Now we are on the icy slope of winter, Christmas hovering into view. We have left behind Keats’ “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and entered Poe’s “bleak December.” Meteorological winter begins today, December 1.
I’ve been reading a book about Poe in these late fall/early winter days. He’s often considered to be decadent — sinister even. He was unfairly maligned after his death by one of his literary enemies, and most of us still think of him as the Jim Morrison of the 19th century, a depraved celebrity who crashed and burned, driven by demons and drugs.
He actually seems to have been tormented more by poverty, and the illness and early death of his wife — his child bride. Still, Poe’s eerie stories make good reading in the early twilight gloom of winter.
Poe’s critical standing has never been very high in America, but in Europe he is ranked with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson among the great American poets. In all my college literature classes, I don’t think I ever heard his name mentioned. He drops out of the curriculum after junior high.
But he was the writer I started off imitating. First it was his poems, like “The Raven,” so easy to emulate, with its multiple internal rhymes and regular cadence. It was the poem that made him famous, back when it was published in a New York newspaper, the Evening Mirror, in 1845. Famous, but not rich.
I think my version ran to 45 lines or so of doggerel. Then I tried “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells.” Copying the masters has always been the standard schooling for aspiring writers and artists.
A few months ago I came across copies of my high school newspaper that my mother had tucked away in a box for all these years. On their features pages I found several short stories I had published about shrunken eyeballs and mysterious sailing ships, all done in Poe’s style but without any obvious talent. Looking back, I think these stories were meant to be parodies, like the Mad magazine parodies of popular movies and TV shows. Or maybe I was just that bad.
The thing I always admired about Poe was his ability to create atmosphere and mood. You read him through a veil of unease, through a chilly deep-red film that seems to have glazed across your eyes. There is a chill wind blowing through his stories and waves crashing and cobwebs brushing against your face.
He is the body undergoing rigor mortis, the premature burial, the ruined mansion. Poe is not as scary as many modern horror writers, but he seems to be doing something more disturbing. He is reminding us that the body does decay, that we are subject to everyday horrors and accidents we have no control over, that we can lose the one we love just as he did.
In Poe’s time, life was far more precarious than it is today. You were almost bound to have lost a sibling or a parent at an early age. Medicine was crude, diseases abounded. No social safety net, no childhood vaccines. Yet people were not indifferent or psychologically hardened to their condition. It hurt as much to lose a child then as it does now. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and even President Abraham Lincoln attest to that.
Poe’s tales are like an inoculation, a milder form of the virus we are trying to avoid. We take the vaccine and call it fiction, and lay down the book.
His life was in his stories, and the truth as he knew it. There was not much spring or summer in his worldview. It was all pretty much late autumn and winter, the sun fading, the shadows growing. Perfect for this time of year.
Walt Mills can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875