On 'Poe in Glasgow'

by Guusje Groote

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) is regarded as one of America's best writers. He was a feared critic and editor, who also wrote short stories and poems. As a child, Poe was briefly educated in Scotland, but he returned to the United States when he was 11 years old. Romantic and happy childhood memories of Scotland remained vivid for the rest of his life. His writings are mysterious and illusionary, but also ghostly and gruesome. He was concerned with the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, the conscious and the subconscious. His interests in sailing and in the Antarctic are further aspects of his work brought forward in the sonnet.
Morgan's sonnet begins with a reference to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. There is no evidence that Melville and Poe ever met, but works by both men include many romantic atmospheres as well as horrid facets. Melville was a merchant sailor as well as a whaler before he turned to writing. Moby Dick is considered his masterpiece and was published in 1851, after Poe's death. The novel did not become a success until after Melville's own death in 1891. In the novel, Moby Dick is a fearsome white whale that cannot be killed by humans. The whale seems to be a divine being but on the other hand also symbolizes evil.
The first lines of the sonnet emphasize the boy's desire to embark upon adventure. However, he is called "the Moby-Dick-browed boy" (l. 1), which compares his white skin to that of the intense whiteness of the whale. Obviously, this makes him unsuitable for sailing; a proper sailor would not be associated with such whiteness. Immediately the sonnet acquires ambiguous undertones. Words like "haunt" (l. 2) and "[the] smell of tar" (l. 3) invoke a dark and gloomy atmosphere that contrasts with whiteness as a theme. Poe used whiteness as a theme in other works as well, e.g. in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838).
In Poe's time "the Broomielaw" (l. 2) was Glasgow's main port street, from where sailors set sail for adventure. It must have been "the Broomielaw" from which Poe embarked for Virginia when he went back to the United States. But the boy in the sonnet wants to go beyond "Virginia" or "Liverpool" (l. 5). The next line shifts to the Thames, and more specifically London's docklands area. Especially "the Isle of Dogs" is associated with exotic cultures, as from here huge vessels for the East India Company embarked. "Isle of Dogs or Greenwich Reach" (l. 6) repeats T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "The barges wash / Drifing logs / Down Greenwich reach / Past the Isle of Dogs".(1)
In the first eight lines the boy makes up his world of illusions. He wants to sail but he will never become a sailor. The boy can be seen to represent Poe as a child. It might well be that as a young boy Poe wandered on Broomielaw dreaming of becoming an adventurer at sea; hence the title 'Poe in Glasgow'. Poe had dreams sailing on a world of imaginations. In reality Poe fled to a fantasy world through drinking but he never managed to set sail in real life.
"'Wake up!'" (l. 9) is a turning point and the dream-like atmosphere is replaced with a cruel reality. The sailor approaches the boy with a very down-to-earth remark that brings this harsh world into the poem. Their encounter might be read in a light-hearted way as the sailor has a friendly conversation with the boy. Nevertheless, the lines contain a cynical undertone. The sailor shatters the boy's dreams and he knows he cannot board the vessel to sail to Paradise, to Arnheim.
The sonnet's final line brings Poe directly back into the poem. Arnheim is the landscape-garden in Poe's story "The Domain of Arnheim". The garden is man-made, but can be seen as a recreation of the Garden of Eden. Although the garden is a symbol for Paradise, Poe's final description of the journey to Arnheim is quite morbid and it becomes a journey to paradise as well as towards death. This hint towards death gives the poem another unexpected twist towards destruction.

 

(1) Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, 1922.

 

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