Monday, November 24, 2008

One By Poe

Some of my colleagues in the English Department are working hard to put together a conference about and celebration of Edgar Allen Poe and his writing. The event is called (wait for it) SymPOEsyium. Poe's 200th birthday is in January; the event is in February. A colleague and I are going to discuss Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition." There's going to be a parody-of-Poe contest, and maybe someone will open a cask of Amantillado sherry. Of course, the jokes about pendulums, live burials, and ravens abound.

I just re-read the following not-famous (also known as obscure, I suppose) poem by Poe, and I found it pleasing in some respects. The influence of Wordsworth--perhaps Coleridge, too--is evident, I think. The focus on the poem seems to be on how the river is in one sense an emblem of art but then on how it becomes a mirror that reflects a woman's face but, more importantly, reflects the adoration of someone who admires her. Of course, we've come to expect a reference, oblique or direct, to Narcissus in poems about water, but that's really not what Poe seems to be up to here. The woman isn't admiring herself.

I like the reference to "old Alberto's daughter," as if the reader is supposed to know who that is, and the line "the playful maziness of art" is most amusing, sounds modern, and doesn't quite sound like Poe. The expression freshly portrays the way a river--which seems quickly to become a brook or a creek--represents art; more typical ways would be to think of the river's flow as similar to the imagination's flow, or to conjure images of sources--headwaters, etc. "Playful maziness of art" I found to be a good surprise. Addressing the subject of the poem right away, followed by an exclamation point, was something of a conventional move, to say almost the least, in the 19th century, as was personifying nature. The poem is derivative, but it has its original moments, and for Poe, it's light, so it has that going for it, too.

To a River

by Edgar Allan Poe

Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow

Of crystal, wandering water,

Thou art an emblem of the glow

Of beauty- the unhidden heart-

The playful maziness of art

In old Alberto's daughter;

But when within thy wave she looks-

Which glistens then, and trembles-

Why, then, the prettiest of brooks

Her worshipper resembles;

For in his heart, as in thy stream,

Her image deeply lies-

His heart which trembles at the beam

Of her soul-searching eyes.
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