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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