Reading Group #4 (Poetry: 'Ulalume,' 'Darkness,' 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner')
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First thoughts, "Wow" (literally - said that aloud on putting it down after my first reading).
Second thoughts: very powerful and black.
Third thoughts: am I wrong to be looking for some sort of social or political comment in it?
Edited for the 'strikethrough' - I'm having second thoughts (or fourth, or fifth, or something ...) - more anon.
Reading it again now, I think the reason is probably the glaring incongruity I'm seeing between the dark language and content and the cheerful, song-like quality of the structure and rhythm.
Also, those regular 'almost-repititions' of lines: as well as adding to the song-like feel they're plain distracting - I keep finding myself stopping to puzzle over them and their possible purpose(s).
I'm going to have difficulty with this one.
I think 'Ulalume' is powerful, if sing-songy, and ultimately extremely successful--if taken with the 'spoonful of sugar' it requires. Like Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan,' I seldom get it entirely out of my brain before it comes haunting back. This has been going on a lot longer than the Coleridge fixation, though; 'Ulalume' is the first piece of writing I ever 'connected' with as a young child (a bizarre young child, I admit). I was nine when I first stumbled upon it in a Poe anthology at school that made me feel 'dark' and 'cultured,' the pompous little s*** I was, and now, thirteen years later, it still affects me. At the end of the day, despite its very 'poem-y' self-consciousness (as you pointed out, rankamateur), I find the poem effective. Poe's cadence is sometimes a little syrupy for me, but in the end its part of his hypnotism. His poetry is generally meant to be read aloud, in my opinion. And so try reading 'Ulalume' aloud; it makes more sense, and lulls one almost into distraction...
'Darkness,' though, is even more powerful. The first time I read it I was fifteen, and had first discovered Byron. After reading a lot of his more popular verse I thought, 'isn't Byron supposed to be a dissolute, homoerotic, dark, drug addict with a sort of 19th century Mick Jagger thing going on?' 'Darkness' is 'real' Byron, for me, all 'She Walks in Beauty' set aside. Though beautiful, 'Darkness' is also incredibly unnerving; I've actually had nightmares (the most recent just two nights ago, when I gave it a fresh reread) regarding it. The passage about the dog is moving to the point of tears. I find it one of the most intense pieces of writing I've ever experienced. It's a favorite of favorites for me, and I'm glad it evinced a 'wow' reaction from you, rankamateur!
As for any political context, I think it's mostly a reflection on eschatological themes in religion, and Byron's own extremely pessimistic (though this could be argued, and actually by me against myself(!)) outlook. His first 'dream which was not all a dream' confession is telling of his mixed feelings, and the otherworldliness, and possible wealth of symbol, in his poem. It was also written in, and under the influence of, the same 'dark summer' that Frankenstein was composed, and tells of that same stormy, Gothic fixation brewing in Europe at the time.
I'm glad I suggested we read this. There are some pieces of writing I occasionally want to beat people over the head and scream 'read this!' about. A nice, Gothic reading group has softened some of this for me... :D
Speaking of funerals, it's been gradually dawning on me through 'Halpern Frayser' and now 'Ulalume' that there is some sort of significance to the cypresses; so I looked it up - classical associations with death and the underworld, the 'graveyard cypress' and so on. Am I the only one who didn't know this?
... and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless ...
My thinking was something like this. The sun and moon are dead - 'extinguish'd', 'expir'd' or whatever - but the stars, traditionally seen as controlling or guiding the destinies of men and women, are off somewhere lost and wandering and ineffectual ('rayless'). So why has he kept the stars? I wondered if they might be Byron's symbol for for some sort of leadership or belief system, whether religious or social or political, that, he implies, will be found wanting when society or the individual finds itself in real need of them. Or is that just a touch too obscure to really be his intention?
I picked up the cypress associations in my ethnobotany period. I like plants, and plant symbolism, to a degree that is, perhaps, unhealthy...
I think the 'wandering stars' mean that the cosmos themselves are out of order, meaning that the apocalypse Byron is describing is not isolated to the earthly plane, but to the universe as a whole: it's not just the end of a world, but of an entire order of existence. His final lines say as much, in my opinion. I think there are symbols here, but that they might not be as arcane as we'd like them to be. I love the phrase, incidentally, 'did wander darkling in the eternal space.' That seems at LEAST a hundred years ahead of its time. The whole poem, for being visionary and even prophetic, is probably more effective now than in 1816/1817: because we can see how there is even 'prophecy' in his use of language: language that predates the Lovecraftian set by a long, long while.
I'm sure there ARE embedded nuances regarding politics, religion, etc, and I think I shared some of my opinions above, if only in gloss, but when the dust clears I think 'Darkness' is best taken, at least intially, for what it most obviously is: a narrative of almost cosmic dimension that succeeds in creeping us out as much as it succeeds in provoking thought. There is a lot of Byron here--what seems to be a more private, profound Byron--and that, in itself, is suggestive, when compared to his 'fluffier' work.
(Sorry if some of that doesn't make sense. I need a nap--badly.)
I haven't read through Ulalume yet, but on a brief glance, I understand the incongruity between the meter and content. i'll have to spend a little time with it to come up interesting to say.
On reading Darkness, I'm very impressed. I was also unaware it was written during "that summer," which really increases my fascination, being that Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels (and one of the reasons where my interest in the Gothic began.)
What is amazing most about the poem, to me, is that it is essentially a singlular idea sustained over so many lines, increasing in power to the very end. Like has been said, there are surely political, historical elements embedded in the poem, which I like to tease out, but just on a first reading it really wows me.
When it comes to Rime, I've only started, and I hope to discuss much more over the next while. I've only been reading part 1 until I feel I can enter the poem on it's own terms. What frustrates me initially, is the poem seems very un-Romantic, with the lines being very elliptical and compact. That, along with the enjambment Coleridge employs, makes the poem more modern sounding to my ears, yet old at the same time with the use older languague. It gives the poem a strange quality that isn't timeless necessarily, but maybe out-of-time. I've been reading a little on how the poem was originally received, and many didn't like it. Including Wordsworth, who said he wished it wasn't included in Lyrical Ballads after all, because it seems so incongruous with the rest of the collection/experiment.
But having said that, I've read through part 1 about 6-7 times and feel confident enough in going to the main story. Rime is certainly quite a complex and multi-layered poem which will probably take me months, if not years, to really delve into it's mysteries.
Like 'Rime,' and 'Ulalume,' too, 'Darkness' is one of my favorite poems ever, and (as I'll explain in the context of 'Rime' below) it is hence a difficult thing to share my observations on...it's so personal a piece of writing to my own development as a person.
As for 'Rime,' I think your approach is all well and good scholarly, but the power of this poem is in its hypnotism, and I recommend giving it an 'all in one go' reading before looking at each part, even if you get a little confused (I justify this by saying that the poem is being 'recited' to an audience (of one, obviously) in the poem's text, a poem in a poem, and this should be the context it's taken in: one phantasmagoric, breathless 'go'). Some of the most potent imagery in the history of English letters is in that poem, and they seduce best when encountered suddenly, and in profusion. (The Dore illustrations are something to peek at, by the by. They represent the meeting of two great artists' best works, and are fabulous in an uncanny kind of way...)
My own observations on 'Rime' are few, surprisingly. It is so intense, so perfect, so absolutely dizzying and potent...it moves me every time I read it, which is about twice a month since 2004. I think I have sections of it down memory...sometimes its hard to comment on something that has had such a profound impact on oneself, and this is one of those things for me. Another ultra-famous Coleridge poem is also on that list, haunting me constantly (sometimes when it's most inappropriate or even bizarre), namely 'Kubla Khan.' Keats' 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' also makes the cut. A few Blackwood stories, 'Darkness,' Melmoth the Wanderer, Prometheus Bound, Plato's Symposium, and Heart of Darkness probably round it out. There are a few more, I know, but those are the most intense, all-encompassing, I think. The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome are also on there, but for different reasons than the others.
Sorry for the digression...I couldn't help it; Literature (with a capital 'L') moves me. :)
It's odd how rarely this seems to come up. If you mention Krakatoa, I suppose to anyone, you'd get some sort of reaction. Yet, Tambora, which was the biggest in recorded history and had a much greater world-wide effect, seems hardly in the popular consciousness. I'm pretty sure it was never mentioned when I was at school and, to be honest, before this thread, the only time I remember coming across it at all is with regard to Turner's paintings. And yet, with the harvest failures and rioting and the spectacular atmospheric phenomena, it must have a hefty significance in historical terms - culturally, at least and probably politically.
According to Wikipedia, people in the West didn't know what it was that caused the 'Year Without a Summer', so one can imagine that the 'eschatological themes' veilofisis mentions might be a hot topic for large sections of the populace. 'Darkness' must have been playing on very real and widespread fears at the time. It must have been a terrifying and, even, masochistic read for a lot of people. I said at the start that I found it very black. I'm now finding even deeper shades of black. As usual, I'm alway adding more things to the 'want to read up on' list - I'm now really curious to read up on Byron's attitudes and thinking.
ETA - This is turning out to be quite a discovery for me. I think it's going to be, in my mind, one of that small group of poems that stands up above the crowd. I'm also embarrassed to say that I've had it all along without knowing - in a rather nice leather-bound collection of his poems I found in a boot sale a couple of years back. I've obviously never got round to reading it as I looked at it last night and found myself unfamiliar with the poems that are in it but not in my paperback.
ETA, again - I re-arranged this a bit - my brain seems a bit disorganised this morning. It still seems a bit unfocussed, though.
ETA, again again, - I meant the post was 'unfocussed', not my brain - but then again ...
First thoughts: there seems to be a strong religious element there. I assume the side-notes are to evoke the little précis at the start of the chapters in the King James Bible (I'm not familiar with any other bibles) - they seem rather redundant in terms of understanding the poem. Or are they simply to give an 'old-fashioned' feel? Anyway, I see the religious element in the poem itself as probably quite unconventional in its day. This is just rambling - I need to read it again and put my thoughts in order.
Incidentally, at least one of the online versions doesn't have the side-notes - surely these are an integral part of the poem? Um ... I'll see what I can find online about that.
Fascinating - you've given me even more to consider on further readings.
Notes? Gloss? It just dawned on me that I’m reading an earlier version of the poem without the gloss in the margins. After a little research, I guess Coleridge added the margin notes in a later version. I’ve been reading the original version in Lyrical Ballads. I just checked my Coleridge collection, and luckily I have the other version with gloss.
In just a brief read through of a few verses w/ the gloss, it comes off as a very different poem for me. It’s definitely less of a struggle w/ the notes, so now I don’t feel so dumb for struggling with the original version of the poem, having never read it before.
I’ll have to consult some other sources to see how the poem was received pre-gloss and post-gloss. I seem to remember that the poem was criticized for its obscurity when first published, so maybe that led to Coleridge’s marginal additions in later versions. But of course, it’s never that simple.
For now, I’m gonna stick with the original version, then do a read through of the later version. This turn of the events has opened up the Rime’s complexity a little more for me.
"For "Sibylline Leaves" Coleridge made substantial revisions to the 'Ancient Mariner,' adding and deleting whole stanzas, and making numerous alterations elsewhere, transforming the nature of the poem into a more subtle, less judgmental tale. Though he was to make further changes in years to come, this is the essence of the version best known to subsequent generations. He also added a marginal gloss, as if written by a devout scholar of an earlier age trying to make sense of the poem in terms of orthodox religion. This device accentuated the sense of the poem as a timeless and mysterious parable, and distanced it from Coleridge himself as the author."
On the other thing: its religious theme is pretty obvious, but there are hints of a more Blake-ian, 'private' religion in Coleridge's works, despite his rather conservative approach to Christianity. 'Rime,' I believe, most exudes this: it posits that there is a law in nature so high and so important that the death of a seemingly insignifigant creature is tantamount to highest blasphemy; in my opinion, this is because the motive of the Ancient Mariner is left completely unexplored: does he kill the albatross on a whim? in fear? for pleasure? But this is all secondary to the impact the poem leaves in my mind: the mysteries of the sea, the mysteries of the 'other' all around us, the things that ache and the things that heal, death and life and a life that seems as death, sin, redemption, absolution, condemnation, the power of nature and the power of the heart when it bleeds...this is heady stuff. Coleridge's revision, with the gloss, draws these out of a too-obscured place and gives them the framework they require to make a mark on a person. This version deserves to be the one we read.
Edit: And my goodness! How could I have forgotten the most famous of these 'author removal' works--Dracula!
Has it occurred to anyone how seriously weird - even for the Gothic - the idea of 'zombies' powered by angels is? I don't think this had ever hit me before last night - it was reading the bit about them making the beautiful music and it struck as one of the oddest things. It strikes me as an inversion - a metaphorical photographic negative, almost - of the conventions: rather than, for example, a beautiful young woman turning out to be an evil vampire, you get something really horrifying turning out to be something really beautiful inside.
I've been wondering about something and I'm being let down by my ignorance of the British history of the period - I really need to read up on my history. Would not some of the Roman Catholic references in the poem have met with disfavour at the time? Was Coleridge Catholic? If not, why the references to the crucifix and the Virgin Mary? Are they odd in combination with the poem's use of the word 'kirk', which denotes to me a kind of Protestantism likely to be the most antagonistic to mariolatry - but perhaps the use of 'kirk' has narrowed since Coleridge's day? Is Coleridge simply trying to hint the poem back to
I've just realised that my Penguin Coleridge: Selected Poems and Prose contains not only the glossary but, at the start, a Latin quotation from T. Burnet (who doesn't seem to ring a bell with Touchstones) with a translation. Nobody's mentioned it so, in case anyone doesn't have this, I'll type it out (the translation, anyway).
I can well believe that there are more invisible than visible natures in the universe. But who shall describe their family? What do they do? Where is their habitation? The human mind has always sought after, but never attained, knowledge of these things. Meanwhile it is desirable, I grant, to contemplate in thought, as if in a picture, an image of a greater and better world; lest the mind, accustoming itself to the minutiae of daily life, should become too narrow, and lapse into mean thoughts. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and set a limit, lest we fail to distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.
ETA - Actually, I don't know if five days is enough to even scratch at these three. I was meaning to look for any significance in the classical allusions in 'Ulalume' when I got mugged by 'Darkness'; and then I was going to read up on Byron - I really know little about him as he isn't (or wasn't - I now intend to take another look) my favourite of the Romantics - as I'm still wondering about his intentions with that poem; and now I'm starting to creakily remember that at some point I've done some formal study on Coleridge (I really wanted to write 'formerly formally studied' there, but it would have looked pretentious) with which I want to get back in touch. And I really must stop now in case my sentences get even more convoluted - have a nice weekend everybody.
That discordance between beauty and death, I think, tries to marry the two, concluding that even unholy things (a corpse, without a soul to make it 'holy') can have holy uses. (And, as Byron says in 'Darkness,' vice versa).
As for the Catholic references, I think you're remark about setting it in a distant-enough past is pretty efficient. I'd always made the same conclusion.
Nice to see you, Ms. Lola!
Hope to hear from you when you get back, rankamateur, 'formerly formal' or otherwise. :D
'The Minister's Black Veil' -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
'The Listener' -- Algernon Blackwood
'The Masque of the Red Death' -- Poe
'The Listener' is my favorite short story, and also by my favorite author, so I'll either have loads to say about it or nothing to say. Curious, that: but a trend with me.
The Poe was my favorite short story when I was around twelve (!). I still love it. It's probably the most 'Gothic' of the three.
The Hawthorne is something I read once a long while back, don't remember at all, and am very interested in rereading (especially in such good company!).
The Poe is a story I disliked when I was younger (not sure how I'd feel now but would probably prefer to read a new story -- though I imagine I'll at least have an opinion on that one).
I'm entirely new to Blackwood so not sure about that one, is it easy to find? :)
Apologies to all for my not joining in so far. I could have joined in this week but discussing poetry is not my strong suit (though i do like Rime).
I warn you, though, that this one bites. It's, again, my favorite short story of all time, and also the creepiest thing I've ever read. Ever.
If you don't have it in print, try to print it out; reading it online may rob part of its gravity (which isn't always the case, but with Blackwood, I think, it is).
(Oh, and rankamateur: whenever you get back, please join us! I really want to know what you think of this one...) :)
I've spent large chunks of the last twenty-four hours trying to get to grips with it to my satisfaction, and metaphors like 'juggling eels' and 'herding cats' are coming to mind.
Rather than what seem to be the conventional readings (the one that it is a lament for a dead love, possibly Poe's recently-deceased wife, the other that the poem doesn't have any meaning beyond the surface story and that Poe was more concerned with mood and effect), I half-believe that there is something darker under the surface, some sort of allegory going on. But I'm damned if I can get hold of it. As I keep re-reading and thinking about it, more questions keep popping up.
I've got so many notes here (and in pencil all over the poem) it would take a few thousand words to post them, but I'll just mention a few of the classical allusions.
Astarte was the Near-Eastern equivalent of Venus. Psyche was the most beautiful of mortal women and, as such, fell foul of, and was persecuted by, Venus, became the lover of Cupid - Venus' son - and, after much travail, eventually became his wife and an immortal and goddess in her own right. So Psyche and Venus/Astarte are not the best of friends and Psyche has good reason for her fear. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in Apuleius' The Golden Ass - the main source we have for Psyche and Cupid's story - the story "conveys an allegory of the progress of the Soul guided by Love". I'd like to suggest that in 'Ulalume' Psyche is doubling up as both the poet's soul and the personification of 'wholesome', faithful - perhaps marital - love (and perhaps also as the poet's conscience). Venus, on the other hand, can be seen as personifying sexual love or, even, sexual licence - she was pretty hot stuff even in the classics and by placing her outside the classical world in her aspect as Astarte she can be seen as 'other', as opposed to 'us' and thus as even more exotic and transgressive. I'll just mention here that, on his way - albeit unknowingly - to Ulalume's tomb, the poet consciously rejects 'Dian'/Diana whose attributes are virginity and chastity and who is the goddess of motherhood - quite virtuous and domestic, in fact. One last thing: the Morning Star that guides the poet is Venus, of course; but in biblical terms the Morning Star is also Lucifer, the devil (he and Astarte share the horns).
So where is all this leading me? Damned if I know - yet. I won't type tons more in chapter and verse, but there is a lot of stuff in there that hints, to me at least, that Ulalume is actually someone or something to be feared or despised or regretted - but what, exactly ...
What I do know is that I'm going to be obsessed with this poem for a long time to come.
There was originally one more stanza to this poem. Wikipedia says that it was removed by Poe's literary executor, the horrible Griswold. However, the article also reports Poe as saying the stanza "is not intelligible and scarcely clear to himself".
However it's included (without editorial comment) in the Library of America edition of the Poems and Tales. It's also included by Jeff Buckley in his recording of the poem, which has been uploaded to YouTube more than once.
It changes the narrative somewhat without making any clearer what is going on. In fact it adds another layer of mythology, or allegory, or whatever is is that's happening in this poem. The narrator and Psyche speculate as to whether (or if Psyche is simply his soul, the narrator asks himself if) "The pitiful, the merciful ghouls" have called up a false Venus ("Have drawn up the spectre of a planet/From the limbo of lunary souls") to turn them back from wandering - we still don't know why, or I can't work it out, at any rate - to the tomb of Ulalume.
Retaining this tenth stanza does make more sense of Psyche's "mistrust" of the star in stanza six, I think; but on balance the poem is stronger without it.
I never felt I'd really done more than scratched the surface of these three poems, especially 'The Rime ...' and 'Ulalume', and veilofisis's recent review of the former has had me re-reading them and this thread over recent days; so your post is quite timely for me. Especially as I didn't know about the tenth verse.
I'm surprised I never followed up here on my post #29. Looking at the classical allusions, I developed a suspicion - I wouldn't like to put it any stronger than that - that 'Ulalume' is an allegory on Poe's use of prostitutes - addiction to, and the shame and guilt associated with ... and someone's going to tell me that Poe never had the money.
There must be a volcano zeitgeist around at the moment. I was looking at this book in Waterstones today:
It focuses on the 1783 eruption of Laki (an Icelandic volcano) but has a couple of pages on Tambora, and even specifically mentions the Byron/Shelley stay at the Villa Diodati and Byron's "Darkness".
This is quite fascinating. I'm wondering how much this was still in the public consciousness when the Tambora effects came about. I'm so surprised that these events were never mentioned in my schooldays or in popular histories when I was younger*. They must have had at least as much influence on the lives of people and the politics of the times as the well-known wars we were taught about.
Most of all (from this group's point of view, of course), I'm wondering how much it effected comtemporary mind-sets and how that might have shaped the development of the Gothic.
ETA - *Not that I can remember, anyway.
Yet again, I can half-remember something from my reading - don't exactly know where, can't give credit where it's due - but it might have some bearing on this question.
Firstly, there's the wish of social scientists to reduce their subject to something as elegant and 'unmessy' as Newtonian physics: banishing the messy business of human life from it.
Second, even physical scientists wanted to exclude extreme events - volcanoes, meteor strikes, floods, etc. - from having any lasting effects on 'the Earth Story', preferring a rather slow, stately development over millennia. The reason, if I remember it correctly, for dismissing "Catastrophism" theories, was that they seemed to give too much ground to the traditional Biblical explanation of World history.
Actually, this might not even have been a consciously arrived-at position but rather, one that the natural philosophers and scientists came to without quite realising it: part good politics, part just feeling 'right'.
If true, it's a situation where you have to give some credit to the Post Modern theories about paradigms, cultural shifts and how scientific thought isn't totally free of the culture it arises from.
Ulalume crossed my path in my 20s, when shopping at a corner book shop on the Danforth in Toronto, somewhere east of Broadview on the south side. I know, because after I hit that book shop I would wander down the road toward Allan's, a quasi-trendy neighbourhood haunt (even had a music group named after it) with a nice back patio section where I could read to my heart's content and if rain arrived, take it inside. Those were some wonderful years (I think I was in Greektown about 6 or 8 years) and one of those weekends Poe followed me home. Still have it, and that was around 1988? Pages are yellow, but burgundy cover is still intact. Carried it in my purse for years and read it often because I am a mush for poetry.
Darkness, still searching ...
Although I knew of Byron, his work had not crossed my path until studying the gothic genre this past year. As is my habit, I tend to lend my time to underdogs, leaving the towering talent to the scholars. I admit to avoiding him since he seemed too famous for his own good. See, fickle reader, that's me. So, we all arrive at different works in different ways, and here is this poem, overlapping with Poe and Coleridge, so I'll bite.
As I read, I could feel the warmth draining from me, and was entirely cold reaching these lines;
"Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay."
Byron must have been spurned to the core by someone in order to call Darkness 'she'. Yikes. Never date a writer.
One further thing about Ulalume … SPOILER … here is a book read earlier this year called Mrs. Poe;
This is not a spoiler about the poem but about the novel, so if you have no intention of reading it, then this won't bother you at all, but I found it illuminating. =D Although it's written as historical fiction, focused on the romance element, a twisted triangle if you will, it has a sad 'ending' long before Poe's actual death comes into it. Frances Osgood is well described, a convincing foil for Mrs. Poe and her mother, a safe haven for Edgar when the sadness/madness of watching someone you love/hate waste away from illness grips you. The author captures the guilt/shame/regret/turmoil of the times and we don't blame either of them for what happens. In a moment of joy/weakness/triumph?? they consummate their forbidden love and in that one night create a child. The characters die off one after another; first Mrs. Poe in January, then Poe's daughter dies in the month of October, then Poe dies, then Osgood. Now Frances has two other daughters by her rascal husband and the tragedy is complete. However, the Ulalume poem is given top billing as Poe's tribute to his lost daughter. The joy Frances brought him in life, the act of becoming a father after the terrifying ramifications of public knowledge to his personal life and his career, then the loss. He buried his grief in the lines of this poem, still communicating with Frances through published pieces, as had become their scandalous habit. He could not have access to her when he 'needed' her, and she had no clear path to him. This section of the book is well written and deeply researched and gets you in the gut. A whole new spin on Poe's very old theme of a beautiful young woman's death as the greatest injustice of all.
Lynn Cullen also socks it to the editor who wrote a biography after Poe's death slamming him as a drunk, etc. Vindication! Here's a blurb, if of interest: https://www.revolvy.com/page/Frances-Sargent-Osgood