Edgar Allan Poe’s name is so commonly associated with Gothic horrors that we often fail to see the charm and humanness found in his work. Written as an autograph in Lucy Holmes’ album, Poe never published this following poem in his lifetime. It was found and published instead by E.L. Didier in Scribner’s Monthly in 1875.
“From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—”
Alone is often considered Poe’s most revealing work and with good reason. Here the tormented mind of the literary genius is pulled back and we have a glimpse into the early hours of an abrupt and troubled life. Yet in this message, we see that Poe relates this trouble differently than those commonly plagued with gloom. This darker tone is a facet of his character. He was not as others were. He saw things through a much different light. Where averagely others saw passions and goodness in only the lighthearted things like spring, he saw the beauty of the dark and the peculiar.
“From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—”
This selfsame peculiarity of his personality has also been a great source of pain to the great author. His unique outlook has brought him to the deeply haunted mental pain that is genius. His sorrow was like a deep sleep from which he could not stir. His isolation is found even in the things he loves. All he loves, all he touches, echoes with this same pervasive isolating grief.
“Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—”
Here the author discloses the mystery that engulfs him like a storm cloud. All of his life’s goods and evils have been encased in this code that he cannot crack on his own and neither can anyone else give him the answer to it. His mind is enigmatic to himself. This only compounds his problem as he, predisposed to despair, cannot find the hopeful variable in this giftedness. Thus Poe was burdened with a weighty melancholy that led him to a great many addictions and social problems.
“From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—”
In literature, color is often used to elicit a visual emotion. Poe draws our attention to the true shades he sees his world in. His lonely dreams are golden, red. The color of storm clouds. To Poe, the dawn-colors are hidden in the depths. He can see them and judge their distance. This distance again increases his isolation. The great depth of his mind’s machine has separated him from all the things he witnesses with great wonder of analysis.
“From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—”
“The rest of Heaven” here does not specifically mean Heaven as the sky or the kingdom of the righteous. Here Poe is comparing himself in relation to all the rest of the Universe and the other people he knows to be in it. He is captivated and isolated at once from the sky that is filled with wonderful storms. The storm-like dark that generated a great deal of his inspiration continues to plague him as the factor of isolation. This isolation, at last, suffocates his mind. The demon is thus the author himself. He sees his own distortion as a curse that brings him to greater depths of pain at every turn. He ends on this abruptly hopeless note because this is as far as he can see himself going.
Tones, Patterns, and Style
Alone is a lyric poem. A lyric poem has the tone of deep feeling or emotional reflection on the author’s part. The first 12 lines of this poem follow the iambic tetrameter exhibited most clearly by the first 4 lines. An iambic tetrameter is a rhythmic pattern of four poetic feet in which there is an even pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables throughout all the words in use. The remaining lines change from this metric concept to what is called a trochaic tetrameter.
This poem has a total of 22 lines with 11 rhyming couplets woven in. Each pairing rhyme (like the words ill and still) is only used once.
The tone of Alone is somber. Phonetically, you can see this exhibited in words like alone, thunder, or demon. Words with vowels that are lower on the tonal scale such as long “a” or “o” are in the category of phonetically darkened tones.
Poe showcases his craftsman ability here in that he changes rhyming patterns mid-structure and yet the reader’s suspension of disbelief is never disenchanted. One is still fully captivated by the melancholy of the man’s childhood reflection. The great beauty of this poem-or any lyric work-is that there is more than one official interpretation of the author’s full meaning. This is encased in the tone itself. The writer has left an air of ambiguity in this creative work. He wants us to feel the same distance he has to process. We are left to ponder the same intense colors of thought that he has explored in penning this for an autograph album.
Edgar Allen Poe and a Study of Mental Illness
Even today, mental health is a highly stigmatized field of medicine. Poe was raised in an agrarian society of stoic men. The struggles of the mind and emotions were commonly associated with deep character deficits rather than legitimate medical problems.
Orphaned at an early age, Poe was raised by foster parents. His foster father sent him to fancy private schools but he was later forced to leave because of his gambling addiction and the debts he’d incurred thereby.
He struggled all his life with alcoholism associated with his depression. His young wife died of tuberculosis at an early age which only compounded this problem.
Left to this own devices, Poe died of mysterious causes that his doctors described as “acute congestion of the brain” and some historians believe may have been a case of rabies.
A greatly troubled man that lived and suffered and died alone in one form or the other has given us a bird’s eye view glimpse into the minds of those who are suffering from various forms of mental conditions. We must take a harder look at these conditions and seek to break the stigmas that isolate the beautiful tonal view that melancholy individuals have. If this outlook is not fostered in a positive light it can lead to compounded social disorders and depression such as Poe suffered.
Literature is the one art form that above all the others brings multiple people of different perspectives to the same table. Conversations begin and end with the beauty of this craft. For some, it can be a vehicle of life, a minister of a therapy that has no prescription drug form.