Tag Archives: midnight

Thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

It had been many years since I read this tale, so reading it again felt fresh and exciting. I had never realized how much of a surreal vibe this story has. The strangeness of the scenes, the bizarre coloring of the various rooms, all instill a dreamlike quality to this story that really places it ahead of its time. Additionally, Poe employs brilliant symbolism and metaphors to create a rich work of art in very few pages.

The first thing that struck me while reading this again was the parallels between the Red Death and Ebola. It is almost like Poe had a prophetic vision of the Ebola outbreak.

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

One of the key symbols in this story is the clock. Amid the partying and the revelry, whenever the clock chimes, the revelers pause and become somber, then resume their festivities when the chiming is done.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly;

The clock serves as a symbol for mortality. We have a limited amount of time in this life, and we will all eventually die. The clock is a reminder to the revelers that death is imminent. They can hide behind Prince Prospero’s walls and attempt to ignore the reality of death that is rampant outside, but the clock reminds them, regularly, that they too will eventually die, and each chime brings them closer to death.

As the night and the masquerade move on, the clock eventually strikes midnight, symbolizing the threshold between life and death. At this moment, a stranger appears wearing a mask that mimics the effects of the Red Death.

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood –and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

This brings us to the other key symbol, the mask (or masque). While masque implies the masquerade party, it also refers to the masks that the participants wear. So what Poe is trying to convey here is that the revelers are entertaining themselves to hide, or mask, the fact that they are going to die. They dance and party and float through a bizarre dreamlike fantasy imagining that they are somehow safe from death, trying to mask their fear of death through distraction. Occasionally, the clock chimes and they are reminded, but then the masque resumes and they again mask their mortality, pretending all is well as death takes another step closer.

In the past few years, I have known many people who have died, and this is making me very aware of my own mortality. While I feel healthy and I hope to live a good many more years, I know that with each chime my time is lessened. But there is no need to obsess. Instead, I will put on my masque and proceed with the dance which is life.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.

Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.

But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’

As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.

When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.

Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.

And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.

‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’

What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.

Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.

He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!

I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.

Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

I had not read this poem since college and reading it this time I confess that I was completely blown away. Not only is the imagery and symbolism so powerful, but the language and musical cadence is nothing short of exhilarating. I feel like I have just come off an emotional rollercoaster after finishing this.

It is a fairly long poem, so I am not going to include all of the text in this post, but for those who need, here is a link to an online version.

Poetry Foundation

The poem is comprised of eight stanzas and I will look at each stanza separately. In addition to the eight stanzas, the poem is prefaced with a quote from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.”

Stanza I

In Stanza I, the emphasis is on dreams and inspiration. Coleridge is awake at night and his mind is wandering, thoughts drifting through and playing upon his mind like the wind upon the Aeolian lute. But he has a sense of foreboding; that a storm is coming.

 For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

There is some very interesting imagery here, particularly the New-moon shining brightly. The New Moon does not shine; it is dark. So we get a sense that he is slipping into the realm of the unseen, a place of “phantom light.” I see this as symbolic of his inner self, the part of him that is not visible to the world.

Stanza II

In the second stanza, Coleridge expresses emotional grief. His pain runs deep and is preventing him from being able to express himself artistically.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—

He gives himself over to silent contemplation, observing the space around him. There is a strong emphasis on vision in this stanza. His attention is focused on the sensory as opposed to the emotional.

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Stanza III

Here Coleridge has a realization that the symbols and forms that populate the world around him are inadequate metaphors for what is inside him. It seems that he has been relying upon images from Nature to express his spiritual being.

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

Stanza IV

As the realization sets in, Coleridge expounds upon the idea of inspiration and enlightenment coming from within, and not from without.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed

Artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment, which would have been similar in Coleridge’s view, is not bestowed upon us from Nature, but exist within us as the spark of divinity. Nature is but a reflection of the divine essence within us. It is the outward manifestation of the godlike soul that resides in our mortal shell.

Stanza V

In this stanza, Coleridge experiences a moment of spiritual rapture. He realizes that art and poetry is within him, and that poetry is the pure expression of his soul. This triggers a feeling of ecstasy. He realizes that by becoming pure of heart, he is able to connect with the muse that resides within himself, thereby becoming one with his creative side in a moment of sheer bliss.

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,

Stanza VI

Here Coleridge reflects back upon how he used to draw his inspiration from suffering.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

He then elaborates how his physical illness has demonstrated that suffering is the wrong path to take in the pursuit of artistic inspiration. Coleridge commits to explore the pathway of joy instead. He affirms that one must seek to connect with one’s inner joy in order to truly become artistically inspired.

Stanza VII

This was my favorite stanza. Here we see the darker phantoms of the mind resurge. Coleridge experiences an inner struggle between the light and the darkness. As the conflicting emotions clash within, it seems like he is grappling with his sanity.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

Stanza VIII

In the final stanza, we have an expression of resignation.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

It is now midnight, a transitional time. Coleridge comes to a point of acceptance that although his muse sleeps, he will be kept awake by the storm of thoughts within his mind. But during this period, his muse will rest, and when she awakens, she will be refreshed and will bestow upon him new inspiration. And this inspiration will flow from within himself into the world around him, not the opposite way. Henceforth, his poetry will be an expression of the divine soul within.

I have always loved Coleridge’s poetry, but I guess I never gave this poem the consideration it deserves. I now feel that it is one of his finest works and I am certain that I will be reading it again. I never tire of great poetry and this is without a doubt great poetry.

1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Spiritual