Jan. 19, 2005

The Haunted Palace

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Poem: "The Haunted Palace" by Edgar Allan Poe, an excerpt from The Fall of the House of Usher.

The Haunted Palace

In the greenest of our valleys,
    By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace
    (Radiant palace) reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion
    It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
    Over fabric half so fair.

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
    On its roof did float and flow
(This, all this, was in the olden
    Time long ago);
And every gentle air that dallied
    In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
    A wingèd odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley
    Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
    To a lute's well-tuned law;
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
    The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
    Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
    And sparkling evermore,
A troop of echoes, whose sweet duty
    Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
    The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
    Assailed the monarch's high estate
(Ah! let us mourn, for never morrow
    Shall dawn upon him, desolate);
And round about his home the glory
    That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
    Of the old time entombed.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
    Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
    To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
    Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
    And laugh - but smile no more.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Julian Barnes, born in Leicester, England (1946). Both of his parents were French teachers, and he grew up interested in language. One of the first jobs he took out of college was working as an editorial assistant for the Oxford English Dictionary. Since most of the other employees were women, he became the head of what he called "the sports and dirty words department."

He started writing had published two novels when he happened to visit two museums devoted to the novelist Gustave Flaubert. At the first museum, Barnes was delighted to see the stuffed green parrot that Flaubert had kept on his writing desk while working on his story "A Simple Heart." Then, at the second museum, Barnes saw another stuffed parrot, which was supposedly the same parrot Flaubert kept on his desk. Barnes said, "The first parrot had made me feel in touch with the master. The second parrot mocked me with a satirical squawk." The experience gave him an idea for a short story about a man obsessed with Flaubert, and it grew into his novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984), which became his first big success.

He's known for novels that read more like philosophy, biography, or literary criticism, but he has also written a series of conventional detective novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, including Putting the Boot In (1985), and Going to the Dogs (1986). His most recent book is The Lemon Table (2004).

It's the birthday of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1921). She had a terrible childhood as an unwanted only child. Her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, and when she was born anyway, her father abandoned the family.

She started thinking about writing novels in her teens, after she read a book of case histories about criminals. She said, "I can't think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating, than the idea—the fact—that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, a compulsive thief, or even a murderer."

As a young woman, she was working in the toy department of Bloomingdales when she saw a tall blonde woman and fell completely in love. The woman bought something for her daughter and left her address for delivery. Highsmith kept the address, and two years later, she took a train to the woman's house and stood outside for several hours. She said, "[I felt] quite odd—like a murderer in a novel."

Highsmith never met that woman, but she never forgot the experience, and went on to write a series of novels in which characters are constantly stalking, spying, peeking through windows, and eventually attempting to kill each other. She made a name for herself when her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950) was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a movie. Around the same time, she moved to Europe, where she came to be regarded as one of the best American novelist of her generation, compared by European critics to Kafka and Dostoyevsky.

But her books didn't do well in the United States, because they were not traditional thrillers or mysteries. Instead of writing about murderers who get caught, she wrote from the point of view of murderers who get away with the crime. American critics thought her work was too dark, and by the time of her death, most of her books were out of print in this country. Then her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was made into a movie forty years after it was published, which sparked interest in her work. Today all of her books have come back into print, and her recent Selected Stories was a bestseller when it came out in 2001.

It's the birthday of the poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston (1809). He was the son of two actors, but both his parents died of tuberculosis when he was just a boy. He was taken in by a wealthy Scotch merchant named John Allan, who gave Edgar Poe his middle name. His foster father sent him to the prestigious University of Virginia, where he was surrounded by the sons of wealthy slave-owning families. He developed a habit of drinking and gambling with the other students, but his foster father didn't approve. He and John Allen had a series of arguments about his behavior and his career choices and he was finally disowned and thrown out of the house.

He spent the next several years living in poverty, depending on his aunt for a home, supporting himself by writing anything he could, including a how-to guide for seashell collecting. Eventually, he began to contribute poems and journalism to magazines. At the time, magazines were a new literary medium in the United States, and Poe was one of the first writers to make a living writing for magazines. He called himself a "magazinist."

He first made his name writing some of the most brutal book reviews ever published at the time. He was called the "tomahawk man from the South." He described one poem as "an illimitable gilded swill trough," and he said, "[Most] of those who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops." He particularly disliked the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Poe also began to publish fiction, and he specialized in humorous and satirical stories because that was the style of fiction most in demand. But soon after he married his fourteen-year-old cousin Virginia, he learned that she had tuberculosis, just like his parents, and he began to write darker stories, about husbands preserving the teeth of their dead wives and people buried alive. One of his editors complained that his work was growing too grotesque, but Poe replied that the grotesque would sell magazines. And he was right. His work helped launch magazines as the major new venue for literary fiction.

But even though his stories sold magazines, he still didn't make much money. He made about $4 per article and $15 per story, and the magazines were notoriously late with their paychecks. There was no international copyright law at the time, and so his stories were printed without his permission throughout Europe. There were periods when he and his wife lived on bread and molasses, and sold most of their belongings to the pawn shop.

It was under these conditions, suffering from alcoholism, and watching his wife grow slowly worse in health, that he wrote some of the greatest gothic horror stories in English literature. Poe's best-known short story is "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), about a man who kills his employer and then believes he can still hear the employer's heart beating. It begins, "TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."

Near the end of his wife's illness, he published his most famous poem "The Raven" about a young man visited by a raven in the middle of the night, and who comes to believe that the bird is possessed by the spirit of his dead lover, Lenore. It begins,

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—"

For many years after his death, Poe was considered by critics in this country to be a mere sensationalist writer of gothic tales. But much of his work was translated into French, where he inspired a generation of surrealist poets and fiction writers, including Charles Baudelaire, who said that he prayed every morning to God, to his father, and to Poe. Today he is credited with having invented the psychological horror story and the detective story.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."

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