Back when I was in college, one English professor assigned us all of Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works to read. Most people are familiar with “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” thanks to our public school system and Halloween, but I don’t think many have exposure to Poe’s essays. If I were to list the most life-changing works I’ve ever read, Poe’s essays would absolutely be among them.
Actually, here they are – since people often ask me about my favorites anyhow:
- Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a collection of poetry he wrote while mourning his best friend’s sudden death. Probably the most famous excerpt is “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” This was one of the first books I read that I felt dealt honestly with the hardships of faith, particularly in times of great tragedy. One of my favorite sections, which I tried very hard to memorize, follows:
- I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
- I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
- I falter where I firmly trod,
- Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours is also poetry though it really functions as one long poem, originally in German but many translations are now widely available. Rilke didn’t see much artistic success during his lifetime, and suffered from both health problems and severe dry spells in his writing. If I recall correctly, he wrote the entirety of Book of Hours in the span of just a couple short weeks. The poems are from the perspective of a monk, speaking directly to God. Perhaps the best indicator of the tone of these poems is the quote, “What will you do, God, when I die?” [“Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe?”] There is so much beautiful, timeless imagery throughout! Below is definitely one of my favorite sections:
- I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
- I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
- I live my life in widening circles
- Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel, translated into many languages from the original Czech. Similar to Updike’s novel, which I list next, the text is largely concerned with love and lust as it occurs between men and women, and how heavy these things weigh in our human lives. There are so many lovely, intensely internal passages throughout. The below is underlined in my copy:
“The young woman smiled dreamily as she went on about the storm, and he looked at her in amazement and something akin to shame: she had experienced something beautiful, and he had failed to experience it with her. The two ways in which their memories reacted to the evening storm sharply delimit love and nonlove.”
- John Updike’s Marry Me I mentioned above. Updike wrote so much that it’s hard to choose just one, but it helps that I haven’t read all of them! The plot consists of two married couples, neighbors, who begin affairs with one another, at first unbeknownst to one another.
“‘Don’t be silly. We’re all depending on your sanity.’ Jerry was always saying things like that, compliments that cut like insults, thrown to trip her mind, which never failed to stop and puzzle over what was meant. For he did not invariably mean the opposite of what was said. In this instance she suspected it was true, they were all in their craziness and infatuation and self-deception depending on her sad, defeated sanity to hold them back from disaster.”
- To continue with the theme of interpersonal relations, particularly those which involve some derivative of love, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. This novel demonstrates that love and hate are not at all opposites, and in fact have much more in common with one another than most are willing to admit. Below is a passage where Mr. Heathcliff is discussing his love for Catherine:
“‘…for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day, I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!'”
- Last is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which I must thank my friend Makaiya for forcing me to read while we were barricaded in her West Village apartment during Hurricane Sandy. The character Zooey becomes obsessed with the meditative ideal of praying without ceasing, which she encounters in a book about a pilgrim. This obsession coincides with a breakdown of sorts. In the passage below, she is describing the concept:
“‘Well, the starets tells him about the Jesus Prayer first of all. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I mean that’s what it is. And he explains to him that those are the best words to use when you pray. Especially the word “mercy,” because it’s such a really enormous word and can mean so many things. I mean it doesn’t just have to mean mercy…. Anyway,’ she went on, ‘the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again – you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. Which has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook. I mean that’s the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything’s about.'”
So obviously I wholeheartedly recommend the above books, that is if you’re in the market for a paradigm shift. Anyway, back to the original point of this post, which was to highlight Poe’s essays and their affect.
There is an ongoing argument among artists about the function and purpose of art, which coincides with the well-worn argument about art for the artist (e.g. Emily Dickinson) or art for the people (e.g. Diego Rivera). Poe sees the former as 1) poetry to attain truth/passion, or 2) poetry to attain beauty. He adamantly falls into the second camp:
“…the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem…. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect – they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, or of heart – upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful.’ …Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.”
Poe then goes on to discuss how, in technical poetic particulars, he strives toward Beauty in “The Raven.” At the time, as an undergraduate, this concept blew my mind. That “aaahhh” feeling I got from reading a really excellent poem was actually my soul’s reaction to experiencing Beauty. And this is exactly why I don’t find it frivolous to both seek out and value beauty as it occurs in our daily lives. In fact, Milan Kundera has a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he admonishes the public for not recognizing ordinary moments of beauty, particularly in the occurrence of coincidences.
Let’s see, examples of ways you could seek out beauty today:
- Take a long walk
- Thank someone; express your gratitude (it will make you happier!)
- Read a poem (this one is a lovely example of Beauty)
- Make something, whether on the page, in the kitchen, between two knitting needles…
- Frame a few of those Facebook photographs you always find yourself going back to
- Buy some flowers and arrange them at home
How do you value beauty in your daily life?