Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing . . .
--EDGAR ALLAN POEShe who had been dead once again stirred . . . ,
I read to the freshmen slumped at their desks in standard eight a.m. curved-spine classroom posture. The corpse, I repeat, stirred, and now more vigorously than before. The hues of life flushed up with unwonted energy into the countenance--the limbs relaxed. . . .
It was the perfect day for studying the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe: November, cold and damp, with an ominous threat of snow. My mood matched the weather: cold and dismal with an ominous threat of--whatever; I didn't want to think about it. I read on, adjusting my voice to the desolate rhythms of the story: . . . arising from the bed, tottering with feeble steps--
"The guy was a necrophiliac!" Mike Vitale called from the back of the room. I glanced up, startled. The other students in my Freshman Humanities class tittered. As an English professor at Enfield College, an elite institution of higher education tucked away in the green hills of western New England, I wasn't used to Mike's type of classroom irreverence--most of my students were all-too-serious about their thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year educations.
"Sorry, Professor Pelletier." Mike apologized, paused, then blurted, "It's just that I do think he preferred his women dead." His gold hoop earring and crisp, dark curls springing from a tightly pulled-back ponytail gave my student a street-smart appearance. "You know what I mean? He gives these really detailed . . . you know . . . erotic . . . portraits of their corpses. And even when the women are still alive, they look like they have rigor mortis! Listen to this." He glanced down at the page and read, "'She placed her marble hand upon my shoulder.' I mean, marble hand, yeeech!" He glanced around at his classmates, grandstanding, "I don't know about the rest of you guys, but this does not turn me on."
I laughed. In twenty pairs of dutiful eyes I could see the question: Was it really okay for Mike to make fun of Great Literature? They stared at me, and I could well imagine what they saw: A woman, if not yet exactly dead, at least on the cusp of old age--thirty-five, maybe--tall, with straight dark hair caught up in a wide silver barrette, dressed in the height of what was probably last year's style, a long cobalt-blue sweater over black leggings and polished black lace-up boots. A woman long past her sell-by date and feeling, this gloomy November morning, every second of it.
"Well," I said, "maybe it turned him on. Poe wasn't the most emotionally balanced of men. In one of his essays, he says that the death of a beautiful woman is 'the most poetical topic in the world.' But, you know, he deliberately intended the weird effect. Melancholy--that's what Poe was after--at least in his poems. He believed that melancholy was, what he called, 'the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.'" I related Poe's account of having chosen the word nevermore
as the refrain for his famous "The Raven" based on what he presented as a near-scientific analysis of the emotional impact of its vowel and consonant sounds.
"I think he was melancholy because his heart was broken," supplied a pudgy eighteen-year-old with lank blond hair and a fair complexion, far more loudly than he seemed to have intended. Still, if Tom Lundgren hadn't been sitting in the front row, practically under my feet, I wouldn't have caught the words--he'd practically whispered them. Sharp-eared little Frederica Whitby heard him, though--Freddie always sat front and center.
As Tom blushed fiercely upon hearing his words repeated, Freddie informed the class; "Tom says Poe's heart was broken. And he's right. Edgar Poe had lost Ligeia, his one true love," she bemoaned, "and all the happiness had leaked out of his life. Nevermore would he find joy. Nevermore--"
Leaked out of his life? Jeez!
"Ligeia," I said, "was not Poe's wife. His wife was named Virginia." For some unfathomable reason this morning I really couldn't handle a classroom discussion about the loss of love. "Ligeia was merely a character in one of his short stories. In fact, in creating this tale of a dead woman who takes over the body of another dead woman, Poe was working in the well-established Gothic literary tradition of the Doppelganger--"
"What's a Doppelganger?" Freddie demanded, predictably.
"It's a double, of course," Mike responded, as if this piece of arcane information was something every literate person ought to know.
"Yes," I elaborated. "Mike's right. The Doppelganger is a sinister double--a mythic creature who assumes the physical or spiritual likeness of his doomed victim. Along with other literary conventions--the dark, brooding hero, the entombed maiden, the decrepit mansion--Poe borrowed the Doppelganger from the Gothic horror tales of Europe."
Tom raised his plump hand and waited for me to acknowledge him. "But didn't his wife really die?" He gestured toward his anthology. "It says here in the headnote--"
"Virginia did die," I replied, "very young, of tuberculosis. And there were other dead women in his life as well--real ones, not simply fictional ones." My students listened intently as I recounted the tale of Poe's beautiful actress mother, who died when he was only two years old. "And it's been rumored that Emmeline Foster, a 'poetess,' as women poets were often called in those days, committed suicide out of love for Poe. There's no hard evidence to prove either that it was suicide, or that it had anything to do with Poe, but Foster's death by drowning in the Hudson not far from Poe's New York home has become a powerful element of his dark mythology. After Foster's body was found near the docks on a cold February morning, one Manhattan newspaper even called Poe 'The Demon Lover.' But," I concluded, "the truth is much more mundane: Poe was depressed and alcoholic, and he was overly susceptible to women. Women, much to their disadvantage, were also susceptible to him." I thought briefly about Poe's romantic involvements with such women poets as Frances Osgood and Sarah Helen Whitman, but didn't mention them; I wanted to get back to discussing the literature. "But nothing worked out for him. His life was as unhappy a story as any of his tales. Now, turn in your books to--"
The slap, slap, slap of notebooks closing alerted me to the time. I glanced at my watch: 8:50 a.m.; FroshHum, the required freshman seminar in Literature and Humanities, was over for the day. I held up a hand to keep my students in their seats. "Remember, class, your papers on 'The Raven' are due Monday morning. For anyone who wants help or advice, I'll be available during office hours this afternoon. If you haven't found your way over there yet, the English Department's in Dickinson Hall, and my office is on the first floor, catty-corner from the main office. Any questions?" Twenty blank faces: No one wanted to stay in the classroom an instant longer than absolutely required--especially on a Friday. "No? Okay, then. I'll expect you all to have thoughtful things to say about the poem in class on Monday. See you then."
"Professor Pelletier?" I glanced up from attempting to stuff too many books into an already overloaded canvas bookbag. The classroom, with its high ceilings and dark oak wainscoting, was now empty except for Mike Vitale, who stood before my desk clutching a sheet of cantaloupe-hued paper. "Can I talk to you about my paper?"
"Would office hours be okay?" I had an urgent need for coffee; I'd gone cold turkey too long this morning. "I'll be available from two to four this afternoon."
"Well . . ." Mike seemed oddly tentative for a young man who was so outspoken in the classroom. "It's just that I . . . I would rather stay out of Dickinson Hall."
"Oh?" Stay out of Dickinson Hall? How odd. "Why?" I looked at him more closely. His usually animated brown eyes had taken on a guarded expression.
"I . . . I'd rather not say." He'd placed his sheet of paper on the desk, and now he nudged it toward me. "I just want to show you my essay outline. It's real short. Does this look okay to you?"
I gave Mike's outline a quick once-over. "This looks fine, Mike--as I would expect." Then I smiled at him--the poor kid looked so earnest. "You're doing terrific in this course, you know. Have you ever thought about becoming an English major? You're a natural-born writer."
Mike broke out in a grin so resplendent with sudden joy, you might have thought I'd just awarded him a Pulitzer prize. "You think so?" he replied.
Excerpted from The Raven and the Nightingale by Joanne Dobson. Copyright © 2000 by Joanne Dobson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.