Welp. It’s finally caught up with me. As it turns out, trying to read a book every day whilst juggling life, as well as other artistic products to review, is pretty difficult. Especially since I’m currently reading ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘And Then There Were None’, and ‘The Blood Rose Rebellion’.
Consider those my announcements for the next few ‘How’s This Book?’ articles.
But I’m determined to keep to the schedule. I’ll simply have to expand Wednesday from the book slot to the literature slot! In between ‘How’s This Book?’, I’ll read and review something much shorter and harder to talk about! Poetry!
And who better to start with than the master of poetry himself: Edgar Allan Poe! Because why the hell would I want to make this easy on myself?! Plus, I’ve had a copy of ‘Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems’, which is about as thick as my skull and the brain inside it, and I need to do something with it! How else will I look like a proper literature snob?!
*Note: Expect reviews of other poems from other poets in the future. But you should also expect the foreseeable future to be consumed by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s my favorite, and I want to share my thoughts and interpretations of all his works with you guys. Plus, this book is fucking huge, so I’ve got plenty of material to work with.
With all that said, let’s get started with the first of this book’s many classical holdings: ‘O, Tempora! O, Mores!’
This two-and-a-half page long poem is, in my opinion, the perfect introductory piece to Poe’s works. ‘Eh, but Jonah!’ I hear all of you who only know the legendary poet for one work saying. ‘Why not ‘The Raven’? That’s, like, his most popular work!’
Several reasons. One: ‘The Raven’ is on page 62. Two: I want to use this opportunity to expand both my own and other people’s horizons on Poe’s works. I love everything I’ve read from him, but I haven’t read all of it. And I’m sure most people who didn’t go to college for English degrees (like I didn’t because American college is the most depressing joke I could possibly make and this is my safe space) are in the same boat. So I’m talking about ‘O, Tempora! O, Mores!’ and that’s final.
Now, on with what I think this poem is about. And no, this isn’t a factual statement. If you ask me, poetry is like abstract music: what it’s about is up to the interpretation. So I’ll be giving you what I personally interpreted from this text. Feel free to let me know what you thought it was about in the comments.
‘O, Tempora! O, Mores!’ establishes what it’s about right off the bat with the first half of the first paragraph:
O, Times! O, Manners! It is my opinion
That you are changing sadly your dominion-
I mean the reign of manners hath long ceased,
For men have none at all, or bad at least;
This poem is about the behavioral problems that Poe saw in most men of his day. He spends the second paragraph detailing how he can’t decide to be serious or take life as a joke, as those around him will spiral into heated arguments with each other no matter what their approach is. This is supported in the lines:
I’ve been a thinking, whether it were best
To take things seriously, or all in jest;
Instead of two sides, Job has nearly eight,
Each fit to furnish forth four hours debate.
He decides that the best course of action is not to take sides at all. Not to laugh at life, and not to take it seriously. Rather, he chooses to forgo what other people think and view life from the perspective he thinks best, as to avoid getting sorted into a side of the debate. The following lines make me believe so.
I’ll neither laugh with one, nor cry with t’other,
Nor deal in flatt’ry or aspersions foul,
But, taking one by each hand, merely growl.
He furthers his point in the next few paragraphs. He explains that those who would censor him, make him speak in their way rather than his, are slow-witted and aggressive. This point is hammered in as he compares them to apes in the following paragraph.
But, damn it, sir, I deem it a disgrace
That things should stare us boldly in the face,
And daily strut the street with bows and scrapes,
Who would be men by imitating apes.
I beg your pardon, reader, for the oath
The monkeys make me swear, though something loth;
I’m apt to be discursive in my style,
But pray be patient; yet a little while
Will change me, as politicians do,
I’ll mend my manners and my measures too.
With this text, Poe also points out the consequences of this censorship. He directly addresses the reader, telling us to our faces that what we’re reading is a watered-down version of who Poe really is. In his assurance, he tells us not that he’ll soon break free from this and show his true colors; rather, these will become his true colors, and the true writer that made this poem would be washed away. His identity will become what they want him to be.
This is a point that strongly resonates with me. As a writer, I look at all my work with a fearful eye. I’m worried that I should censor things down, that I should hide aspects of my own identity to make my work more approachable. Having been raised in a very strict religious environment only furthered that anxiety in me. To this day, I struggle with the editing process, as I juggle presenting who I am and who the people around me want me to be to my audience. I try to be the person I am, but that often proves incredibly terrifying. Sometimes, I feel as Poe did; that my own identity is being sucked away, and the works I present to all of you are being made by someone else.
Wow. I’ll be honest, I was not expecting to get that honest and revealing when I set out to write this. I hope you weren’t alienated by that brief moment of weakness. Let’s get back to the poem, shall we?
Poe goes on to detail this character he is forced to play. He describes a soft-spoken, gorgeous and well-loved man. But he introduces this man from the first person, then quickly shifts into the third person. This establishes that Poe doesn’t consider this persona to be who he really is, even if it is physically him. Look at it right here!
One of these fish, par excellence the beau-
God help me!- it has been my lot to know,
At least by sight, for I’m a timid man,
And always keep from laughing, if I can;
But speak to him, he’ll make you such grimace,
Lord! to be grave exceeds the power of face.
But it isn’t all grim. He does finish the poem off with a bit of hope. He shows that despite how bogged down he’s become in his forced persona, his true self is still in there. The self that doesn’t laugh or take things seriously in order to fit in. Despite how the censorship may change him, he will always growl at those who frown on him.
Ah, yes! his little foot and ankle trim,
‘Tis there the seat of reason lies in him,
A wise philosopher would shake his head,
He then, of course, must shake his foot instead.
At me, in vengeance, shall that foot be shaken-
Another proof of thought, I’m not mistaken-
Because to his cat’s eyes I hold a glass,
And let him see himself, a proper ass!
I never expected Poe to call someone a proper ass, I guess he did. And now my life is better for knowing.
Hey Mr. English Teacher, I finished my essay! Can I please go home now! Or at least could you loosen the chains? They’re super uncomfortable!
Jokes aside, writing this has been an absolute blast! Sure, it’s almost certain that my interpretation has as many holes as swiss cheese. And it’s equally certain that a Poe fan with an actual degree will fry me in the comments, telling me “UM, ACTUALLY, THE POEM MEANS THIS FOR THIS REASON AND YOU’RE STUPID!!”
Which is fine. I’m fine being called an idiot. Again: this is just my interpretation. Go read the poem and tell me what you think it’s about. I’ll be interested to see what you thought of it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to read ‘To Margaret’ and ‘”To Octavia”‘ seven times to make sense of those. This is fun, I swear to god.