by Edgar Allan Poe
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.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
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 lamp-light 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.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonishèd.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast.
I was not sick of any fear from thence;
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.
Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And giv’n to time your own dear purchased right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.
Book both my willfulness and errors down,
And on just proof surmise accumulate.
Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your wakened hate,
Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
The constancy and virtue of your love.
What potions have I drunk of siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessèd never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill, now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruined love when it is built anew
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ills thrice more than I have spent.
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
That you were once unkind, befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, y’ have pass’d a hell of time,
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffer’d in your crime.
O, that our night of woe might have remember’d
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
From the Trojan Chorus at the latter part of Act II
of Troas, translated by Jasper Heywood 1559
After Death nothing is, and nothing Death;
The utmost Limits of a Gasp of Breath.
Let the ambitious Zealot lay aside
His Hope of Heav’n; (whose Faith is but his Pride)
Let slavish Souls lay by their Fear,
Nor be concern’d which way, or where,
After this Life they shall be hurl’d:
Dead, we become the Lumber of the World;
And to that Mass of Matter shall be swept,
Where things destroy’d with things unborn are kept;
Devouring Time swallows us whole,
Impartial Death confounds Body and Soul.
For Hell, and the foul Fiend that rules
The everlasting fiery jails,
Devis’d by Rogues, dreaded by Fools,
With his grim griesly Dog that keeps the Door,
Are senseless Stories, idle Tales,
Dreams, whimsies, and no more.
I first heard this poem in High School. I immediately loved it. The imagery and the sound of it were great. The ideas were striking and disturbing and liberating. I knew nothing about it, really, and didn’t need to—it was exciting and worth memorizing to me.
John Heywood was a Catholic priest, a playwright and musician, and a counselor well-liked by Henry VIII. He was nearly executed for his part in the plot against Archbishop Cranmer, but apparently charmed his way to freedom, helped by Henry’s Catholic leanings despite his protestant decrees. He continued to serve as a royal servant to both the Catholic and Protestant regimes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
John Heywood had two children. His daughter, Elizabeth, was the mother of the famous poet John Donne. His son Jasper Heywood was also a poet, dramatist, writer, and translator.
Jasper Heywood translated from the Latin several plays of Seneca, including the play Troas, or Troy. The poem we are considering was taken from this play Troas, which he translated in 1559. Jasper’s translations of Seneca had profound influence on Ben Johnson, Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan writers.
The poem was published later with other poems in an anthology of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester in 1691, and is often erroneously attributed to him.
Seneca also called Seneca the Younger, was born about the time of Jesus’ birth in 3 BCE in Cordoba, Spain, and he moved to Rome as a child where he lived until 65 CE. He was a politician, a senator, and a counselor who had to deal with three very tempestuous Roman Emperors—Caligula, Claudius and Nero. During Nero’s reign he faced execution bravely, becoming a model of Roman stoicism.
He was a famous Stoic philosopher, a follower of the ancient Greek stoics, and a prolific writer, poet and dramatist. Many of his writings were so close to some of the moral teachings of Jesus—though it is fairly certain he was not familiar with Christianity or its precepts—that early church fathers considered him to be a pagan forerunner of Christ.
Roman religion was transactional, for the most part. The Gods did their jobs if their followers made the proper sacrifices and completed the required rituals. It was mostly about getting help in this life, and maintaining order in society. Romans celebrated their own gods and goddesses, their ancestors gods, and merged their local traditions with those of the ancient Greeks whom they admired. They accepted all the gods of the lands they captured and welcomed them into their own pantheon. The Jews and Christians were problematic because of their strict monotheism, which to the Roman mind was atheistic because they refused to recognize other gods than their own, which was bad for public order and created division where there should be cohesion.
There were also many mystery religions, cults of Isis, Orpheus, Mithras, and Bacchanal, which were tolerated, but of which the Romans were suspicious for their secretiveness and strange rites. These often were concerned with salvation and the afterlife and Christianity was often associated with these “strange” beliefs.
Seneca’s play Troas was focused on the aftermath of the Trojan War. It takes place outside the smoldering ruins of the city, while the air was still thick with smoke and the smell of death. The Trojan women are captured and waiting there, soon to be taken back to Greece by their captors as wives or slaves. The most prominent of these women is Hecuba, the Queen of Troy.
In Act I, Hecuba surrounded by her friends and family and a Chorus of Trojan Women, laments the deaths of her husband Priam the King of Troy, and her son the noble warrior Hector.
In Act II, Talthybius, a Greek herald appears. He announces that he has just seen the ghost of Achilles, the great Greek warrior who had killed Hector. Near the end of the war, Achilles had been murdered in ambush by Paris, the Trojan prince who had stolen Helen from the Greeks and thus started the ten year war. Achilles had fallen in love with Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, and secretly arranged to be married with her by her father Priam. This marriage could have ended the war. During the secret ceremony, Paris hid behind a bush and shot him in the heel with a poisoned arrow.
Now the ghost of Achilles had appeared to Talthybius and demanded that before the Greek ships could leave, Polyxena must be brought to his gravesite in wedding dress, and slain by Pyrrhus the son of Achilles as a sacrifice. Calchas, a seer who specialized in reading the entrails of fallen enemy warriors, demands that Hector’s young son, Astyanax, Hecuba’s grandson, be tossed from the towers of Troy and killed. These things are shocking to the Trojans, who feel they are bloody and unnecessary extensions of the war adding needless suffering after their complete defeat and surrender.
The Chorus of Trojan women, at the end of Act II denounce the Greek’s plan. They argue that there are no such things as ghosts, and that therefore Achilles could not have returned from the dead to demand anything. This poem from Jasper’s translation of the play is taken from a portion of the Trojan Chorus’s response.
It is best to imagine that it is being spoken aloud by a group of women in unison.
In the poem, both Time and Death are depictions of the old gods. Time is the Titan Cronus who swallowed his own children whole, and Death is Thanatos against whom none could stand.
The “foul fiend” that guards Hell is Hades, known by the Romans as Pluto. The grim, grisly dog that guards the door is Cerberus, the three-headed monster.
Hopefully, this background will help you to appreciate the awesomeness of this poem.
~ Whit “Pop” Haydn
A. E. Housman (1859–1936) A Shropshire Lad. 1896.
LXII. Terence, this is stupid stuff
‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, 5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow. 10
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’
Why, if ’tis dancing you would be, 15
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse, 20
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot 25
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where, 30
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain, 35
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet, 40
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure 45
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale: 50
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head 55
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast, 60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more, 65
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat; 70
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told. 75
Mithridates, he died old.
by e e cummings