‘The City in the Sea’ – A poem by Edgar Allan Poe

Context: The poem appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, The American Review, the Broadway Journal, as well as in the 1850 collection The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe drew his inspiration from several works, including Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The final version of text appeared in 1845 and contains many subjects associated with Gothic fiction. Poe was inspired at least in part by Flavius Josephus’s History of the Jewish Wars, a first-century account of the Biblical city of Gomorrah. Poe was accused of plagiarizing part of the poem from a poem called “Musing Thoughts”, first published in 1829 in The Token. Both poems include a line about a “thousand thrones”.

Themes: Death; a city in the sea ruled by death. Death is a real person here and resides in a tower from where he can see everything. Other themes are typical for the Gothic tradition such as loneliness and melancholy; catastrophe and collapse. The city can be a metaphor of man’s own soul. In another poem “Annabel Lee” there is also a reference to a kingdom by the sea as the narrator’s love suddenly dies.

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Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently —
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free —
Up domes — up spires — up kingly halls —
Up fanes — up Babylon-like walls —
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers —
Up many and many a marvelous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in the air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol’s diamond eye —
Not the gaily-jeweled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass —
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea —
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave — there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide —
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow —
The hours are breathing faint and low —
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’- A poem by Emily Dickinson

Context: A poem written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) from Amherst, Mass. This poem is about the experience related to bodily pain and it’s presented to the reader in various conflicting images and words. The poem was found after Emily’s death. The poem is very typical of what Emily usually writes about: sensitivity to her external surroundings and personal incidents in life; and personal experiences about love, pain, death. Emily had many health problems. In 1884 she had seen “a great darkness coming” and fainted while baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that her brother Austin canceled a trip to Boston. It’s hard to say what kind of illnesses she had and they may have contributed to her secluded lifestyle. On the death of her father in 1874 she entered into complete seclusion.

Themes: bleak reality, mind/body, shock, pain. Pay attention to how the rhytm changes to describe the shock and how the following imagery presents the entire process of sensation until immobility occur.

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

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Notes on “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron

Context: A romantic poem by George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) in honour of his cousin Mrs. Wilmot. “She Walks in Beauty” is a short lyrical poem in iambic tetrameter written in 1813 by Byron and is one of his most famous works.

Notes
: Here are some notes on the use of Old English words in the poem:

climes
– regions

aspect – look

mellow’d – made soft

gaudy – bright in colours

had impair’d – would have damaged

waves – verb here. Moves to and fro.

raven – meaning black as a raven

tress – a lock of hair

serenely – peaceful

brow – forehead

eloquent – to communicate easily

tint – shade

all below – everyone on earth


She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

The impossible life of Mary Benson : Reflections on a biography

A FEW YEARS ago a biography over a Victorian Archbishop’s wife saw daylight. It got some attention in British press. Mary Benson (1841-1918) was an ordinary vicar’s wife whose husband one day became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Edward W. Benson (1829-1896) reached the highest office within the Church of England and of the world-wide Anglican communion. Author Rodney Bolt has used diaries, and novels written by the Benson’s to produce this biography. The time covers both Victorian and Edwardian England.

as-good-as-god-as-clever-as-the-devilMUCH FUSS was reported in media about Mary Benson’s believed lesbian lifestyle after the death of her husband. She set up household with the previous Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife; Lucy Tait who was allowed to sleep in the same bed as Mary and on the late Edward Benson’s side. There’s not much which can confirm these circumstances today except from letters; diaries and our own conclusions.

Mary Benson proved to be a very independent woman. The Victorian values of her time didn’t stop her to do what she wanted to. She was described by William Gladstone the British Prime Minister, as the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’. Despite all the Victorian values concerning women and the role of a woman in Mary Benson’s position she managed to keep up with a double-lifestyle as the wife of the Archbishop and a more private self. One of her children remember she was often away, seldom played with them or talked to them. As her diaries proves; this wasn’t an easy way of life. She had a lot of relations with women. She tried to reconcile these relations and feelings with faith and more devoution to her husband. Often pointing them out in the diaries she prayed a lot to be free from her “carnal affections”. At the death of her husband when she was 55 she could finally allow herself more freedom and set up household with long-time friend Lucy Tait.

A Victorian Marriage

IT WAS CREEPY to learn that Edward W. Benson befriended Mary as an eleven-year-old child and thought of her as a future bride to marry. Perhaps this wasn’t an unusual situation among the Victorians that men from the middle classes could search for future brides in a similar way. Mary Sidgwick was also his 2nd cousin and the families knew each other well. He writes about the “friendship” in his diary:

“As I have always been very fond of [Minnie] and she of me with the love of a little sister, and as I have heard of her fondness for me commented on by many persons, and have been told that I was the only person at whose departure she ever cried, as a child, and how diligent she has always been in reading books that I have mentioned to her, and in learning pieces of poetry which I have admired, it is not strange that I, who from the circumstances of my family am not likely to marry for many years to come, and who find in myself a growing distaste for forming friendships (fit to be so called) among new acquaintances and who am fond indeed (if not too fond) of little endearments, and who also know my weakness for falling suddenly in love, in the common sense of the word, and have already gone too far more than once in these things and have therefore reason to fear that I might on some sudden occasion be led [the following in cipher: into a step I might all my life repent] — it is not strange that I should have thought first of the possibility that some day dear little Minnie might become my wife.” (Bolt 2011, p.24)

WE DO HAVE the adult Mary Benson’s thoughts on these circumstances:

“I realise that he chose me deliberately, as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate — he even wanted to preserve himself from errant fallings-in-love... God, though gavest me a nature which desired to please — and on its natural gaiety and natural-lovingness had been planted by my Mother a strong sense of duty. . . .” (Bolt 2011, p. 25)

SADLY as noted from her diary entrance we can relate exactly to how she was brought up in her social environment – to “please” and be aware of ones “duty”. As commented on by the author she was also below the age of consent when Edward W. Benson wrote his diary entrance. The consent age for girls in the 1850s was twelve. 25 years later the age was raised to thirteen. In 1885 it was raised to sixteen years thanks to the Criminal Law Amendment Act (Bolt 2011, p. 319). BUT AS this biography will reveal things went pretty well for the young lady. She managed to develop into an independent individual which was quite unusual considering her position as a vicar’s wife.

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Young Mary Sidgwick, 19 yrs. and the Archbishop. Their son would remember Mary as a pagan and Edward as puritan. They were quite different as persons and lived different lives.
I THOUGHT the biography was quite interesting; and that its author did manage to carry out a well-researched project. WE shall be lucky considering the fact that the Victorians were excellent diary keepers and letter-writers. Communication through letters was the past times social media. Mail was delivered several times a day and on Saturdays too. It was the glory days of all postal offices. With such much material at hand I was a little disappointed the author fictionalized some parts. This is noted in the introduction and it’s no longer unusual writers of biographies today use this method.

The Children of the Bensons

Despite modern assumptions on lesbian sex at Lambeth Palace Mary Benson quickly gave birth to six children. Many of them would become great names themselves and seemed just as eccentric as their mother. Neither was the marrying type. Her daughter Maggie, Margaret Benson (1865-1916) became an Egyptologist who were among the first women in England to study at Oxford. She also took part in Archeological excavations i Egypt. Their son Arthur Benson wrote the lines for Land of Hope and Glory while Fred Benson wrote Adventure books. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) shocked everyone and left his priesthood within the Anglican Church only to convert to Roman Catholicism. He was also a writer.

AFTER HIS CONVERSION to Catholicism Robert Hugh Benson received a lot of hate-mail! Men, women and even little school girls wrote nasty letters to the most unspeakable human being in the protestant kingdom! The defection didn’t go unnoticed in the press either. Finally, he moved. He had a long career in the Roman Catholic Church and in Rome he became a chamberlain to the Pope, 1911 and was entitled monsignor. Robert Hugh Benson was also a writer of fiction and wrote a very popular novel The Lord of the World (1907).

 

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Pope is an admirer of Benson’s dystopian novel The Lord of the World.
It’s considered one of the first modern dystopian novels. It has been called ‘prophetic’ by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Themes? The Lord of the World is about the Anti-Christ and his reign on earth. And the story goes as follows – Since the Labour Party took control of the British Government in 1917, the British Empire has been a single party state. The British royal Family been deposed, the House of Lords has been abolished, Oxford and Cambridge have been closed down, and all their professors sent into exile in Ireland. Marxism, Atheism and Secular Humanism which one of the novel’s protagonists describes as the tools of Freemasonry dominate culture and politics. The world now has only three main religious forces: Catholicism, Secular Humanism, and “the Eastern religions”. His horror and ghost fiction are collected in The Light Invisible (1903) and A Mirror of Shallott (1907). Many of the Benson’s children had mental problems all their lives. We don’t know about any diagnosis, but bipolar disorder may be a rational explanation today. Maggie Benson was deeply affected and died only 50 after a mental breakdown.

 

The Benson Brothers reflect upon their parents marriage

Arthur Benson (1862-1925):

Arthur: [….] It was a case of real natural incompatibility. Mama was an instinctive pagan, hence her charm. Papa was an instinctive puritan with a rebellious love of art. Papa on the whole hated and distrusted the people he didn’t wholly approve of. Mama saw their faults and loved them. How very few friends Papa ever had. […] He disliked feeling people’s superiority. His mind was better and stronger than his heart and his heart didn’t keep his mind in check. It was a fine character, not a beautiful one. He certainly had a tendency to bully people as he believed from good motives. Mama never wanted to direct or interfere with people and I think was the most generous and disinterested character I have ever known. But her diary is very painful to me because it shows how little in common they had and how cruel he was. [Bolt 2011, p. 217]

Fred Benson (1867-1940):

Fred: Papa was a very difficult person to deal with, because he was terrifying, and remembered things, not very accurately, because he remembered the points which were in his favour and forgot the points which were not. Mama forgot everything, or is she remembered, forgot the sense of resentment. Then he wanted, as you say, obedience and enthusiasm. Mama never claimed either exactly, but got both. Then Papa cared intensely about details, and details never interested Mama; and one must remember, as you say, the other side — and Papa’s affection, when it rose to the surface, was very revealing indeed. [From correspondence between the two brothers in 1925. [Bolt 2011, p.p 217-218]

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Arthur, Robert, Edward

Sources

Bolt, Rodney. As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson. London: Atlantic Books, 2011.

Wikipedia.org

Ancient Mythology in Poe’s novel ‘Ligeia’ (1838)

ligeia-clarke2Context and themes

Edgar A. Poe’s short novel Ligeia was first published in September 1838 by The American Museum in Baltimore.1 Poe, who was always short of money, was given 10 dollars for the story. It’s a mix of Gothic fiction and several other themes which are typical for the Romanticism. The major themes in the story are the death of a young woman, resurrection of a dead (young) woman and drug use since the narrator hallucinate through the entire story. Other sub-themes are memory and mourning. Playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The story of the Lady Ligeia is not merely one of the wonders of literature: it is unparalleled and unapproached”(Sova 2007, p.96). On the whole reception of the novel was positive, despite Poe revised it a few times. There are three characters in this story – an unknown narrator in first person, Ligeia and the Lady Rowena. The narrator suffers from a psychological condition, monomania in which he constantly reflects upon the beauty and personal character of his late wife Ligeia. Despite his frail psychological condition and opium addiction the narrator has remarried a woman named Lady Rowena. She is not from the city and lives in fear of her husband. Her features doesn’t assemble the previous wife and we’re told her hair is blond. The narrator doesn’t like her: “I loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man.” His addiction to opium helps him to hallucinate and get into a deeper spiritual connection with his dead wife. He calls her name and sees her in several visions. At one time he hallucinate and sees four large drops coming from an imagined well in the room. He collects the red drops and administer them to the Lady Rowena who dies from the dose. In the eyes of the dying Rowena he sees Ligeia. The novel also contains a poem called “The Conqueror Worm”. The poem is written by Ligeia as she is dying, though it is actually recited by the narrator, her husband.2

Myths and other references in Ligeia

I wrote previously on this blog about Poe’s use of Ancient mythology in the poem called Al-Aaraaf. The name Ligeia also appears in the poem. It’s constructed out of a Greek adjective, ligys first used by Homer and is related to something which is bright, light sounding. This was pointed out by T.O Mabbott in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978). The narrator identifies Ligeia as Astarte. In Poe’s novel known as Ashtophet (Andriano 1978, p. 87). Just as in his Al-Aaraaf poem Poe once again touch upon the islamic myth of the houris; mentioned serveral times in the Qur’an.3 Another reference to Eastern traditions can be found in this sentence: “They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.”4

Resources

Andriano, Joseph. 1993. Our ladies of darkness: feminine daemonology in male Gothic fiction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sova, Dawn B. 2007. Critical companion to Edgar Allan Poe: a literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY.

Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., 1978. The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

NOTES


  1. The American Museum was a monthly American literary magazine published by Mathew Carey in the late-18th century. 
  2. It was first published separately in Graham’s Magazine in 1843. 
  3. ḥaurā is singular form, meaning a gazelle-eyed (woman). Read more about houris here
  4. Frances Sheridan published The History of Nourjahad in 1767. The story describes Nourjahad’s life, who is tricked by the sultan Schemzeddin to believe that he has become immortal and that his period of sleep last for several years at a time. 

“Sonnet 55” – A poem by W. Shakespeare

Context : The English sonnet contains three quatrains followed by a final rhyming couplet. The lines are in iambic pentameter: 10 syllables and 5 stresses per line.

Themes : Love, immortality and memory. The beloved is glorified and compared to worldy goods and riches; but the message is that the beloved is the one who will live forever. Time is depicted as a slut which has done harm to the stone of monuments made by princes. The Old English word slut is non-sexual here and means only that time has made the stones dirty, blackened them. The narrator’s message is that the beloved in his poem in some sense will outlive all these wasted symbols.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room,
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

“The Flea” – A poem by John Donne

Context : The Flea is one of John Donne’s (1572-1631)  most famous poems. Johnny Donnie is perhaps one of the brighest poets ever from the gloriana time as Elizabetan culture produced names like Shakespeare and culture flourished greatly. However, Donne’s family were Catholics and had suffered greatly because of the open prosecution and discrimination against catholics in society. So John converted to Protestantism and became an Anglican priest. He had a happy marriage with Anne More until she died from him in childbirth. Many of the love poems can be traced back to her as an inspiration and muse to the poet. The ryhme scheme in The Flea goes AABBCCDDD, with couplets mostly.

Themes : Love, seduction, Christianity, marriage. Seduction of a chaste lady was a common motif in Elizabetan poetry. Much is going on in this poem and as young man John didn’t deny himself the pleasures of the world. He spent most of his father’s money on courting beautiful ladies, books and travels. As Donne became older much of the poetry changed into ascetic and religious themes.

 

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

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