When I was a kid, my father used to sit on the edge of my bed at night and read to me before I went to sleep. No Goodnight, Moon or fractured fairy tales for us; no, in our Brooklyn housing project apartment I played audience at the age of six to The Charge of the Light Brigade, Annabel Lee, and our absolute favorite, The Raven. For me, the eerily Gothic poem by Edgar Allan Poe evoked lost love and eternal devotion in a rhapsodic cocoon of rhymes and alliteration. At an age so young, the agony of the phrasing was beyond me, along with the narrator’s descent into madness over the death of his beloved Lenore.
I knew the bird was bad news sitting there perched on the guy’s doorway croaking “Nevermore,” but lost in my father’s warm baritone, all still seemed right with the world. He would sit, his six-foot frame folded in half, cupping the tattered book of poems in one hand and gesturing dramatically with the other as he read:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Only this, and nothing more.”
At the present moment, I’m writing a paper for my American Lit class on the very same Edgar Allan Poe. The man who is credited with inventing the American detective genre with such stories as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter. The author of not only haunting poetry, but gripping psychological horror classics like The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart, as well as the ultimate premature-burial-in-a-dreary-mansion tale, The Fall of the House of Usher. The really staggering story is that all this was done by a little man who struggled with alcoholism and erratic behavior in a lifetime that only lasted forty years.
Still, he managed to pack quite a bit of living into those few decades. In addition to his original and prolific writings, he sparred critically with fellow authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James, and married his thirteen-year-old cousin at a time in the 1800’s when it wasn’t considered a Jerry Lee Lewis thing to get arrested over. Not a very good husband, he lost his wife to death at a young age, and was about to remarry when he died himself. It reeks of repetition, but in the weary words of the black bird:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
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