Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Edgar Allan Poe and his use of Death By Arthur Ransome 1910



Poe and his use of Death By Arthur Ransome 1910

Death is the catastrophe of many stories of Poe. It is a bulky incident in life, and consequently one that readily offers itself for the purposes of art. Poe, however, was peculiar in his use of it. He does not watch a death-bed and make notes of the humanity of the patient. He does not make us feel the painful emotions of the men and women who see their friend irrevocably departing from them. There is no irony, no sadness, no setting of familiar things in the light that in death's presence seems to pierce the curtain that divides those who have gone from those who, busying themselves with irrelevant things, are waiting to go in their turn. Most writers seek in death an enhancement of the value of life, and find in mortality a means of elucidating humanity. Death with them is a significant moment of life. Death with Poe is Death. The metaphysician is obsessed by it as the point where simple calculations slip through into the fourth dimension. The artist is concerned with death as something separate from life, something whose circumstances are special and terrible.

It has been said that the horror of Poe's tales of death is purely physical. A quality more universally theirs is that of peculiarity of circumstance. The people who die, or have killed, or are about to die, are unusual, and the manners of the deaths, or the condition of mind in which they are prepared for them, are extraordinary. In some cases the death is no physical death, but the murder of half a soul by its fellow, as in the tale of William Wilson. In others the deaths are those of reincarnated spirits (Morella) of madmen (the murderers of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat) or of souls whose bodies are snatched in the moment of dissolution by spirits who have already left the earth (Ligeia). Brooding over the idea of death, Poe found his way into other corners of speculation, and the mere fact of dying became clothed for him with the strangely coloured garments of the weird.

He plays none of the witch melody that Hawthorne knows. Poe is interested in the conscience, but does not make of it and the faith that it sometimes implies a background to throw up into relief the figures that dance to his music. No penalties to be enacted in another world heighten the importance of deeds done in this. He is not, except as a metaphysician, concerned with the soul after death, but only tunes its progress to the grave. His fingers will lift no trumpet on the day of a judgment in which he does not believe. His interest as a story-teller is with the terrors of the soul before yet it has separated from the body. Let it wake in the coffin and beat with the fingers that are still its own upon the weighted lid. Poe will be with it in its agony. Hawthorne, thinking of Heaven and Hell, forgets the worms. Poe hears them eating through the rotten wood.

But though death is the motive that runs through them, Poe's best stories are not concerned only with mortality. He parades his corpses in the dim neutral country between ordinary life and the life that remains uncharted and scarcely explored. We have to remember in reading him that the geography of humanity changes from age to age, and that when, in his tales of mesmerism, for example, he seems to be moving in districts now open to the public, those districts when he wrote were no less shadowy than the world beyond the horizon to the dwellers in the caves. In William Wilson he is using, long before Stevenson, the idea of dual personality. In The Oval Portrait, where a painter transfers the very soul of his lady to the canvas, and, as the portrait seems to breathe alive, turns round to find her dead, he is using the subtle, halfthought things that an earlier writer would scarcely have felt, or, if he had, would have brushed like cobwebs secretly aside. Then there is the Germanesque story of the horse whose soul is a man and carries that man's enemy headlong into a flaming castle. The Assignation is an objective piece of colour. The Black Cat and  The Tell-Tale Heart are stories of murder; and its discovery, threaded with hitherto unimagined varieties of madness. The note common to all is that of the weird, and Poe keeps warily along the narrow strip of country that is neither frankly supernatural, nor yet prosaic enough to be commonplace.

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