An Ode to Poe

October 7, 1999 at 6:00 PM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY: It’s fitting that the anniversary of Edgar Alan Poe’s birth should come

in the autumnal, Halloween month of October. Poe has sometimes been
mocked as a corny poet of coarse effects, at his best in French
translations, and more admired by French poets than those who write in
English, like Thom Gunn, who wrote the epigram:

Though Edgar Poe writes a lucid prose,
Just and rhetorical without exertion,
It loses all lucidity, God knows,
In the single, poorly rendered English version.

But Poe has a powerful imagination, that cannot be denied. He gives a
haunting picture of that imagination in a poem called “Fairy-Land”–not
as well known as the insistent cadences of “The Raven,” but possibly his
best poem, with its weird vision of a moon that becomes the fabric of a
massive pale tent, that in turn dissolves into butterfly-dust:


Dim vales — and shadowy floods–
And cloudy-looking woods,
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over.
Huge moons there wax and wane–
Again — again — again–
Every moment of the night–
Forever changing places–
And they put out the star-light
With the breath from their pale faces.
About twelve the moon-dial
One more filmy than the rest
(A kind which, upon trial,
They have found to be the best)
Comes down — still down — and down
With its centre on the crown
Of a mountain’s eminence,
While its wide circumference
In easy drapery falls
Over hamlets, over halls,
Wherever they may be–
O’er the strange woods—o’er the sea–
Over spirits on the wing–
Over every drowsy thing–
And buries them up quite
In a labyrinth of light–
And then, how deep! — O, deep!
Is the passion of their sleep.
In the morning they arise,
And their moony covering
Is soaring in the skies,
With the tempests as they toss,
Like — almost any thing —
Or a yellow Albatross.
They use that moon no more
For the same end as before–
Videlicet a tent–
Which I think extravagant:
Its atomies, however,
Into a shower dissever,
Of which those butterflies,
Of Earth, who seek the skies,
And so come down again
(Never-contented things!)
Have brought a specimen
Upon their quivering wings.