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TWO CENTURIES LATER AND STILL ALIVE

Vincent G Valentine, MD
Editor, ISHLT Links Newsletter


Some of the most famous and influential people in history were born in 1809. Abraham Lincoln, previously mentioned in the November issue, was born the same day as Charles Darwin, our notable naturalist: February 12, 1809. Felix Mendelssohn, born February 3, 1809, initiated key aspects of romanticism in classical music with his great Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream. Louis Braille, January 4, 1809, developed a system of communication for the blind. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., August 29, 1809, Dean of Harvard Medical School from 1847-1853, is known, among his many accomplishments, for calling attention to the true contagiousness of puerperal fever and popularized the term anesthesia. Hmmm ... an unintentionally dismissed but important topic for another issue of the ISHLT Links! Then we have the great poets: Lord Alfred Tennyson, August 6, 1809 and Edgar Allan Poe, January 19, 1809. Because Poe remains alive with us and can be linked with every issue of Volume 3 of the ISHLT Links Newsletters, I will provide a summary about him as we toast a glass of French cognac and leave three roses in his honor.

Poe was a polished romantic poet with incomparable technical virtuosity, perhaps the Beethoven of Poetry, a premier literary critic and a creator of prophetic genres such as: science fiction, detective stories, and horror stories. His greatest contribution was the psychological narrative within the gruesome and gothic stories he fashioned. One critic has stated, "He is the unpaid script writer of many great horror films." Essentially all horror movies over the last half century have come from Poe. These stories may not be serious literature but are certainly serious money. Although dead for over a 160 years, Poe is very much alive today.

Poe's reputation may be better known than his works. He has been described as a drunk, sick, kinky, diseased, perverted, and gambling necrophiliac. His natural and his foster mother died of consumption when he was 2- and 20-years-old, respectively. He married his 14-yr-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, when he was 27, and she died of consumption when he was 37. Therefore, the death of women figures prominently as his central theme in his works. It is the central theme in his life. As Walt Whitman has so aptly put it, he had an incurable propensity toward nocturnal themes and a demonical undertone behind every page. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to him as the "jingle man" primarily from his famous jingle, a poem named The Bells, with the famous word 'tintinnabulation'. T.S. Elliot stated that "Poe's powerful intellect is undeniable, but it seems he has the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty."

In the poem, The Bells, and his most famous poem, The Raven, there are maniacal repetitions. If we continue to repeat things, it begins to look like a kind of obsession. These repetitions of refrains are akin to sticking with a regimen or routine that one might declare for their New Year's resolutions. In such a way where regimens and routines are necessary, then life is poetry in motion.

Poe penned an important essay on "How I wrote the Raven." Against prior conventions, he points out that there is nothing about inspiration and nothing spontaneous in this poem. Poets are craftsmen who come up with rhyme schemes, metrics and purposeful arrangements. The poet is an artisan and a word maker. He uses language in a strategic and tactical manner. Poe posits that the major legitimate province of poetry is beauty. The proper tone is sadness, thus melancholy is the most legitimate of all practical tones. Beauty is the subject and melancholy is the tone. Death is the most melancholy or maybe being almost dead. What kind of death? You guessed it—his central theme in life is the death of a beautiful woman.

In poetry, the refrain is the most critical part, the repeating dimension of poetry. The refrain has a key word to be used over and over. He believed use of the long-O is scientifically obvious, the most sonorous vowel linked with the letter R, the most producible consonant. So nevermore becomes the obvious choice. Surely Abraham Lincoln read The Raven. The opening words of the Gettysburg Address which Lincoln deliberately chose are Four-score and ...

His most perfect poem is Annabel Lee with the repetition and rhymes, the death of a beautiful woman, a child bride who is being buried alive. Although dead, she is still alive for him. This brings up another central theme in his works: being buried alive.

Poe invents the detective story. He creates C Auguste Dupin who uses ratiocination to solve mysteries by combining his high intellect with creative imagination. This character spawns the creation of other great fictitious detectives including Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. His material leads to Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, HG Wells and other 20th century science fiction writers. Importantly, Poe wants the world to become transparent to a man of strong intellectual powers. Today, successful institutions and societies demand transparency and accountability.

Poe also gives us stories of the divided self. Twins and doubles struggle in these stories and in the psychological sense are related to his repetition devices from his poems. In the story, William Wilson, there is an emerging "twinship," a moral conscience of the dark side protagonist, which is opposite to the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where the protagonist is the moral conscience. In William Wilson, the nagging moral conscience (Wilson #2) exposes the cheat, the cunning and sly protagonist (Wilson#1) as if there is a psychic civil war within one character.

How about The Cask of Amontillado and the many obvious links? The names of the main characters are interesting: Fortunato—the fortunate one, and Montresor—my treasure. These names are mirror images of each other and again two different aspects of one personality. For fifty years this has been the most famous buried alive story in literature. Is this a means of repressing guilt (walling off), the guilt of having money, the root of all evil? The burial of Fortunato represses Montresor's evil nature. To possess fortune would plunge a man into ruin and destruction. Montresor chose to wall up Fortunato in darkness, permanent darkness.

Now from fun with names we move to Poe's puns. Montresor offers a bottle of wine called De Grave - from the Bordeaux area, but in English a grave is a tomb or a foreshadowing. Then Fortunato declares to Montresor, "You are not of the Masons?" referring obviously to the free masons. When Fortunato disbelieving asks for a sign, Montresor shows him a trowel. Montresor is a different type—a free mason who uses a trowel to wall up Fortunato for eternity. He turns out to be a free mason to free himself of Fortunato through his masonry, and with the last stone there is a final jingle of the bells. This is another example of psychic civil war by getting rid of your double.

For more links and more doubles we have The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart. These should be more obvious. The Black Cat is a great Halloween story. It is a mercurial story that suddenly shifts from tenderness, closeness and intimacy to hatred, violence and murder. There are two sides of the pendulum, the duality of tenderness and violence. The violence includes ritual dismembering and maiming as the cat's eye is deliberately gouged out from the socket. In Freudian terms, blinding someone is symbolic of castration. The eyes are agents of transgression, therefore they must be plucked out. The eyes are windows to the soul (and recall the article in the June Issue of the Links: Look Into My Eyes). This cat is hung. In Poe's works nothing remains secret. Cat number two comes onto the scene, the same repetitive device as mentioned before. This cat has only one eye. The narrator attempts to kill this cat but instead he buries an axe into his wife's brain. Then he walls up her body. He has done her in, but in the end he is exposed.

The links to The Tell-Tale Heart are all too obvious. Again, there is a focus on the eye. Kill the old man's eye, put out his eye. Along with the symbol of castration, there is killing the old man from Sophocles' Oedipus, about slaying the king, slaying the father, or slaying the authoritative figure. As if one can't bear being seen or seen doing things that one doesn't want to be seen doing. Also, murdering the king is Shakespearean. He's got the lantern reflected on the eye. The eye was wide open. The narrator sees nothing else of the old man's face or person, for he had directed the ray as if by instinct to precisely upon "the damned spot." This is from Shakespeare's Macbeth, "Out, out damned spot" - a story about killing the king, the authoritative figure.

There is the Pit and the Pendulum. Maybe it is too macabre to go there. There is just time and space. And of course there is the back and forth, to and fro, and the good vs. evil in life. Well with Poe, concealment is always a kind of failed project. He shows everything. Also, in all of these stories, the narrators have questionable sanity. Need I remind you the necessary repetition of a regimen for life, poetry? And in Poe's work, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Then there is the fine line of insanity and genius with the distance between the two measured only by success. Every New Year we repeat our resolutions. Most, if not all, fail.

Lastly, literature is there for all of us. It is the voice that outlives the body as in all of Poe's works. It is the recorded text, the words on a page that remain alive with us today even after the authors have long died off.

Edgar Allan Poe's Epitaph

"He was great in his genius; unhappy in his life, wretched in his death; but in his fame he is immortal."




Disclosure Statement:
The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.