Homage to Poe

Outside the afternoon had already grown sunless and gray as we settled into our seats in eighth-grade English class. Our teacher, without preamble, carefully lowered the tone arm on a rackety portable record player. There was a scratchy pause, and then, unforgettably, we heard a low and sonorous, but slightly manic, voice whispering: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

It was Basil Rathbone, reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe. We sat mesmerized, until the actor produced his final, blood-curdling shriek: "Here, here—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

At the time, I failed to recognize that the voice on the record was the same as that of Sherlock Holmes, but I already knew a little about Poe. My steelworker father used to recite: It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee. That was about all he could remember. As a child, I loved the wistful sound of the words, just as I would later be taken by the tintinnabulation of "The Bells" and the mournful repetition of "nevermore" in "The Raven." But when, in sixth grade, I had finally borrowed a friend's copy of the Signet Classics paperback of The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, I found Poe disconcerting, even disappointing.

Mostly, this was because I could barely understand his complicated sentences and sometimes couldn't figure out what was happening. "A Descent into the Maelstrom" dragged at the beginning, and its account of being caught in the vortex of a whirlpool went tediously on and on. "The Masque of the Red Death" was hardly a story at all, just a series of symbolic tableaux. Even "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" opened with pages of dry theorizing: "The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis." Though I was suitably delighted when C. Auguste Dupin deduced that the savage murders could only have been committed by an orangutan, I nonetheless regarded this solution as farfetched, despite the usual caveat (frequently enunciated by my hero, the sleuth of Baker Street) that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

"The Purloined Letter" also charmed me with its central conceit that people will invariably overlook the obvious, even if the maxim's application in this instance seemed distinctly unrealistic: The police would surely have examined every scrap of paper in the minister's apartment, no matter where its hiding place.

My initial puzzlement about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was hardly surprising. His fiction can seem too rhetorical, too thickly textured, too literary for most young people. Still, Basil Rathbone's recording did persuade me to give the writer another try—sometime. The opportunity finally arose in high school when I opened my new English textbook and discovered the revenge story "The Cask of Amontillado." In class, our teacher emphasized Poe's use of irony and guessed, like many other readers and critics, that the narrator Montresor was speaking to a priest. The phrase "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" could obviously be addressed to one's confessor. But I wasn't quite convinced of this.

What were the "injuries" and the "insult" that Montresor had suffered from the doomed Fortunato? I soon had my own ideas. When the two men repair to the damp underground vaults to sample the much-anticipated Amontillado, Montresor says to his tipsy companion: "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was." I had read enough fiction by then to know that lost happiness usually meant lost love. Obviously, this rich, rather stupid aristocrat had somehow stolen Montresor's girl, married her, and then, through neglect and drunkenness, made her life miserable. Just look at the sodden fool: He is out carousing by himself on the street, decked out in jingle bells and clown regalia, while Lady Fortunato, we later learn, sits at home waiting for him.

So I boldly contended that Montresor could no longer bear the repeated disrespect, probably coupled with physical abuse, endured by the woman he adored. He walls up Fortunato and, after a suitable period of mourning, weds his widow. As he lays dying, Montresor finally tells the whole story to the person who really knows his soul—his wife, the former Mrs. Fortunato. My teacher was somewhat nonplussed by my argument—especially when I extrapolated the future wedding—but I cling to it even now.

From that time on, I grasped that textual ambiguity could contribute to a poem or story's power and appeal. Like Shakespeare's plays, Poe's tales of the grotesque and arabesque are tantalizing, open-ended, susceptible to multiple interpretations. When you finish "Ligeia"—in which a dark-haired beauty of indomitable willpower returns from the dead and takes over the body of the fair Rowena—you are left with some interesting questions: Is Ligeia truly alive again? Will she and her husband take up their marriage from where it left off? What will Lady Rowena's relatives say about her disappearance? Could everything be just a hallucination of the opium-addled narrator?

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