Friday, October 16, 2009

Poe Fridays: Ulalume

This week's Poe Fridays poem was the October-themed Ulalume. You can read it here. My apologies for the link included last week that seems to have been missing a few of the stanzas.

I'll share the first three stanzas with you as Poe employs a very unusual technique of word repetition in this poem.
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 mid region of Weir--
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul--
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll--
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole--
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere--
Our memories were treacherous and sere,--
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)--
We noted not the dim lake of Auber
(Though once we had journeyed down here)--
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

The first thing I had to do when I finished this poem for the first time was to find out the meanings of some of the words. Ulalume? It's a name. Sere means "dried-up". Scoriac refers to scoria - a type of volcanic rock similar to pumice but more cindery. Mount Yaanek is Mount Erebus, a volcano in Antarctica.

After clearing up some of the vocabulary, I appreciated this poem much more. It's actually a rather simple one that again explores one of Poe's preferred topics -- a dead lover. The narrator goes for a walk on a crisp October night, not realizing that his steps will take him to the burial chamber of his lost love, Ulalume, whom he buried a year ago on that day. His grief is still fresh and is exacerbated by this unconscious return to the crypt. As with all of Poe's poetry about loss, many different theories abound as to whether this poem was inspired by the death of Virginia or perhaps a more general musing about the many losses of women in his life. Whatever the influence, this is a touching poem and a great read for a cold October evening.

For next week I chose a horror classic, the short story The Pit and the Pendulum. I'm really excited to re-read this one.

Writing this on a crisp, October morn -- enjoying this on a brisk October morn,


  1. Dude, I could not read this. He rhymed too many words with the same word. Sere and sere, soul and soul, Yaanek and Yaanek...That is only O.K. if you are writing a vianelle!

  2. J.T. - I actually liked it ... I read part of it out loud and liked the rhythm that came out with the repeating words.

  3. You read a ton! I'm impressed. I'm looking for a good novel for a roadtrip. Thanks for the ideas.

  4. "Ulalume" is definitely meant to be read aloud - Poe wrote it as an elocution piece. It's more about sound than meaning (although the meaning is there too... mostly). I usually say that I love "Ulalume" - then when I try and read it I'm sort of like, "Are you serious, Poe?!?"

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Rachel!

    Rob - Do we have any idea what Poe's own voice was like? I know he drew the audience in with many, many readings so it must have been at least somewhat pleasant but is there anywhere that someone wrote about the sound of his voice?

  6. Quite a few people wrote about Poe's voice. Maybe some day I'll blog about it... He did have a small lecture tour or two and many witnesses described him as captivating ("To hear him read 'The Raven' is an event in one's life"). I've heard that Julia Ward Howe believed his voice sounded like Edwin Booth, but I'm not sure how credible that is. Scholars still debate on his accent: did he have a Southern drawl, considering how much time he spent in Virginia? Did he have the hint of a slight British accent from his five formulative years in England? I'd love to know, personally!