Tag Archives: American writer

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

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Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

20 Apr

I have just finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The House of the Seven Gables” and even though the first chapter bored me, I ended up loving the book and I couldn’t resist writing a little book review!

Cliff House, San Francisco, USA, 1906

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic novel “The House of the Seven Gables”, first published in April 1851, is set in a small town in New England and follows an old family Pyncheon. The first chapter is set in Puritan times and tells us about the witch trials and the beginning of the family feud between the rich Pyncheon family and the Maule family. We find out that the now dark, gloomy and decaying house with seven gables was built on ground wrongfully taken by Colonel Pyncheon from Matthew Maule, after the latter was accused of practising witchcraft and therefore executed. All other chapters are set in the mid nineteenth century and follow the house and the family in their not-so-glory days. The only resident is an old spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon who, due to financial problems, decides to open a shop in the spare room in the house. This causes her great anxiety and aggravation because she has led a reclusive life and is now forced to get in touch with the world. She says: “The world is too chill and hard, – and I am too old, too feeble, and too hopeless!” She has a stern and serious personality but is good at heart. Here are more quotes about her:

…here comes Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon! Forth she steps into the dusky, time-darkened passage; a tall figure, clad in black silk, with a long and shrunken waist, feeling her way towards the stairs like a near-sighted person, as in truth she is.” (ch 2)

So–with many a cold, deep heart-quake at the idea of at last coming into sordid contact with the world, from which she had so long kept aloof, while every added day of seclusion had rolled another stone against the cavern door of her hermitage–the poor thing bethought herself of the ancient shop-window, the rusty scales, and dusty till.” (Ch 2)

And yet there was nothing fierce in Hepzibah’s poor old heart; nor had she, at the moment, a single bitter thought against the world at large, or one individual man or woman. She wished them all well, but wished, too, that she herself were done with them, and in her quiet grave.” (ch 3)

A tenant lives in the house as well, a young daguerreotypist called Holgrave: In the second chapter he is introduced as a “… respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerreotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable.” Even though he is quite young, twenty one or twenty two, he already had many experiences in life, worked different jobs, studied different things, from dentistry to photography! And he has secrets of his own… One day Hepzibah’s brother Clifford returns after serving thirty years in jail for the murder of his uncle; don’t worry, he isn’t a murderer, he was wrongfully convicted. Clifford’s character is a mix of childlike naivety and cheerfulness, and dandyish sophistication and a great love of beauty. Then, Hepzibah’s young, pretty and hard-working cousin Phoebe arrives from the countryside. Her vivacious and cheerful personality brought smiles to people’s faces, and flowers started blooming in their hearts, as well as in the garden behind the house. Suddenly, the house isn’t so gloomy and solitary any more!

Photo found here.

A lot of things happen in the novel, and yet the story is developed slowly, intensifying the intrigue and bringing in mysteries about the house and making you think about the layered personalities of the characters, and the big role that the past plays in their lives. There is a contrast between the oppressive atmosphere of the house and the freedom of the garden with roses and sunshine, idyllic scenes take place there; just like in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The house is almost a character for itself; it’s practically the only setting and the characters seem to be drawn to it by some strange power. Old portraits on the walls seem alive and the spirit of Alice Pyncheon, a pretty girl who lived there and died, haunts the old chambers. It is said that the flowers growing on the roof of the house grew there because Alice threw some seeds in the air just for fun. It’s the details like these that made me fall in love with the story. So, in short, the things I loved about the book, and what I think you might enjoy too; dark atmosphere with lots of secrets, eccentric characters, the house, mingling of past and present… Also, the story about a family’s past and connected to one house, reminded me of Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Isabel Allende’s book “The House of the Spirits”. I love novels like that, and if you know any that are similar, do tell!

Roses, photo found here.

And now some lyrical passages that I loved:

Phoebe Pyncheon slept, on the night of her arrival, in a chamber that looked down on the garden of the old house. It fronted towards the east, so that at a very seasonable hour a glow of crimson light came flooding through the window, and bathed the dingy ceiling and paper-hangings in its own hue. (…) The morning light, however, soon stole into the aperture at the foot of the bed, betwixt those faded curtains. Finding the new guest there,–with a bloom on her cheeks like the morning’s own, and a gentle stir of departing slumber in her limbs, as when an early breeze moves the foliage, –the dawn kissed her brow. It was the caress which a dewy maiden–such as the Dawn is, immortally–gives to her sleeping sister, partly from the impulse of irresistible fondness, and partly as a pretty hint that it is time now to unclose her eyes.

(…) When Phoebe was quite dressed, she peeped out of the window, and saw a rosebush in the garden. Being a very tall one, and of luxuriant growth, it had been propped up against the side of the house, and was literally covered with a rare and very beautiful species of white rose. A large portion of them, as the girl afterwards discovered, had blight or mildew at their hearts; but, viewed at a fair distance, the whole rosebush looked as if it had been brought from Eden that very summer, together with the mould in which it grew. The truth was, nevertheless, that it had been planted by Alice Pyncheon,–she was Phoebe’s great-great-grand-aunt…” (Chapter 5)

Alice Pyncheon and her piano, perhaps? Photo found here.

Perhaps my favourite quote from the book, about Alice Pyncheon, which also shows the lyrical beauty of Hawthorne’s writing: “As he stept into the house, a note of sweet and melancholy music thrilled and vibrated along the passage-way, proceeding from one of the rooms above stairs. It was the harpsichord which Alice Pyncheon had brought with her from beyond the sea. The fair Alice bestowed most of her maiden leisure between flowers and music, although the former were apt to droop, and the melodies were often sad. She was of foreign education, and could not take kindly to the New England modes of life, in which nothing beautiful had ever been developed.” (Ch 13)

I hope I’ve managed to intrigue you to read the book. Oh, and by the way, this is my 400th post!

Lament for the Moths – Tennessee Williams

19 Jun

A plague has stricken the moths, the moths are dying,
their bodies are flakes of bronze on the carpet lying.
Enemies of the delicate everywhere
have breathed a pestilent mist into the air.

Lament for the velvety moths, for the moths were lovely.
Often their tender thoughts, for they thought of me,
eased the neurotic ills that haunt the day.
Now an invisible evil takes them away.

I move through the shadowy rooms, I cannot be still,
I must find where the treacherous killer is concealed.
Feverishly I search and still they fall
as fragile as ashes broken against a wall.

Now that the plague has taken the moths away,
who will be cooler than curtains against the day,
who will come early and softly to ease my lot
as I move through the shadowy rooms with a troubled heart?

Give them, O mother of moths and mother of men,
strength to enter the heavy world again,
for delicate were the moths and badly wanted
here in a world by mammoth figures haunted!

************

”There’s a poem by Tennessee Williams called ‘Lament For Moths’, one of the first poems we ever read, which is about how the moths, the sensitive people, will always be stamped on and crushed by the mammoths – that really hit us, the sudden realisation that we were the moths of the world…” (Nicky Wire)