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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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Edgar Allan and the East

Written by William Goldhurst

Edgar Allan Poe, one of America's most versatile and talented men of letters, is too often remembered as no more than the father of the modern detective story, the psychological thriller and "twilight zone" terror.

This, to be sure, is natural; his tales of terror, which impressed generations of readers and authors who fell under his influence - such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and Rod Serling - often emphasized only those aspects assured of a warm reception by the public. But the result was a partial distortion of Poe's total achievement. A complex author, who excelled in a wide variety of literary forms and moods, Poe also wrote black comedies, love poems, philosophical essays, journalistic hoaxes, satires and literary criticism. He also, though few remember it, drew deeply on the culture of the Middle East: history, religion, personages, legends and ideas. And although his sources of information were usually second hand - derived from commentaries and translations, rather than original texts - he put his Saracenic-Arabic-Mongol-Islamic motifs to a wide variety of ingenious uses: slapstick comedy, biting satire, earnest philosophy and sentimental depictions of heroes. Some of his exotic references are admittedly designed to impress the reader with his erudition, but he also displayed a sincere respect for the Eastern materials he imported.

In one story, "Some Words with a Mummy" - in which a mummy is revived - Poe directs what is roughhouse humor towards faddish American Egyptology and Yankee vanity rather than anything in ancient Egypt. As the story progresses, in fact, it becomes apparent that Poe is measuring 19th-century American achievements in technology against the expertise of ancient Egypt - with Egypt coming out far ahead in terms of "advanced" ideas. In the story, American authorities enumerate our impressive public buildings, our steam engines and inventions and our highly developed modes of thought. But the mummy, not only revived but articulate, cites his own list of facts and figures and shows that the ancient Egyptians had anticipated most of those ideas - including experiments with democracy and monotheism - by thousands of years. Indeed, the "modern" Americans came up with only two original achievements: cough drops and patent medicine.

A similar story is "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," which Poe derived from reading an English translation of The Thousand and One Nights. Here Poe repeats the legend of the sultan who marries a beautiful woman each night but delivers her to the executioner the following morning - a routine that Scheherazade interrupts by tantalizing the ruthless monarch with different but incomplete tales every evening.

As in the original scenario, Poe's Scheherazade succeeds at first. But Poe then has her continue with a new series that combines modern wonders - such as battleships and hydrogen balloons - with slightly distorted natural wonders: a petrified forest, distances measured in light years and mathematical abilities displayed by bees. In having the king remain incredulous throughout - as if these factual "adventures" are more unbelievable than the original tales of flying mechanical horses and the like - Poe achieves an amusing irony. And then, when Scheherazade comes to the most far-fetched wonder of all - the bustle worn by 19th-century women of fashion - the sultan loses patience and disposes of her after all.

The substance of Poe's tale is a catalog of 19th-century natural and man-made marvels, but the author's imaginative use of The Thousand and One Nights framework gives his enumeration of facts a piquancy which other collections lack, and his tongue-in-cheek treatment of the sultan and Scheherazade adds a touch of burlesque.

Another tale - derived from ancient Syrian history - employs a different kind of humor for a more cynical purpose. Entitled "Four Beasts in One," this little known story deals in mock-heroic fashion with the homecoming of Antiochus IV, monarch of the Seleucid Kingdom of Syria in the second century B.C. To mark the occasion, Antiochus stages a wild celebration in which the king, a boisterous mob and some presumably tame lions and tigers, parade in Antioch. Dressed up in a giraffe costume, the king amuses himself by kicking various subjects as he goes along. They, however, heedless of his behavior, sing his praises - until the animals, disturbed by the commotion, turn on their trainers. The crowds flee and the "courageous" king runs so fast that he is awarded a wreath for victory in the foot race.

Though the story is actually more complex than that, it made a point: Poe's distrust of President Andrew Jackson, whom he saw as a grotesque tyrant leading a frenzied rabble. Poe was only one of many Americans who felt Jackson's frontiersmen had opened the door to mob rule, but some of his colleagues were much more direct and explicit about their message. Poe's sentiments were as fierce as theirs, but his presentation was more artful.

Equally fanciful, but much more delicate in tone, is Poe's treatment of Tamerlane, the 14th-century Mongol conqueror also known as Timur Lang (Timur the Lame). Claiming descent from Genghis Khan, Tamerlane captured Samarkand, led an army against Persia, invaded Russia and subdued parts of India and Asia Minor. A ruthless conqueror, Tamerlane slaughtered thousands of captives, (See Aramco World, September-October 1975) and left pyramids of skulls as monuments to his victories. Yet Poe improvises a love story to humanize or possibly sentimentalize the conqueror.

Original in concept and executed with surprising skill - considering that he was 17 when he wrote it - this poem presents Tamerlane on his deathbed confessing a secret grief that for years has made him sick at heart. In his youth, he says, he had a tender side to his nature that impelled him to seek out the company of a sympathetic young woman to whom he could confide his fears and disappointments. But then, in his daydreams, he heard:

... the crush of empireswith thecaptive's prayer

The hum of suitorsand the tone

Of flattery round a sovereign's throne.

He said he thought of her as a suitable queen to share his glory but in his impatience left abruptly intending to return later. Of course, when he goes back, the girl has died and their special bower is overgrown with weeds.

This, no doubt, is sentimental and romantic, but the force of its theme triumphs: each individual neglects his deepest feelings only at great peril to his own happiness. Everything considered, "Tamerlane" was a brilliant poetic debut.

The most difficult of all Poe's poems, "Al Aaraaf," is also the work most heavily saturated with Eastern terms and concepts. This relatively lengthy work, which also utilizes elements from Shakespearean drama and Indian lore, is probably the most explicit example of the deep impression Middle Eastern thought made on Poe. The title of the poem-derived from an English version of the Koran - refers to an area between heaven and hell (al-a'raf- dividing lines) where departed souls can distinguish between the blessed and the damned. According to Poe's source - a commentary by the translator - this zone was a sort of limbo where mortals whose lives had been a perfect balance between good and evil remained until purified.

From these suggestions, Poe created a sort of sanctum where the Spirit of Beauty sings hymns about the function of poetry, where fragments of earthly art are preserved and where a mortal foolishly dallies with an angel - to show that human passion has no place in the realm of pure spirit.

An allegory Poe's "Al Aaraaf" foreshadows several themes he would cherish throughout his career - art, love, the origin of the universe - and would develop later. No doubt these views, which Poe held with fervor, were inspired by various elements in his personal experience and wide reading, but Islamic thought apparently played a part too.

The poem, "Israfel" - its title derived from Islamic tradition - is simpler, shorter and less famous than "The Raven". It is also one of the most beautiful statements of its kind ever made. The gist of this Poe lyric is that Israfel, whose lyre is strung with his own "heart strings", makes music so compelling that even the stars pause in their cosmic motions to listen. Poe plays upon the idea of an angel's heart - its string being a fusion-image of emotion and spirituality, the blend producing sweeter sounds than mere mortals can hope to achieve:

If I could dwell

Where Israfel hath dwelt, and he where I,

He might not sing so wildly well a mortal melody,

While a bolder note than this might swell from my lyre within the sky.

The poem expresses romantic yearnings for ideal beauty. "Shadow" and its companion piece, "Silence," are both short pieces distinguished by extraordinary originality and verbal facility. Neither may properly be termed a tale or story, while "sketch" seems too trifling a category to do justice to these gloomy little masterpieces. Set, respectively, in ancient Egypt and along the shoreline of the River Zaire, "Shadow" is a study in man's futile endeavors to escape the reality of death, while "Silence" is a parable delineating varying degrees of human despair, culminating in a confrontation with nothingness.

In both "Shadow" and "Silence" Poe's style is visionary and highly poetic, rather than realistic, with a trace of nightmare imagery. In "Shadow" seven men sit around a table drinking wine, trying to block out their awareness of a plague that is exacting a heavy toll from the ranks of their friends and loved ones - one of whom lies dead in the same room, where they are "celebrating." In the midst of their desperate attempts to be carefree a mysterious figure emerges from behind some black curtains and announces that he is Shadow, the spirit of thousands of their dead friends. In "Silence" a demon tells the narrator about a strange territory on the banks of the River Zaire, a setting into which the author introduces a solitary male figure dressed in a Roman toga. The man sits upon a rock bearing carved letters that spell the word Desolation; later, when the narrator curses the scene with a curse of Silence, the letters on the rock alter to spell out the word Silence; the mysterious man flees in dread.

Poe is not noted for a meticulous attention to historical or geographical accuracy; and in these two tales the author's emphasis falls upon psychological truths and earnest glimpses into the mysteries of the human spirit, achieved through imagery that sounds very much like the stuff of dreams. Nonetheless, in these two works, Poe's exotic references are both functional and precise. The plague that frightens the characters of "Shadow" occurred in the Nile Delta region during the reign of Justinian (527-565). Egypt is selected as a setting because at that time in its history it was a death-denying culture, a fact which lends additional force to the theme Poe is dramatizing in the story - the idea that try as we might, we can not escape the reality of death.

If we turn our attention to the background materials that went into "Silence," we find a similar degree of authenticity. Words engraved on rock were a common motif in ancient literature; a faint duplication of this practice in Poe's story gives it a link to the foundations of our civilization. At the conclusion of the tale, Poe's heavy use of references to Magi, Genii, and Sibyls - all sacred or prophetic spirits from the East - reinforce the ritualistic and religious tone of his story. At the same time, the lush, fertile, and almost magical-appearing setting along the Zaire (formerly the Congo) provides an origin-of-life atmosphere that makes "Silence" profoundly disturbing in its effects. Poe's riverbank, in other words, is ideally suited to his purpose, which is to create a parable about fears implanted in man from his earliest beginnings. No other setting would be as effective for what the author is trying to accomplish.

There is one more very strong indicator to suggest that Poe's continuing worldwide appeal as an author is based in part on Eastern influence. Early in his career the author began referring to some of his works as "Arabesques," even though some of them had nothing whatever to do with Arabian culture or geography, and a few years later gave the title Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque to his first and probably most famous collection.

In his preface to that edition, Poe hinted that the term "Arabesque" applied to his "more serious" tales. And according to L. Moffitt Cecil's essay, "Poe's Arabesque," Poe seems to be extending the meaning of the word to include not only Arab history and culture, but also that of other Middle Eastern peoples.

But another more conventional meaning might be "a complex and ornate design of intertwined floral, foliate, and geometrical figures." Applied to his style, it could also describe such tales as "The Purloined Letter" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," in which can be found not only the customary twists and turns of plot found in all mystery stories of the last 100 years, but also a carefully patterned use of theme and incident.

One example is "The Sphinx" - which has nothing to do with ancient Egypt. In this little story, a high-strung narrator thinks he sees a monster, but is assured by his host that what he saw was really only an insect. Next, both monster and insect are woven into the idea of perspectives on American democracy. Then it is suggested that monster and insect are somehow related to a microbe. Finally, at the conclusion, the host, who gradually becomes the narrator's double, assumes the position the narrator was in when he saw the monster, which actually was an insect - or perhaps a microbe.

This is a style which is truly Arabesque: interwoven strands of theme, incident and character, with additional loops, overlaps and flourishes - effects that Poe achieves in literally dozens of his best stories. The technique, as Poe practiced it, was both subtle and unobtrusive; no one of his many imitators in the mystery story genre has been able to reproduce it as successfully. Yet Poe's Arabesque designs, though applied with a subtle brush, have a potent effect too, lending a feeling of what Cecil called the "patterned strangeness" that constitutes no small part of its perennial appeal.

Poe lived at a time when many of his writing colleagues - Emerson and Longfellow among them - were clamoring for a native American literature derived from authentic Yankee sites and experiences. To these pronouncements Poe said: nonsense. The only literature worth producing, he said, is world literature - the kind of prose and poetry that transcends national and chronological boundaries. It seems evident that in electing to use Middle Eastern materials in such poems and stories as "Tamerlane," "Al Aaraaf," "Israfel," "Four Beasts in One," "Shadow," "Silence," "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade," and "Some Words with a Mummy" Poe was doing more than giving his works the Oriental flavor then fashionable with Romantic authors. Rather, he was reaching back to the East for thoughts and moods and designs that impart an eternal and universal quality.

William Goldhurst is a professor of English and Humanities at the University of Florida and a free lance author.

This article appeared on pages 24-29 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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