkey. Whitman described J.J. Martin's "The Dove" as "not possessing the artistic beauty of Mr. Poe's celebrated 'Raven,'" but it was, he declared, a work that "commends itself to every reader by its graceful spirit of the Christianity...its influence, as far as it goes, will be more apt to soften, and meliorate the heart."
'Twas midnight, solemn, dark and deep,
And vainly I had courted sleep,
When, worn with pain, and anguish-tossed,
Hope, faith, and patience nearly lost,
I heard a sound, a gentle sound.
Breaking the solemn stillness round.
A gentle, soft and murmuring sound,
Making the stillness more profound.

I hushed my breath--again it came--
My heart beat faster--still the same
Low, gentle murmur met mine ear,
Approaching nearer and more near,
A single sound, yet soft and clear,
And strongly fraught with memories dear,
A flood of clear and single light,
Then burst upon my raptured sight,
Filling my little chamber quite.
And in that light a bird was seen,
Not "grim and black" with stately mien,
But purely white and beautiful,
With look so mild and dutiful,
A lovely bird, with plumage white,
In that calm, still and clear moonlight.
This winged visitor answers every piteous wail of the narrator not with an ominous "Nevermore," but with a cheery "God is love!" After four more verses which I simply do not have the fortitude to transcribe, the poem concludes:
"Thanks heavenly messenger," I cried,
"Remain that picture still beside,
Surrounded by the light of truth,
Companion meet for sinless youth,
Thou blessed type of Love and Peace,
My hope and faith thou'lt still increase;
Be ever near me, gentle dove,
I know I feel that--"God is love!"

By that Heaven that bends above us--by that God we both adore--If poetry like that isn't sacrilege, I don't know what is.

Well, never mind. As I suggested last year on this date, do give yourself some respite and nepenthe by reading the real thing.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy Birthday To You...

Edgar Allan Poe birthday
"If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Israfel"
In honor of Poe's 203rd, I present "Our Israfel," a poem written by Edwin Markham in commemoration of the Poe Centennial in 1909. Inevitably, it pales compared to whatever Poe and his lyre within the sky might compose for this day, but, alas, a mere "mortal melody" is the best I can offer here and now:Robinson Poe Israfel
"The sad great gifts the austere Muses bring
In their stern hands to make their poets of
Were laid on him that he might darkly sing
Of Beauty, Death and Love.

They laid upon him hunger as a dower,
A hunger for a loveliness more strange
Than Earth can give--more wild than any hour
Of all this chance and change.

They laid upon him Music's trembling charm,
The mystery of sound, of shaken air,
Whose touch can lift the spirit or alarm--
Build rapture, build despair.

They touched him with imagination's rod,
The power that built these heavens that soar and seem--
These heavens that are the daring of some God
Stirred by the lyric dream.

And then (for oh, the Muses do not spare!)
They set for him one final gift apart:
They gave him sorrow as a pack to bear,
Sorrow to break the heart.

And so they called the poet into Time,
The saddest and the proudest of the race
That ever came this way with sound of rhyme,
In quest of Beauty's face.

He came with rumor of the mystery,
Crying the wonder ever on before,
The laureate of dreams that cannot be,
Of Night and the Nevermore.

He steered toward shadow with melodious helm,
Touching with somber prow the wharves of Dis,
Exploring all the dim and hollow realm
This side the last abyss.

He looked on cities in their crumbling hours,
Where Death obscurely mumbles out his rune,
Hoary, remote, alone, where time-torn towers
Hang spectral in the moon.

He mused among the dim sarcophagi,
While far upon the rim of ruin fled
A host of hooded forms that hurried by
With laughters to the dead.

He walked our streets as on a lonely strand:
His country was not here--it was afar.
Not here his home, not here his motherland,
But in some statlier star.

Life was his exile, Earth his alien shore,
And these were foreign faces that he passed:
For he had other language, other lore,
And he must home at last.

His country was not here, but in the isles
Of Aidenn ringed around with lustrous seas,
Where golden galleys skim the silver miles
Or sleep upon the breeze.

And there were gardens where the fountains springs
In valleys of a many-colored grass--
Gardens where bulbuls in the shadows sing,
And rose-pale maidens pass--

Gardens of hyacinths and asphodels,
Inwoven with the sounds of warbling rills,
With triple-tinted suns and lilied wells,
Walled in by golden hills.

And there he built him palaces of song,
Lifting their spires against the pallid moon,
With corridors where shapes of shadow throng
When night is at her noon.

He sought his dream-love there by many names
Of terror and of pity and of peace--
Lenore, Ligeia (burning like pale flames)
Morella, Berenice.

He trod high chambers lit with ruby light,
And heard in the hush the somber arras stir,
And stir again, in the deep and secret night,
With memories of her.

He heard the demon whispers in the deep,
And songs of deathless love where seraphs are;
He saw the cliffs of Time, a ghostly heap,
But over the cliffs the star!

O poet, not for you the trampling street,
The wrangling crowd that cry and clutch for gold,
And so you followed Beauty's flying feet
Into the dim and old.

O poet, life was bitter to your heart:
These stones have memories of the tears you shed.
Forgive the serpent tongue, the flying dart--
Forgive us from the dead.

You sang your song: we gave you scorn for pay:
For beauty's bread we gave a stone; and yet
Because our eyes were holden on the way,
Remember to forget.

Sing, Israfel: you have your star at last,
Your morning star; but we--we still must live!
So now that all is over, all is past,
Forget, forget--forgive!"
Edmund Dulac Edgar Allan Poe Israfel
Indeed, there is still very much for you to forgive, old boy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Plagiarism Carnival #2

Edgar Allan Poe plagiarism
...Although, by this point, perhaps it would be more appropriate to forget about carnivals, and start in on the "Masque of the Red Death" references.Edgar Allan Poe masque of the red deathI thought it was about time for yet another update on the "Raven's Bride"/"Very Young Mrs. Poe" plagiarism case, for the benefit of newcomers to this blog and anyone not following the latest news on Twitter. (Note to St. Martin's Press--despite your fondest hopes, this story is not going to go away anytime soon.)

Archie Valparaiso, the hardest-working man in show business, is the major contributer to this edition of the Carnival. First, he makes a further examination of Lenore Hart's "I just used the same historical sources" excuse and finds that it is, well, all wet.

Next, he looks at the "It's all just coincidence that the two novels share at least 57 similar passages!" argument, and does the math.

In this post, Mr. Valparaiso ponders, weak and weary, the mystery of SMP's inexplicable determination to stick to a long and embarrassing public cover-up all to protect a little-known, lightweight fiction writer whose novels are evidently about as popular as IRS audits. He takes a closer look at Ms. Hart's husband, a considerably more successful author, and unearths some interesting information. David Poyer may turn out to be the crucial figure in this whole scandal.

Salon magazine recently held an online symposium on "What is plagiarism," featuring, among others, Jeremy Duns and Dennis Johnson of Melville House. "The Raven's Bride" is among the cases discussed.

IThenticate, a plagiarism detection software company, included Ms. Hart's little masterpiece among their "Best of 2011 Plagiarism Events." The blog includes this highly suggestive comment: "I sense a deja vu here, and feel this will be an ongoing story in 2012, as St. Martin's Press takes a look at her other work and determines whether their stance remains the same."

Probably the most notable development to date is that New York's Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony, a nonprofit educational institution where Lenore Hart teaches creative writing (!), has suspended its connection with her pending what it hopes will be an "early resolution" of the "issues" that have arisen concerning her work. One wonders what "resolution" they expect to see.

I honestly have no idea if the Mailer Center is sincere in this expressed desire to keep their distance from a writer with "issues"--if this is the case, my guess is that Ms. Hart may as well permanently kiss the place goodbye right now--or if the statement is merely a public face-saving cover story, designed to get people off its back until the whole issue eventually dies. We shall see.

Well, that's it for now, folks. It's amazing to realize that it's been nearly a year since that fateful day when I settled down to read my just-arrived-in-the-mail copy of a new Poe novel. During that time, the "issues" surrounding the book have become bigger and stranger than anything I ever could have imagined, and who knows where it all may end. To quote an old tune that's long been a sort of personal anthem of mine, "I can't help but wonder where I'm bound."

(Images via New York Public Library, Wikipedia)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!"

"What I here propound is true:--therefore it cannot die--or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will 'rise again to the Life Everlasting.'"
-Preface to "Eureka"

Albert Einstein is one of the most illustrious people ever to critique Poe's magnum opus "Eureka." Unfortunately, his opinions of the work--which appear in two letters to Poe collector Richard Gimbel and two more to biographer Arthur H. Quinn--are disappointingly limited and contradictory. It should also be noted that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Einstein's focus was merely on the strictly scientific aspects of Poe's work, largely ignoring "Eureka's" even more compelling spiritual elements.
Albert Einstein and Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka
In December 1933, Einstein answered what was evidently a request from Gimbel to comment on "Eureka." He wrote a brief, but friendly note, agreeing to read "the story by the master," and pass on his opinion. The next month, he wrote again, saying he had "partly studied" "Eureka," but doubted he would be able to make a thorough analysis of the work, "in spite of all the attraction which radiates from this wonderful man." He described the opening section as "a very beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind," but deprecated Poe's cosmogony as inadequate, due to the limited scientific advances of his era. (As Poe anticipated certain of Einstein's own concepts, this is somewhat ironic.)

Seven years later, Arthur Quinn also asked the scientist for his views of Poe's masterwork, as part of Quinn's research for his book about the poet. Mysteriously, Einstein's letters to him reveal a much more negative attitude towards both "Eureka" and Poe personally. In June 1940, he wrote Quinn that he had read "Eureka" some years back, but remembered little about it, except that it was to be "valued more from the artistic than from the scientific standpoint." He asked Quinn to send him the work, if the biographer wished a more detailed response.

Two months later, he wrote that after looking through the copy of "Eureka" Quinn had provided, he realized he was mistaken--that he had never read it before, and he now found the book "a bad disappointment." He found the first part clever in some ways, but ultimately weak in many scientific respects. The latter half of the book, where Poe described his own theories of the universe, was, Einstein sniffed, like "the scientific crank-letters I receive every day." He attributed this to Poe's "pathological personality" depriving the poet of the ability for self-criticism.

As Poe scholar René van Slooten noted, Einstein's critique of "Eureka" was itself full of flaws, and he also pointed out, as reason for Einstein's sudden hostility, that he was at that time at odds with Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître, two scientists who had taken inspiration from Poe's writings. It is also undoubtedly true that "Eureka's" strong religiosity was anathema to the strictly materialist mind of the famed physicist. It is assumed that a good part of Einstein's suddenly antipathetic attitude was due to his increasing tension over the advent of World War II. However, I suspect there is even more to it than that. From Einstein's comments, I found myself wondering if he had actually even studied "Eureka" thoroughly, and it is clear that whatever he did read rather baffled him. As heretical as it may be to suggest the fabled genius had his limitations, I suspect "Eureka" so irritated him simply because he failed to understand it.
Edgar Allan Poe Sonnet to ScienceIn any case, it is obvious that Poe himself believed that "Eureka's" true importance lies in its philosophy, not the literal cosmogony. However, even his scientific claims have experienced a renaissance in recent years, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Poe was not limited to his era scientifically, but was actually in many ways far ahead of his time. Whatever flaws "Eureka" may have, no serious modern authority would dream of dismissing it as a mere "crank-letter."

Einstein himself may not be as infallible as is commonly assumed. If recent scientific experiments suggesting that neutrinos (subatomic particles) travel faster than light are verified, it would require a revision of Einstein's special theory of relativity--one of the cornerstones of modern physics.

In such a changing and uncertain universe, who can say with any true confidence where and how Poe was wrong?

Note: More about Poe and Einstein, including facsimiles of some of the letters quoted here, can be found at that fascinating work-in-progress, "The Eureka Project." This post is obviously heavily indebted to the site.