Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Poe & Unrequited Love

In high school I read an analysis of "The Raven" written by Poe himself. I remember being very impressed by it but promptly forgot exactly what his point was. I only knew that the purpose of his essay was to describe the process of writing "The Raven" and that it was a response to poets such as Coleridge. Whereas Coleridge argued for a muse of sorts that consumes the author, Poe believed in a deliberate process to convey meaning through the poetic medium.

Over the years, as distance from the time of reading his essay increased, I began to believe that his main point had been that unrequited love was the most tragic of all themes. The Raven, I thought he argued, was a tragic poem because what love could be more unrequited than the love a man has for his dead lover?

His essay came to mind so frequently over the years that I decided to purchase a book entitled "The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe." Unfortunately for me, it should have been called "The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe Except the One You are Looking For!" Seriously, this book has every work except the one I was looking for. It even has an essay entitled "Philosophy of Furniture" (Opening line: "In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme." Very helpful.) I eventually concluded that I had made the whole thing up and Edgar Allan Poe had never written an article on "The Raven" and in fact "The Raven" itself was probably written by Mark Twain.

But then I stumbled across his essay again. It is entitled "Philosophy of Composition." If you are still reading this and have not just given up and cliked on the Simpson's video, you obviously have a strong stomach for tedious narrative so I feel no compunction to stop.

Here is what Poe actually argued. (If you want to save yourself the trouble of purchasing a book that doesn't have this article in it, here you go:

First, his starting point was that "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem."

Second, he believed that the best tone through which to convey beauty was that of sadness. Or, as he puts it, "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones."

Third, the most melancholy subject would be the contemplation of the death of a beautiful woman by her bereaved lover. "I asked myself — 'Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?' Death — was the obvious reply. 'And when,' I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?' From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — 'When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.'"

The guy was amazing, in my opinion. And so, my search is over. Poe never used the words "unrequited love" and so there you are.

Here's my question: how healthy is melancholy? For those who are prone to episodes of sad contemplation, what is Scripture's injunction? On the one hand, Ecclesiastes' observation is that the house of mourning is better than the house of mirth. But, on the other hand, I think the intent of melancholy for the believer should be far different than that of the unbeliever. The unbeliever mourns as one "who has no hope." We are commanded to contemplate the melancholy topics for different reasons than the world. Whereas the melancholy tendencies of the world cause a person to further introspection and unhealthy absortion with themselves, God calls us to look to Him in humility as the ultimate answer to lifes distresses.

"Take Thy beak from out my heart and thy form from off my door" is what the narrators says (or something very nearly like it.) That pain that takes our breath away as we contemplate the melancholy topics of the world is not a pain our Lord is unfamiliar with. There are boundaries to our melancholy musings.

Well, all that to say, here's Homer's take on The Raven.

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