On many occasions, I’ve written of my love and admiration for the poetry of the American poet Robert Frost. I think Frost is the greatest poet America has produced thus far in its history. However, there is another American poet, this one from the 19th century, whose poetry I enjoy enormously—Edgar Allan Poe. A photograph of Poe sits on my writing table. Poe is a continual source of inspiration for me, not only in writing poetry but in creating short stories. Poe and Frost have many things in common: a solid knowledge of classical poetry, an affinity for rhyme and rhythm, and a strong narrative sense..
When my daughter Annie was a child, she and I often walked to a nearby park where I would push her in a swing while singing to a simple tune I made up, the first two stanzas of Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.” Her mother and I would sometimes call her “Annabel.” I would end my song with the final words of the second stanza, which describe the love between the poem’s narrator and Annabel Lee. They loved, he tells us, with a love that was more than love, indeed, “With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven / Coveted her and me.” I stopped at this particular spot in the poem because of what Poe suggests next: that the angels coveted the couple’s love so much that a wind blew out of a cloud by night that chilled and killed Annabel Lee. It wasn’t something I thought my daughter needed to know when she was only three or four years old.
I muddled through four years of Latin in grades 9-12, but my former wife, Annie’s mother, was trained in classical Latin and Greek. I believe it was her classical background, which also included the study of Greek and Roman mythology, that would cause her to whisper to me, on some occasions, when I shouted out in happiness or joy about one thing or another, “Not so loud; the gods may hear you.” Many places in classical literature portray the gods as vindictive or jealous of humans. Remember what they did to Prometheus for stealing fire and giving it to humanity. If not, here’s a painting by Rubens to remind you.
Another classical example concerns Helen of Troy, the abducted wife of Menelaus. She was carried off by Paris, prince of Troy, and, as Marlowe famously asks in Doctor Faustus:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
Helen’s was. The root of the Trojan War was a beauty contest judged by Paris. Paris was asked to pick the fairest of three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. A very troublesome task, fraught with peril. And perhaps, like some beauty contests since then, a bribe was involved. Aphrodite offered to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. The price was that he had to select Aphrodite as the beauty contest winner. Well, with a prize like Helen, how could any man resist? He chose Aphrodite, of course, and the rest is history or, perhaps, mythology. The idea behind the story is simple: the gods can wreak havoc on humans if they want to, and they often want to when their pride or jealousy is involved; thus, my former wife’s warning, don’t let them know you are too happy.
Let’s look at Poe’s poem again. I left off with the line about the wingèd seraphs of heaven. A little later, Poe returns to the theme: “The angels not half so happy in Heaven, / Went envying her and me.” It was because of their envy of the love between the narrator and Annabel Lee, “That the wind came out of the cloud, chilling / And killing my Annabel Lee.” Well, by now, it should be clear why I stopped singing the poem to my daughter at the point I did. The idea of vengeful, jealous, or vindictive gods is not comfortable for children or adults.
What about God, the one I believe in and worship? What about the angels on their way to destroy Sodom or the one standing in the path of Balaam’s Ass? Let’s look at an example. Consider this passage from the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, verses 22-24. The statement is attributed to the LORD, the English placeholder for the divine name. The excerpt is from Robert Alter’s translation.
And the LORD God said, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” And the LORD God sent him from the garden of Eden to till the soil from which God had taken him. And He drove out the human and set up east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Here is another example from Genesis. This one is from chapter 11. Again, I use Alter’s translation.
And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.”Alter, Robert, ibid.
“Baffle?” From my perspective, that’s certainly an understatement. I confess that the results of this particular “coming down” are painfully felt by me every day in my futile attempt to learn to speak modern Hebrew.
So what are we to make of this: Poe’s views of the angels’ motives in “Annabelle Lee” and God’s view of man in the two stories from Genesis? The first thing to notice is the differing perspectives. One reflects human “understanding” of the motives of supernatural beings; the other is, Divine understanding of human nature. Poe believes that the angels’ envy of his and Annabelle Lee’s love for one another causes them to kill her using the agency of a wind coming out of a cloud that first chilled and then killed her. They are jealous, vindictive, and covetous.
Looking at what God does – banish humans from the Garden of Eden and later confuse their understanding by creating numerous languages so they cannot understand each other. One might ask why; was God afraid of man, too zealous in guarding his place of eminence, his unique status? I don’t think so. There is a telling passage near the beginning of chapter 6 of Genesis.
And the LORD saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. And the LORD regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the core. And the LORD said, “I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.” (Alter translation)
We may or may not agree with Poe in his account of the death of Annabelle Lee. Either way, we understand that his poem is a cry of pain. But when I look at the world today, I’m inclined to agree with God’s assessment of human nature, which is also a cry of pain, and to apprehend God’s regret.
We humans have been highly successful in bringing into being God’s greatest apprehensions concerning us. Yet, we must notice the sequence of events: chapter 3, expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Chapter 6, God’s regret and the flood, chapter 11, Tower of Babel. What’s this tell us? God did not wipe out all humans but started over. Why? Ah! And what did we do? We built a tower. One is tempted to describe God as a cock-eyed optimist. And precisely this optimism is the source of Divinity’s pain and the single most significant source of our hope.
All the best,