Bag Girl Halloween Special: A Review of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and An Evening in Salem

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During November and December of 2010, I spent a good amount of time in Boston for follow up doctor’s appointments after being released from Children’s Hospital following my second and third heart surgeries. Near Children’s Hospital is a Barnes and Noble, where my mom poked around while waiting for the next doctor’s appointment. Barnes and Noble sells composite volumes of the works of a number of authors with elaborate leather bound covers ( I received one which contains the novels of Jane Austen that Christmas) one of which is called The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I purchased during one of the many Barnes and Noble gift cards I received as get-well-soon presents. In honor of Halloween, I decided to pull out this book and read through its highlights.

The Raven and Annabel Lee are Poe’s best-known poems and both deal with lost love and untimely death. Deceased loved ones show up a lot in Poe’s work and are a case of art imitating life since Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died young. He is quoted as saying “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.” The narrator of The Raven is sunk in grief and depression following the death of his sweetheart/wife Lenore. The name Lenore is frequently used to rhyme with “Nevermore” the raven’s reply to each of the narrator’s questions about God and life after death, and the repetitious use of these two words is used to show how the narrator is constantly reminded that Lenore is “Nevermore” or dead. The poem’s frequent use of onomonopias such as “knock” and “croak” make it a poem meant to be read aloud and perfect for a dramatic reading.  Premature death to illness (most frequently tuberculosis) was all too familiar to Poe and his nineteenth-century contemporaries who were passionate mourners. Annabel Lee epitomizes the almost necrophilic reverence with which deceased women are treated in Poe’s writing. Its narrator sees their dead sweetheart as an angelic and heavenly figure and treats her seaside tomb as a shrine. Lenore in The Raven is characterized as a seraphimal presence in a similar way that Annabel Lee is. Women appear in the Poe oeuvre as distant, celestial, forever young and beautiful objects to be pined for and worshipped almost as a saint. Death does not separate a lover from the object of their affection but rather increases his ardor for her.

The Tell-Tale Heart is another of Poe’s works that desire an aloud reading for the reader to get its full effect. It is similar in structure to The Raven: the narrator of both pieces is haunted by an event in the past (the death of Lenore; the murder of the old man) and both rely heavily on sound (the knocking and croaking of the raven; the beating of the old man’s heart). The ending of The Tell-Tale Heart masterfully builds up to its climax at a tempo which resembles an accelerating pulse as the narrator is driven to confess their crime. Like the raven symbolizes grief and lost love, the beating heart represents the narrator’s insanity (is the sound there or is it all in their head?) and guilt (the narrator cannot bear this guilt any longer and releases this burden by confessing to their crime).

Untimely death from disease was an unfortunate and inescapable reality of nineteenth-century life. In The Masque of the Red Death, a prince and his courtiers try to escape from a plague by secluding themselves inside the prince’s lavish mountain castle, where they try to forget about the horrors going on in the outside world by partying. The castle contains a loud, booming clock which startles and dumbfounds the guests whenever it marks the hours. When the clock strikes midnight, a red shrouded figure wearing with a skull face appears, representing the disease which the partygoers seek to avoid and are later killed by. Death appears in Poe’s writing as an unavoidable and inevitable part of life. It will get you in the end, no matter how rich and privileged you are, and it’s only a matter of time.

The themes found throughout Poe’s work such as madness, the inevitability of death and decay come into place in The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s narrator is called to visit his childhood friend Roderick Usher at his dilapidated ancestral mansion. Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their family line and Roderick is deeply depressed because Madeline is wasting away from a chronic illness and becomes more and more paranoid and insane until he has a mental breakdown and believes that the recently deceased Madeline was buried alive. The title The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: the Usher family ancestral mansion collapses in on itself at the end of the story and with the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, the Usher family bloodline is extinct. We are given the impression that it is the corruption of Usher family (Madeline is sickly and Roderick is insane) has eaten away at the family legacy and its collapse is inevitable.

Jasmine and I took the three o’clock shuttle into downtown Salem and walked to Salem Cinema. Downtown was crowded and alive with people dressed up in a variety of costumes. At four o’clock, Jasmine and I attended a screening of a documentary called The History of Halloween. The documentary was interesting but I found it a bit silly and pandering. Jasmine was upset by the fact that people in the middle ages used to cull black cats because they thought they were bad luck. This is one of the factors which led to the outbreak of the bubonic plague. After the movie, we watched to look in these Wiccan shops that Jasmine likes but Coven’s Cottage was closed and there was a line to get into Hex. Walking through the downtown area, we saw someone dressed up as Pennywise from It, a man playing Tom Petty songs on his guitar, and what Jasmine refers to as “religious freaks” who were berating people for their sinful ways. Jasmine and I wanted to end our evening by getting drinks at Rockefeller’s but the wait there was forty-five minute to an hour long wait, so we ended up being home by six when most people were starting to go out for the evening.

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I finished up the evening by watching the 1964 film version of The Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price.

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Hadestown Album Comparison

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I first discovered the folk opera Hadestown a couple of years ago when I was researching the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the favorites, and found that there was a concept album based on this story. The album was available for listening on YouTube and I was instantly obsessed. Unlike your typical concept album, there are different singers playing the different characters in the story. It feels like the cast recording of a musical and my first thought was that there should be a stage production. Sure enough, there was one in New York but it came and went before I had the chance to see it. So I looked up everything I could find of the production online which was tantalizingly little. Then it was announced a few months ago that a cast recording was to be released and I quickly pre-ordered it off of iTunes and waited for the whole thing to be available with a track released every few weeks to wet my appetite.  

For the purpose of comparison, I am going to go through each track on both of the albums, some of which overlap, and give my thoughts on the story and how it plays out in each version. The original concept album will be referred to as “H” while the cast recording will be referred to as “C”.

C begins with a song called Road to Hell which sets up the setting: a vaguely Great Depression era American south or midwest cum mythological Greece. It also introduces some of the divine players in the story about to unfold, Hermes, the messenger god who acts at the show’s narrator, the Fates, who control the destiny of mortals, and Persephone, queen of the underworld and goddess of spring, and how a young mortal named Orpheus will try to cheat death because of love. H gets right into introducing the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice (Anaïs Mitchell, the songwriter behind Hadestown and Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver). It’s first track, aptly titled Wedding Song, tells of how Orpheus and Eurydice wish to get married. Eurydice is concerned about how they are going to support themselves but the happy-go-lucky Orpheus assures her that everything will work out for them.

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Road to Hell introduces the story’s themes such as fate and undying love while Wedding Song sets up the struggles that our sweethearts, Orpheus and Eurydice, will face. As Road to Hell says “It was hard times,” which is bad news for our romantic poet Orpheus, who seems like the kind of guy who is very good at wooing a girl but is perhaps not as good at being a husband and provider.

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The second tracks of H and C paint different pictures of the world up above. Livin’ It Up On Top presents the world outside of Hadestown as fruitful, summery, and idyllic. Persephone feels stifled by her marriage to Hades and her life in Hadestown and only feels like she can be herself during the six months of the year she is allowed to spend with the living, who appear to be enjoying themselves greatly and appreciate nature’s bounty.

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While Epic I, which features in both versions, portrays the mortal world in a much bleaker light. Like Road to Hell, it provides the imagery of a railroad line, acting as a River Styx bringing people to the underworld or Hadestown, built by the lost souls who have come under Hades’s sway. The only alternative to starvation and poverty is body crushing drudgery and soul-crushing conformity in Hadestown. We also see Orpheus’s idealism in Livin’ It Up On Top. He values independence over money and is distrustful of those who take more than their fair share and seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others, an attitude which will later put him in conflict with Hades. Way Down Hadestown, which also appears in each version, shows that the world that characters live in is a tough one, so tough that people are willing to sell their souls to Hades to be able to survive.  We also begin to see a disconnect between Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus wants nothing to do with Hadestown and see it as a literal hell-hole but Eurydice is intrigued by its promise of a better life. 

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An interesting adaptation change is that Eurydice’s verses about how great things must be in Hadestown are sung by the fates in the C version, and Eurydice sings her line “Kinda makes you wonder how it feels” in response as if the fates are influencing her later decisions.

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In All I’ve Ever Known, we see that Eurydice’s life has seen a lot of hardship and her love for Orpheus has made her feel more optimistic. Much like in Wedding Song, Orpheus assures his lover that they can face anything as long as they are together. The world around them may be bleak and tough but their love is one of its few bright spots.

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The song Chant in C tracks the passage of time from idyllic summer to harsh winter as well as the souring of the two relationships we see in the story: Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. Hades tries his hardest to please his wayward wife with elaborate gestures but Persephone misses the simpler times back when they were first married and Eurydice is frustrated with Orpheus’s inability to provide for them.

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The desperate and vulnerable Eurydice is easy prey for Hades who is compared to rattlesnake going after a songbird. The imagery of a songbird paints Eurydice as flighty and unable to handle hardship since birds tend to fly away to a warmer climate during the winter.  Hey, Little Song Bird shows Hades luring Eurydice away from Orpheus and her hand to mouth existence. 

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When the Chips are Down is sung by the fates who are trying to convince Eurydice to accept Hades’s offer. In H they come across as mean girls who are mocking Eurydice for her bad life decisions whereas, in C, they are older and more cynical figures influencing the young and naive Eurydice to put her own survival ahead of everything else.

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The C version of Wait for Me features Orpheus looking for Eurydice and being chastised by Hermes for losing track of her. Orpheus convinces Hermes to give him directions on how to get to Hadestown and rescue Eurydice. Despite the hiccups in their relationship, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice is strong enough to see him through to Hell and back.

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Why We Build the Wall gives a closer look at how things operate in Hadestown. The lost souls who end up there are put to work building a wall that they are made to believe will keep out poverty and hardship. This song is in a call and response format with Hades drilling his followers in the tenants of his ideology: that they must build a wall around Hadestown to keep out those who wish to come in and take what they have. Sounds familiar?  The C version shows Eurydice going into Hades’s office and giving him her soul and possibly more. 

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In Our Lady of the Underground, Persephone undermines her husband’s operation by providing his employees with things that will help them forget about their drab existence at a secret speakeasy. This is set up earlier in Way Down Hadestown when Persephone mentions that she is bringing drugs and alcohol back with her to help her get through the winter. The crack in the wall mentioned by Persephone in Our Lady of the Underground is a representation of the flaws in the system that Persephone and Orpheus try to exploit.

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Eurydice begins to regret her decision to come to Hadestown and describes her journey there in Flowers (Eurydice’s Song), which features in H, using imagery suggestive of drug intoxication and being sexually assaulted. The vague nature of her memories of her previous life with Orpheus shows that they have begun to fade. C shows Eurydice’s realization that things in Hadestown are not all she expected in Way Down Hadestown II. Persephone and the fates mock her for her naivety and for getting conned by Hades out of her freedom and her life.

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The fates similarly mock Orpheus in Nothing Changes in H, by saying that he is foolish for believing he can cheat death and rescue Eurydice. This plays out differently in C, with Chant II, where Hades tells the recently arrived Orpheus that he was once an idealistic and romantic young man like him but learned that women are fickle and need to be placated with expensive things.

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Persephone has a similar talk with Eurydice about how she was once a young girl hungry for wealth but learned that love was more important. Hades asks Orpheus to sing him one last song before he destroys him. In H, this song is called If Its True, where Orpheus tries to gain Hades’s pity by singing of how hopeless he feels without Eurydice. C has him use a different tactic: reminding Hades of how he fell in love with Persephone and how all the wealth he has cannot compare with that love in Epic II, which appears later on in H.

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Each version gives us a scene where Hades pounders what do in the situation: either keep Eurydice and feel bad about it or let her go and look weak and undermine his power. H has a song called How Long where Persephone tries to persuade her husband to free Eurydice and let her be with Orpheus but he fears that doing so will make him lose his authority. In the C version, Word to the Wise, the fates get Hades to come to this conclusion, making them arguably the true villains of the story. Hades has one more trick left to play. He allows Orpheus to leave with Eurydice under the condition that he is not allowed to look back.

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Orpheus and Eurydice get a duet in C called Promises where they decide that despite everything that has happened, they still love each other and want to be together. The frequent use of the phrases “I do” and “I will” are reminiscent of wedding vows. Wait for Me has a reprise in C where Persephone is about to leave again for her spring and summer sojourn outside of Hadestown. She and Hades decide to give their marriage a second chance when she returns in the fall. Hades and Persephone are a foil to Orpheus and Eurydice. The mistakes they have made are ones that the younger couple should learn from. Both couples, despite the ups and downs they have gone through, have a strong love and a strong bond.

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H skips right to Doubt Comes In which appears at roughly the same point in each version. It’s the classic scene where Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld, forbidden to look back upon her. The main difference in C is that part of Orpheus’s verses are sung by the fates, who are making Orpheus suspicious of Eurydice and begin to falter in his determination.

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C ends with a reprise of Road to Hell and H ends with a song called I  Raise My Cup to Him where Eurydice and Persephone toast Orpheus in a reverse eulogy, the dead praise and celebrate the living. Road to Hell II ends the story on a brighter note: spring returns and the love between Orpheus and Eurydice survived despite their separation. Those who are familiar with Greek Mythology will know that they will eventually be reunited in Elysium after Orpheus’s death.

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I would highly recommend both versions. The music is beautiful and poetic and the story is nuanced and compelling. But here’s a warning: it’s ending will destroy you emotionally. I think the stage production sounds very well done with all the performers doing a fantastic job. The actor who plays Orpheus, Damon Daunno, has a gorgeous voice and Amber Grey is hysterical as Persephone. Nabiyah Be, who plays Eurydice, is great as well though I prefer Anaïs Mitchell in the original concept album, whose honey and graham crackers voice gives the character a naive quality. I regret not being able to see this production live.

 

Bag Girl Reviews: The Homeric Hymns

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Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.  

Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter. 

The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.

Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.

Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia.  It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing.  If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.

 

 

A Quiet Passion and Donuts and Death

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Jasmine learned about a showing of A Quiet Passion, a biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson, at Salem Cinema and suggested it as something we could do. I said of course, since Dickinson was one of the writers we studied in my American lit. class this semester. At 4:30, we went to Omega Pizza, our favorite pizza place in Salem, and then caught the 5:50 shuttle downtown. When we got there, we still had about an hour until the movie so I passed the time by playing Jasmine some of my latest musical obsessions. The movie began at 7:20 and was shown in the tiny theater where we saw The True 1692.

A Quiet Passion is a visually stunning and beautifully made film. It’s cinematography is exquisite, combining the natural beauty celebrated in Dickinson’s poetry and the prim mid victorian domesticity in which she and her family lived. It was also a brilliant choice to include voice overs of her poetry. The film was a fascinating psychological portrait of this most enigmatic of American writers, showing her as a rebellious school girl, an old maid who still harbored some hopes of romance, then as a sickly recluse. Cynthia Nixon gave a compelling and nuanced performance as Emily Dickinson, managing to be both a shy, uptight, nineteenth century spinster, and a feisty, outspoken protofeminist. I could easily sympathize with the trials that Dickinson went through: her literary ambitions, health problems, and romantic frustrations.

Some of my biggest complaints with the movie are that the movie was very short on coherent story and mostly seemed to be series of vignettes. It also had a tendency to drag. But the thing which stuck in my throat was how the adulterous affair of Emily’s brother Austin is pretty much dismissed as “he’s only human” and her outraged reaction to it is treated as her needing to lighten up.  Adultery and its casual treatment and justification are things which I cannot abide. 

I had to attend the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as part of the requirements for my creative writing class and I decided to attend an event called “Donuts and Death. Jasmine and I took a taxi to the Hawthorne Hotel, where the event was held. It was called “Donuts and Death” because it focused on Emily Dickinson’s sad poetry and was held in the morning (9:30 to be exact) and donuts were served. The speaker puts these poems in the context of real life events in Dickinson’s life, her romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, one of her father’s friends. Dickinson almost married Lord late in her life but health problems and distance prevented it (marrying Lord would have meant taking a gruelling journey from Amherst to Salem). Also discussed was the divide in the Emily Dickinson scholar community between the version of her poems edited by her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and the version edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austen’s mistress.

Gingerbread donuts made from Emily’s own recipe (apparently she was quite the baker) were promised but were not provided. In their place were some delicious treats from a celebrated Amherst bakery. The speaker was hysterical and made the event a blast. I was inspired to go to Wicked Good Books and buy a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  At eleven o’clock, I was picked up by my dad; Jasmine stayed beyond to explore more of the festival. As dad and I drove away, I read from my favorite Dickinson Poem “some keep the Sabbath…”  

 

 

The Lament of Eurydice

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*** Scroll Down for English Translation***

[Francais]

J’aimais l’automne, si tu le croirais.

Tout ce que j’ai toujours voulu était que le temps accélérerait  et de ne passer si lentement.

Mais maintenant qu’il est passé, je ne le récupérerai jamais.

Je me souviens de marcher dans un champ de fleurs,

En marchant côte à côte, main dans la main.

Maintenant, il n’y a que des  tas de feuilles mortes

Et des serpents dans l’herbe.

Je suis toute seule.

Mon coeur appartiendra toujours à celui que j’ai laissé derrière moi

Je voulais rester; j’espère qu’il souvient de cela.

Sa chanson ne peut plus me réveiller

Il restera seul  ici

Les feuilles sont vertes sur l’arbre, jusqu’à ce qu’ils

Deviennent marron et souffler loin

Les fleurs fleurissent jusqu’à ce qu’elles pourrissent

C’est le chemin de toutes choses;

Même la mienne.  

[English]

To think, I used to like the Fall.

All I ever want was for time to speed up and not go by so slowly.

But now that it was passed, I will never get it back.

I remember walking through a field of flowers,

walking side by side, hand in hand.

Now, there is only piles of dead leaves

and snakes in the grass.

I am all alone.

My heart will always belong to to the one

I left behind me.

I wished to stay; I hope he remembers that.

His song cannot wake me anymore.

He will stay here all alone.

Leaves are green on the trees until

they turn brown and blow away

Flowers bloom until they rot

It is the way of all things; even mine