Essay by Hanns Heinz Ewers translated by Joe E. Bandel
|(continued from part 1)
The Pit and the Pendulum
I slowly walk for a long time through the park at Alhambra under the ancient Elms that Wellington planted. On all sides I hear the babble and rustle of flowing water mixed with the sweet songs of a hundred nightingales. I stride between the high towers into the luxuriant valley of Alhambra.
Who does this magic palace, these dream gardens belong to? The destitute Spanish nation that I despise? The vulgar strangers with their red books that I must take ten steps to avoid?
Oh no! It belongs to me, to me and the few capable of receiving this beauty into their souls. There is a voice in these stones, in these bushes that lends life to the spirit of beauty and brings an understanding of truth.
Everything around me and everything that is beautiful on this earth is the sacred everlasting property of the Nation of Culture that stands above the masses. It is ruler. It is owner. The beauty does not speak to anyone else. Understand this command and dare to live. Edgar Allan Poe did.
I sit on a stone bank where Aboul-Haddjadj once dreamed. In front of me a spring gushes up out of the hill and flows into a marble basin. I wonder if the Sultan ever sat alone here in the dawn hours. Oh, it is so sweet to dream here.
There was once a poet that wrote only of his conversations with the dead. He chatted with all seven Sages, all the kings of Ninevah, with Egyptian priests and Thessalonian witches, with Athenian singers, with Roman Commanders and with the knights of King Arthur’s round table. Finally he didn’t want to talk with living people anymore, the dead were so much more interesting!
Certainly anyone can chat with them. Every dreamer knows this and everyone that believes in dreams as the ultimate reality.
Have I not today wandered there above through the halls with my favorite? Have I not shown the world a beautiful piece of the dead that living eyes have never seen before? Now he stands before me leaning against an elm.
“Any questions?” He says.
He looks good, my caressing eyes question him and he speaks. Soon clear words drip from his lips, soon his voice babbles out of the fountain and sings out of the throats of the nightingales and rustles in the leaves of the ancient elm. The dead are so clever.
“Leave my poor life alone.” He says. “Ask Goethe about his. He went hunting around the world with a prince that paid him with six stallions. I was a solitary.”
I never let my gaze leave him. “Tell of your life and of your love!”
“I forgot life, forgot that I lived.” He says. “Oh, not now since I’ve been dead, as the children say. I forgot every day on the next day. Could I have lived any other way? My true life, the one in my dreams you already know about.”
A light mist rose from the ground and scurried away into the evening; a sweet cool fanned my temples. I certainly knew his dream life; it poured through me and through the world. Through his poetry his life has slowly unfolded before me.
William Wilson. Naturally this is Poe, so very much Poe that the moralist Griswold deemed Wilson’s birth year as the poet’s own. The boy ruled over all his schoolmates in the old boarding school at Stoke-Newington, all except one, his own self.
Those good things that he inherited as a boy, youth and man would always turn to rags because his conscience was not free of the other Wilson, his own self.
Pigheaded conscience pushed against his fascination with crime in the world and he became his own punishing judge.
This is how the poet’s childhood poisoned his youthful years. What he inherited along with his education awakened still more feelings for good and evil so exaggerated in him that he went here and there trapped in an eternal struggle that nearly destroyed him.
Every little wrong he had ever experienced grew in his dreams into enormous crimes that tormented him, tormented him. Still more was the sinful thought of playing with the idea of evil in his dreams until it became real as well. He, himself, is the hero in all his gruesome stories. As the last of his kind he rights the sins of his father and like his Friedrich von Metzgerstein rides a demonic horse into the flames of hell.
How the elm leaves rustle! I hear this luckless voice in the wind. “If I had not been a poet I would have been a murderer, a fraud, a thief and a cheat.”
The elm leaves clang and his voice continues, “and perhaps I would have been happier.”
I think, who knows?
How is it that this tormented poet never became a criminal? Where he really lived, in his dreams, he was not only a murderer but at the same time a victim. He entombed his enemy alive in the cellar and it was himself that he entombed. (A Cask of Amontillado)
He murdered the man with the vulture eyes because he had to and buried him under the floor. The heart kept beating and beating and gave the deed away. It was again himself. (The Tell-Tale Heart) His evil twin, the double, William Wilson everywhere.
Seldom has an artist toiled so much for so few results, never has anyone so immersed themselves in their work. A German or Frenchman could more easily have freed himself from this morality. But the poet was so encumbered with a crushing religion of the soul from early childhood and in his education that he could never entirely free himself. When he was finally able to distance himself it was too late.
He was never able to stand on the other side of good and evil. The old English curse oppressed him. No fortune would spare him and like Breughel, Jean van Bosch and Goya, this poor soul had to suffer insane anguish and drink the bitter cup to the last drop.
Oh yes, if he had been a criminal he would have ended his life on a gallows instead of in a hospital for the poor. He would not have shared his thoughts and his life would still have been miserable and full of agony but not as dreadful as it was.
But a temple stands out of Golgotha, lily fields grow out of blood fertilized meadows, and we are fortunate to partake of these glorious flowers that grew out of the poisoned heart’s blood of this poet.
The spring fed brook splashes through the park at Alhambra. Small lively rivulets prattle and chatter. It rushes in the narrow gravel plastered bed, rushing like the good hours of this poet’s life. The hours, minutes perhaps that he was able to spend in harmless enjoyment.
In those times when he dreamed they were amusing dreams. About the man with the wonderful nose so huge that all the world sat in amazement. Painters painted it and Duchesses kissed it. This precious little story in a bizarre way is in advance of the talent of Mark Twain. Only in this one by Poe the exaggerations are finer and expressed more naturally so that no where is word play over emphasized.
Or his funny one about Hot Beggars Soup dished up in the weekly paper for good natured readers, or the instruction of Miss Zenobia with her capable and gripping Blackwood article and lastly the Honorable Thingum Bob from the World Lantern with the sublime delightful chat over his literary career.
So light, so kind is the poet’s wit like the lively splashing brook babbling through the park at Alhambra.
But how the nightingales sob his dream of longing! And his soul appears to sing in the voice of the nightingale, so pure, so without blemish that the divine Cecilia would be jealous and break her violin and Apollo would smash his lyre. In his criminal dreams there was no hell deep enough for this poet but in this divine song there is no heaven high enough.
No where do we find a single sentence or gentle thought by Poe speaking of sexual love. The erotic is so completely alien to him as to no other except perhaps to a virgin. There is little to be found where he expressed social feelings as well and while he does have a heart in his breast that yearns for love it is never permitted to be expressed.
He was not able to love people and always took a small view. He pushed away the caressing hand and the endearing words died on his tongue unspoken. This is when his addiction helped and proved his ability to love animals, to pet the hound and feed the starving cats. Then he was grateful for the faithful gaze and the contented purring.
The poet was aware of this and expressed in his novel Black Cat how this love of animals was his richest source of joy. The higher love of his dying spouse gave him joy mixed with horrible pain and was certainly not the richest source of happiness in his poor life.
Edgar Allan Poe is Roderich Usher and like him has a lute from the angel Israfel of the Koran in his breast instead of a heart. When he looks at his beautiful beloved his heart stops and the lute sings. Its high song of longing sounds such sweet tones in his ear in the pure manner of Morella and Berenice, of Eleonora and Legeia. That same inner music flows through The Raven and Ulalume and is perhaps the highest art there is, this intoxication expressed through poetry and prose.
And in the poet’s world song Eureka it is accompanied by these sounds, “They can not die: or if by any means they be now trodden down, so that they die, they will rise again to the life eternal.”
Yes, in the short space of time that he lived he achieved what men call immortality, the highest man can ever reach now or in the future.
The worth of Edgar Allan Poe is at no time higher than in our day. Our time can learn so much from him and it has. Poe is not a problem today; he is a beacon whose clear light shines the way for others.
The awareness of his art through intoxication, the significance of stress and technique, the clear recognition of the Parnessian principle of art in the broadest sense. The strong sweeping back of the borders and the extreme significance of the inner music for all poets.
These are all moments some of which others individually stress but in their entirety and pervasive connection no artist has recognized and applied as much as the New England poet. And these moments in their entirety represent what is demanded by the modern spirit of cultural art expressed in a way that can be comprehended and studied. No artist or layman should be as grateful to any other poet as much as to Edgar Allan Poe.
When an artist is really stuck and can’t make a translation there lies at hand a way to learn and enjoy being a poet by forcing a way into his inner being and bringing out the needed original translation. No other poet can show this process more than Poe can.
Now the nightingales flute and out of their small throats sings the voice of the artist I love. The light wind stops beating its frenzied wings on the leaves of the elms. The trickling brook quiets its chatter as the park of Alhambra pauses to listen to the song of the nightingales.
For a hundred years the old towers and mortar have experienced these familiar sweet evening sounds but today is different, so different. The loud beating of a dead poet’s heart and the little birds are singing his soul song. The brook and the trees listen, the square red stones listen, the purple glowing snow capped mountains listen. And an infinite sigh sounds through the huge garden as in the west the warm sinking sun mournfully takes its needed parting from the poets raised song.
The twilight breathes through the elms and light misty shadows rise out of the laurel bushes to climb up toward the Moorish Palace. In ancient times long gone they sat round these marble banks. I know well who they are. Gabirol now sits next to me, now Ibn al-Khabib and Ibn Esra, and Jehudah ben Halevy and Mohammed Ibn Khaldoun and Ibn Batouta. A hundred dead poets listen hushed to the song of the nightingales. How clever are the dead.
They hear the heart of the angel Israfel whom the Koran told of, and give thankful praises to God that such music has awakened.
“Ouala ghaliba ill’ Allahta ‘ala” murmur the misty shadows. And the nightingales sing of dark mysteries, of the immense longing that is the pure source of life.
They sing of the greatest secret of all, that all things created and brought through eternity are filled with the breath of infinite love. They sing of beauty as the truth that comes before truth. They sing of dreams that are the life that comes before life.
Poe’s soul sings and a hundred dead poets listen to the clamor and from their lips arise once more the ancient words “Ouala ghaliba ill’ Allahta ‘ala”.
So thankful are the dead.
And the night sinks deeper here. The nightingales hush and the east wind rises and comes from the Sierra. The misty shadows disperse. I am alone again in the enchanted park of Alhambra. Alone with a great poet’s soul. And how the wind blows through the ancient elms rustling the leaves and singing of Ulalume, the very same ballad in the poet’s dreadful dream.
“The skies they were ashen and sober
The leaves they were crisped and sere
The leaves they were withering and sere
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber
In the misty region of Weir
It was down by the dark tarn of Auber
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir
Here once through an alley Titantic
Of cypress, I roamed with my soul.”
I know well that the verse speaks of me. But I perceive my lips are not saying anything different than that of the rustling elms. I perceive that it is the grief of the October wind howling in distress at the poet’s unearthly longing enspelled in human words and being pulled out of me.
It is the spark of his peculiar thought or essence that emanates from his corpse as the divine breath of nature penetrating everything. The original spark of his being is in all things and a small proof of the poet’s highest law, that the source of all things is unity.
My mouth speaks the mysterious words that the wind has carried to my ears. I am becoming afraid in the dark loneliness, in this living fairy tale. I want to leave out of the valley of Alhambra. Groping in the darkness I lose my footing and miss the path. Finding a trail in the ancient cypress I come up hard against a low door. Oh, the terror that comes upon me in the darkness. I know, I know well whose grave this is. And against my will my lips speak to my soul.
“What is written, sweet sister
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied, “Ulalume, Ulalume.
Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Again and again the fear rises up within me. The dead poet’s soul that rustled through the elm trees, that resounded in the nightingales song, that babbled in the spring fed brook, that howled such a dreadful song in the wind, has taken possession of me.
Only a small mote of dust with the divine breath of nature has pierced through me, through me. I know there is no escape and he will destroy me. He does not crush me. And strangely I am quiet, so quiet as if I have been completely filled by him.
The human fear gently fades away.
Now I find the path again. I stride through the gate of vines in the place leading to the Aljibes. I go in the Alcazaba, climb up the Ghafar, the mighty watchtower of the Moorish rulers.
A glowing crescent moon shines now between two moving clouds, it is the true mark of Arabian greatness that no God in heaven can wipe away.
I glance deep down into church happy Grenada, noisy and swarming with nightly street traffic. They run into the coffeehouses, they read the newspapers, polish boots and get their boots polished. They look into lit shop windows, travel in streetcars, call out, “fresh water!” and collect cigar stubs. The noise and bustle annoy me but I try to tolerate it. No one raises a glance; no one looks up to the singular splendor that is here above.
Over there on my right resounds the river Darro, behind me I hear the rushing of the river Geni. Bright campfires penetrate out of the caves of the gypsies and in another direction the snow capped Sierra glows silvery in the moonlight.
From where I stand between two watchtowers and the purple towers of the Moorish Mountains lies the park hidden in the darkness deep in the valley. Behind me lies the magic palace of Alhambra, hall on hall, courtyard on courtyard.
There below is the small life of this century; here above is the land of dreams. That down below in the distance is so infinitely far from me and this here above, is not every stone a part of my soul?
Haven’t I been in this world of ghosts, that the living blind down below can not see? Haven’t I been a part of this dream? It is the almighty beauty that makes these dreams come true. Here life blossoms and the reality down below is only a shadow game.
The deed is nothing. The thought is everything. The reality is ugly and not justified to exist. The dream is always beautiful and is true because it is beautiful. That is why I believe dreams are the only true reality.
What was Edgar Allen Poe like?
There are people that give out a strange magic. Under their spell you have to believe in their personality. There is something that pushes back and makes you notice. No one knows what but it is there. They are marked with the sign of the artist. Oscar Wilde was one and so was Edgar Allan Poe. His manner was high; his gait was light and his demeanor always harmonious. He was always refined despite his poverty and had a romantic chivalrous manner.
His proud features were regular, yes, he was handsome. The pure dark gray eyes held a strange violet glint. The high confident brow had marvelous symmetry. His complexion was always pale and shadowed by his dark locks. Edgar Allan Poe was beautiful in body and in soul. His gentle voice was musical.
He was a strong supple athlete, a persevering swimmer that once swam over seven English miles upstream against the current from Richmond to Warwick without getting tired. He was an experienced jumper, elegant rider and excellent fencer that more than once demanded a duel from a hot-blooded opponent.
He was a gentleman from top to bottom; his social manner was cool and though entangled was charming. He was sensitive and tender, earnest and solid. He was a scholar with an almost universal education. It was an equally great pleasure to see him or to listen to him. He was always sharing and his curse was that so few, so few to whom he gave his great riches were worthy enough to understand.
Did a few beautiful women understand him? No, but they could sense the nobility of his soul, instinctively the way all women do.
Only three people lived in his time that were capable of grasping him completely. Baudelaire and the two Brownings, but they lived over in old Europe and he never saw them.
The poet was alone in his exaggerated dreams. He was beautiful, loved beautiful things and needed to surround himself with beauty. He created glorious beauty in his dreams that were real to him. The expensive country house in Landors or the marvelous estate at Arnheim.
But in his poor modest life the penny mattered. He knew how to create things around him that excited the admiration of the rich. His small cottage at Fordham where he endured a paradise of agony with his death marked spouse had a precious harmony flowing through it that charmed every visitor.
Stuff and clutter filled it. But it was attractive and beautiful. It was a miserable cottage on the top of a small hill but blooming cherry blossoms stood out of the green meadow. In the early dawn small songbirds enticed the poet out into the nearby pine forest. There he walked through his colorful Georginian bushes breathing the sweet perfume of wild Mignonettes and Heliotrope. The light morning air kissed his moist temples and stroked the weary eyes that had kept watch through the long night over his beloved.
He visited the high bridge over the river Harlem and the rocky cliffs in the wilderness where he dreamed under the shade of ancient cedar trees.
Now he rests somewhere. On the day after his death he was buried in the Westminster Church Cemetery in Baltimore. You have read of the poet dying like a vagabond and buried in a hurry like a dog found on the street.
His grave will be near that of his grandfather, General David Poe, who made a name for himself in the Civil war. It should be there somewhere, there is no cross or gravestone to mark the site. No one bothered. His countrymen had other cares. Why should they worry about one dead poet!
For one week they were employed with various miserable ways to soil and vilify his memory. All the false stories that have been invented since are still in circulation, a whole flood of poisonous ink sprayed over the dead lion. The mediocre fell upon him, the jealous torrents of small writers which he had so relentlessly pulled to pieces.
Voiced the battle cry of the lying moralist Griswold, “He went mad in a drunken fog! He drank too much! He drank too much!”
Then he was forgotten and that is all right. His countrymen are not yet mature enough to recognize the genius of their great poet. After another century they will gather his decayed bones together, erect a mighty monument and inscribe on it:
“The Greatest Poet of the United States”.
Allow them to keep his bones over there. What we want is to listen to the poet’s soul in the call of the nightingales that live here in the Alhambra.
The best English edition is by J.B. Lippincott Company in Philadelphia. A complete German edition (only the critical studies, humorous short stories and a few poems are not included) appeared by J.C.C. Bruns in Minden. Individual novels are in the Reclam and Meyer’s public library.
Poe’s biographer, the moralist Griswold does not hesitate to say; “In the entire literature we find only shadows and no example of Poe’s missing conscience.”
It is completely mistaken for van Vleuten to state as fact that excessive alcohol consumption will lead to Bachus being the enemy of Venus. His remark, “Every doctor knows that alcohol is the enemy of physical love, it seems that in Poe it has also destroyed its psychological equivalent.” (Tomorrow”1903 page 189)
For me to hear this from the mouth of a serious psychiatrist like van Vleuten is simply inconceivable. I have often had the opposite experience and several psychiatrists have confirmed to me that chronic alcoholics during intoxication often enough, sometimes even regularly, show an extraordinary increase in sex drive.
This is not the place to question this detail. At the least every police officer will confirm and van Vleuten will certainly not deny that three quarters of the nightly patrons of Bordellos spend much of their time one way or the other in a highly intoxicated condition.
Van Vleuten’s hypothesis is wrong and his conclusion completely absurd.
“Alcohol seems to have destroyed in Poe the psychic equivalent to have and the feminine was banished from his deliriums.”
“That is why the entire sphere of the feminine and human sexuality finds no root in the deliriums of this poet.”
The sphere of the feminine is not missing and Poe has of course in the purest and most noble form related it often. By the way, van Vleuten contradicts himself when he notes that the “Raven” seems to come from a delirium.” (Ibid. page 189) Well, woman plays the main role in this poem how can he claim the feminine has been banished from Poe’s deliriums?
The sentence that “Alcohol is the enemy of physical love and even of its psychic equivalent” is certainly inaccurate; the effect is individual and entirely different in this case.
Baudelaire, in writing of the sexuality in Poe’s work, noted van Vleuten’s comment in his own remark, “I can find no real explanation for this finding.” Baudelaire, the artist of intoxication par excellence, did not avoid this well known remark and responded intentionally because he recognized its hollowness.
Unfortunately not one word of the sociality as well as the sexuality that leaps to the eye of Poe’s readers seems to touch van Vleuten. Does he claim these psychic equivalents did exist before they were destroyed by alcohol?
Logically he must because there is no other way to explain his negation of something that is so obviously there in the internal context of Poe’s work.