Leah Marshall dissects the poignant work of one of poetry’s most controversial figures
Spirits of the Dead is a perfect paradigm for not only Edgar Allan Poe’s work but also his legacy. The poem is moody, brooding and creates an atmospheric landscape, all attributes applicable to Poe’s work overall. This poem had a quintessential Poe quality about it and depending on one’s feelings towards him, this could be seen as either positive or negative. Poe is a controversial figure in poetry, as the man is often overshadowed by his work. It is easy for one to indulge in the most prevalent image of Poe as the “tortured artist” limited by the confines of his own brilliance. Poe is unrivaled in literature for the boundaries he pushed with both form and genre alike.
Poe’s poem Spirits of the Dead is one which is endearingly self-aware. Poe in this poem is ‘Mid-dark thoughts of grey tombstone‘ and is, in essence, having an existential crisis, comparable in nature to a rambling of Socratic musings.
His thoughts are about the nature of ‘solitude’ and how it is ‘not loneliness’ but something else entirely. Poe describes loneliness as something essential and important to the human experience.
He explores the idea that when experiencing solitude one can connect to a wider spiritually. Solitude allows us to connect to a wider spiritual plane; it allows humanity to transcend the mundanity of concrete life.
In solitude, Poe has a heightened awareness of the passage of time, the brevity of life and the insignificance of the individual. A human can never be truly alone, as it is the nature of life to be surrounded with ‘death around thee‘, to be engulfed by the ‘life before thee’. The paragon of humanity is to be ‘overshadowed’ by the magnitude of world around us.
Poe realizes that even the stars in the sky, this symbol of human sentimentality won’t ‘look not down’ upon us’: while the stars might give ‘hope to mortals’ that doesn’t that mean that they are for us.
Poe is discussing how humanity is inconsequential to the world, and yet here he is writing poetry where his musings about the world are supposed to be meaningful. Poe understands this cognitive dissonance. He understands that humanity has to “cling” to the idea of our own importance in order to continue on this earth.
This conundrum, this dissonance, is something that many of us manage to internalize intellectually but never can fully comprehend emotionally. However, Poe understands that once these thoughts have occurred, they are “never to vanish” from one’s mind. When one realizes that humanity and its spirit may be nothing but ‘dew drops from the grass‘ to the earth, a certain blissful idea of the world is loss. However, Poe decides to tackle this revelation in a hopeful manner.