Back from a quick trip to London, and quite by chance, I opened a book. It’s not a book I open often, and when I do, it’s usually somewhere in the middle. (It’s a precious book, and the binding needs careful hands.) This time, the book opened to the front endpapers, and a loose sheet of paper slipped out.
Exhibition, I read. Opening days: November 23rd until Christmas. Place: Leicester Square. And I thought, Oh my goodness, we were there last week, how could I have missed it? What a shame! Now, I confess that was a very fleeting thought, as the date was indeed November 23 to Christmas, but the year was 1912, fully a century ago.
But, that’s all it takes to set my mind awhirl: imagining Leicester Square in 1912, imagining the gallery, the opening of the show, the exquisite originals on the walls, the hum of conversations… and thinking that yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to set a century aside briefly and step back for an hour to visit an exhibition rather than going to a screening.
Somehow that odd coincidence, to which is added the fact that by some miracle that loose sheet of paper remained in the book for a hundred years, briefly suspended a full century and made possible a fleeting instant, dream-like and intense. An absence of mindedness, which was suddenly filled with a gale of emotion. I can’t honestly describe it.
But, what I would give to do it for real.
From the catalogue for an exhibition of cartoons by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956).April-May 1913.
I bought The Bells (published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1912) a few years ago, so enamoured am I of Dulac’s extraordinary illustrations to the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not the lighter Dulac you most likely know. The series of images, twenty-eight in all, is as sombre and gloomy as the texts, a darker Dulac, possibly influenced by the storm-clouds building over his native France.
Edgar Allan Poe had died over half a century earlier, after being found delirious in the streets of Boston, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”. He never regained his lucidity and died four days later, in the early morning of October 7, 1849.
In the half-century after his death, although he had lived in near-poverty for most of his life, his writing had gained in popularity and esteem. His Poems were published in London as part of the highly-regarded Endymion series, with authors like Tennyson, Shelley, Keats and Milton, and illustrated by the best illustrators of the day: W. Heath Robinson, R. Anning Bell, and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.
Portrait of Edmund Dulac by the celebrated Bavarian photographer Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972). This version was used as the frontispiece to a catalogue of an exhibition of Dulac’s water-colour drawings, published by Scott & Fowles, New York, in 1916.
Edmond Dulac had arrived in London in 1904; French anglophile, born in 1882 in Toulouse, where he studied law (graduating with a law degree in 1902), he chose to pursue drawing and painting, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1900 to 1903 and discovering the work of Beardsley, Burne-Jones, Morris and others of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He attended the Académie Julien in Paris the following year, where he so affected English fashion he was given the sobriquet “L’Anglais”. After a surprisingly brief marriage to Alice May de Marni, an American thirteen years his senior, he moved to England, anglicized his first name to Edmund, and settled in London.
Dulac quickly established his reputation. A first commission, sixty illustrations for an edition of Jane Eyre, published by J. M. Dent, was followed by regular contributions to Pall Mall magazine and other publications. He formed a relationship with the Leicester Gallery, who exhibited and sold his illustrations, which were simultaneously published by Hodder & Stoughton. Books followed swiftly: Stories from The Arabian Nights in 1907, with 50 color illustrations; an edition of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1908, with 40 color illustrations; The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1909, with 20 color images; The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales in 1910; Stories from Hans Christian Andersen in 1911; The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe in 1912, with 28 color images and a handful of pen and ink drawings. Limited deluxe editions were bound in vellum and signed by the illustrator. (Once again, images spring to life: Dulac at the openings of his shows, signing books and perhaps even doing quick drawings in them – it all makes his work seem even more alive; the temporality of those gestures measured against the timelessness of the published work itself.)
Although he was a member of the famous London Sketch Club, it seems Dulac preferred more tranquil circles to the boisterous atmosphere at 79 Wells Street. He was the friend of many of his equally illustrious contemporaries, the likes of John Hassall, Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson, Charles Ricketts, and Edmund Sullivan, as well as philanthropist and collector Edmund Davis. When he married in 1911, Dulac and his new wife Elsa Arnalice Bignardi, violinist daughter of a professor of singing, moved to one of a group of studios built by Davis in Ladbroke Road. There, they met other artists and performers of the day, including pianist Arthur Rubenstein and writer W. B. Yeats, with whom Dulac formed a lifelong friendship. The two would collaborate on a number of projects, including proposed coinage designs for the Irish Free State. Dulac also designed sets and costumes for Yeats’ play “At The Hawk’s Well” and composed the incidental music, even taking part in the first performance in 1916.
Dulac saw his contract with Hodder & Stoughton collapse with the outbreak of World War I. Now a British citizen, he contributed to many relief books, including King Albert’s Book, for Belgium, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, and a book of his own for his native France: Edmund Dulac’s Picture Book for the French Red Cross in 1915, which included 20 color images. (King Albert’s Book can still be found quite inexpensively; I have a copy I bought decades ago, and have only just found, still with a very tattered jacket, his book for the Red Cross, here in Wellington. I almost value the jacket, with its plea for aid, more than the book itself. Once again, I’m grateful to circumstance that kept it with the book, rather than being discarded. While the book itself might be considered timeless, there is a transient urgency imprinted on the jacket that is very moving and places the book in context.) He also designed posters, stamps and other ephemera for the wartime effort.
Whatever the circumstance, Dulac’s energy and artistic talents seem inexhaustible, and capable of being applied to any endeavour. He designed theatre productions, (Cyrano de Bergerac for C. B. Cochran and Phoebus & Pan for Thomas Beecham in 1919). He could turn his hand to anything: wallpaper, playing cards, industrial brochures, banknotes, coins (the famous profile of George VI is Dulac’s work), medals and whatever seemed to come his way, as well as continuing on in publishing. It also appears he filled his spare moments with bookbinding, the designing of musical instruments, cutting out stencils and applying his dexterity to an array of other arts and crafts. His work appeared overseas as well; for nearly a quarter-century, from 1924 onwards, he was a contributor to the magazine American Weekly.
Divorced in 1923, he lived with author Helen Beauclerk until his death. They fled London in 1939 for Dorset, returning to the capital after the war. His last book commissions were for the Limited Editions Club of America: The Golden Cockerel (1950), The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (1951) and Comus (1955). Irrepressible Dulac, who died of a heart attack brought on by a too enthusiastic evening of flamenco dancing on May 25, 1953 at the age of seventy. Energy and elegance characterize his life, that same elegance and aristocratic touch characterize his art.
In the Illustrated London News Special Edition Christmas Number 1912, Edmund Dulac illustrations of a different character (Circe, Scheherazade, The Queen of Sheba and Salome) were featured alongside work by Charles Robinson, William Heath Robinson, Warwick Goble, Edward Detmold and Kay Nielsen.
That élégance recherchée, which he undoubtedly brought with him from France, mixed with Japonism and Orientalism that appealed to his Mediterranean character, is such a part of his work that it makes his illustrations for The Bells all the more striking. Dulac is anything but gloomy, he has little of the tendency to caricature of Rackham, nothing of the earthiness of Byam Shaw, the solidity of Fortescue-Brickdale, or the nervous pen of Sullivan. He is, despite a life spanning the two World Wars, a fin de siècle artist, poised, gracious and ever so slightly distant.
The illustrations for The Bells are an excursion, a foray out of the lighter tones and delicate pastels into a far darker world. Of the illustrators of Poe, he stands alone (the same could be said of Gustave Doré, whose engravings for The Raven are spectacular and eerie), perhaps by his circumvention of literal interpretation, his reluctance to set a recognizable stage or assume the trappings of a particular period, his erasing of horizons and creation of depth through colours that compose a shallow tapestry but nevertheless open on those infinite spaces of the mind that engulfed Edgar Allan Poe. This is the strange and discrete equipoise of Dulac, allowing us to see his darker side, composed and serene, but balanced on the very edge of the gulf of madness and despair. Dreamlike and unearthly, they are possibly the best illustrations ever done for Poe.
In the “Reviews & Notices” section of The Studio magazine for December 1912, the following appraisal appeared:
“The Bells and other Poems”. By Edgar Allan Poe. Illustrated by Edmund Dulac. (London; Hodder and Stoughton.) 15s. net. – One opens this book with some curiosity. Mr. Dulac has been one of our most successful illustrators of comedy and fairy tale in colour, he has the lightness, gaiety, and sense of grace which make him very happy in the illustrating of everything where these qualities are required. He is very successful with an eighteenth-century setting, for there is a way in which it might be said that as an artist he descends from Watteau. We find Mr. Dulac in this book departing from the styles most suited to book illustration; and after the fashion of too many illustrators this season, he ventures into complication of colour which does not lend itself to the requirements of a book in the lap. It is strange, too, that this mistake intrudes an air of commonplace in the illustrations, most unexpected in work from this artist. Painting is one art, book embellishment another. Proof is not wanting here that Mr. Dulac is capable of a profound note in design, but few of his designs have a chance against the dye-like colours in which the refinement of his compositions is destroyed. The cover of this volume is delightful in its scheme of gold upon grey, if somewhat dainty for the sombre genius of the poetry it contains.”
“Dulac had from the very beginning fine imaginative powers, and each group of drawings disclosed greater technical achievements and an unsurpassed versatility. The daintiest draughtsmanship, a delicious humor, an amazing feeling for design, and a positive genius for rich radiant color as applied to the pages of a book, were all coupled with the power to grasp an author’s meaning, and to embody it most happily with the glamor or piquancy which pertained to the various literary works themselves. Indeed, he has frequently added a vein of high poetry to the poetic originals. He should, however, be regarded not as an illustrator, but as an original painter, who uses line merely as an accessory, and each of these little iridescent miniatures which seem to be made of opal dust on mother of pearl, satisfies the demand which Delacroix made upon all paintings, ~~ they are color feasts for the eye.”
So, in a word, whatever qualities his work possesses, and whatever flights of fancy they invite the spectator to take, while they are undimmed by the passage of precisely a century, they have, for me, been enhanced by serendipity and an overlapping of dates, by a brief insight disguised as a lapse, a sort of split-second epiphany of time telescoped and erased. While a century might as well be forever in an individual’s life, I suddenly feel I’ve understood more about the nature of art and illustration for seeing one disappear for that split-second last December.
And, since all this talk of books and pictures has hopefully made you wish to see the pictures themselves, since none of us can have the privilege of attending the opening night at the Leicester Gallery, here they are, with extended captions by Ann Carling, to whom I am terribly grateful, and without whom this newsletter might just have remained a split second of bemusement in December 2012.
Although it is a fleeting daydream relation, a vicarious one-way kinship, it was nevertheless a moment of absence transformed into a split-second sentiment of contact as profound as it was insubstantial. In the same way we might hope, with whatever modest means we possess, that we might inadvertently create such fleeting instants in those future lives we will not see, that we might be made to understand ourselves as single threads in vast tapestries, or single drops in wide rivers, truly taking measure of the diverse infinity of human creation despite the limits of our own participation.
Would that serendipity could bring us to create these points of contact, however brief, far, far more often.
EDMUND DULAC: COLOUR ILLUSTRATIONS FOR THE BELLS
“With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not – they cannot at will be excited, with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.”
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), quoted from his own “Preface to the Poems”, included in numerous editions of his poetry, published both during his lifetime and posthumously.
1, 2 & 3. Illustrations for The Bells
Frontispiece and two further illustrations to the title poem The Bells, penned by Poe towards the end of his life, and published posthumously in November 1849. The poem apparently “examines bell sounds as symbols of four milestones of human experience – childhood, youth, maturity, and death.”1 It has been suggested2 that Poe drew some of his inspiration for this from a visit to Marie Louise Shew, an intimate family friend to whom he dedicated several other poems. There is a much more credible explanation; that the conception of The Bells arose from reading Génie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity), by François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). In a short chapter, (translated from the original French and) entitled simply Of Bells3, the following excerpt appears: “It seems to us that were we a poet we should not reject the idea of a bell tolled by spectres in the ancient chapel of the forest, that which religious fear set in motion in our fields to keep off the lightning, or that which was rung at night in certain sea-ports to direct the pilot in his passage among the rocks. On our festivals the lively peals of our bells seemed to heighten the public joy. In great calamities, on the contrary, their voice became truly awful. The hair yet stands erect at the remembrance of those days of murder and conflagration, all vibrating with the dismal noise of the tocsin. Who has forgotten those yells — those piercing shrieks succeeded by intervals of sudden silence, during which was now and then heard the discharge of a musket, some doleful and solitary voice, and above all, the heavy tolling of the alarm-bell, or the clock that calmly struck the hour which had just elapsed?”
Studying the frontispiece for this book, the first of Dulac’s illustrations for the eponymous poem, it is easy to imagine that he too was familiar with these very words, so deeply evocative when read in his native tongue.4 He vividly conveys the visualization of “…cette cloche agitée par les fantômes dans la vieille chapelle de la forêt…..” as clearly as it echoes Poe’s own verses: “ — They that dwell up in the steeple, All alone, And who, tolling, tolling, tolling, In that muffled monotone, Feel a glory in so rolling On the human heart a stone — They are neither man nor woman — They are neither brute nor human — They are Ghouls: And their king it is who tolls;….” Dulac’s ghoul is a more metropolitan manifestation, with his death-blanched face and swirling mantle. The softly drifting hues of the second illustration reflect the “balmy air of night”. In an image of mysterious and unearthly beauty, a flight of formless angels streams heavenward on curved and coloured wings that cast an opaque cloud across latticed windows, behind which a faded filigree of foliage trails across the pale moon. The third illustration returns to the ghoulish bell-ringers, and the voices of the bells themselves, “the melancholy menace of their tone! For every sound that floats From the rust within their throats Is a groan.” Those voices are given ghastly shape; heavy dust clouds twisting into fantastically contorted faces, emblematic of “the moaning and the groaning of the bells.”
4. Annabel Lee
The lyric poem, Annabel Lee, thought by many to be in memory of his wife Virginia, who died in 1847, was published in The New York Tribune two days after Poe’s own death in October 1849. This poem has been cited as an example of “his sensitivity to the beauty and sweetness of women (that) inspired his most touching lyrics.”5
“It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee;….”
Dulac executed a Renaissance-like figure in the foreground, with a curiously flattened profile. Her hair, and the flowing simplicity of her costume, together with the blocks of colour representative of rocks and trees, seem somehow reminiscent both of early Italian frescoes, and a Pre-Raphaelite rendering of Dante’s beloved Beatrice, draped in the shimmering satin of her shawl. The looming citadel perched on the cliffs in the background bears some resemblance to a medieval hill town built long ago of smooth golden stone.
5. Sonnet ~ Silence
Illustration for Sonnet ~ Silence, a poem composed by Poe in 1839. The writer and storyteller Andrew Lang (1844-1912) described the poet as “the singer of rare hours of languor, when the soul is….inclined to listen, as it were, to the echo of a lyre from behind the hills of death.”6 Dulac stirs the faint and distant echo that “dwells in lonely places”, his mournful minstrel’s lyre transmuted into the broken strings of a harp let slip by the desolate figure stretched out upon the barren ground beneath, “like a dying musical note.”7
6. The Raven
Illustration for The Raven, one of Poe’s most renowned poems, published in 1845. Dulac depicts the deep gloom of the despairing and grief-stricken protagonist, longing for his “lost Lenore”, by using those most sombre tones described by The Studio critic as “dye-like”, and presumably representing the lines: Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” But these shadowy and dismal hues reflect an aura of despondency in keeping with the mood of the poem, and comparable in tone to the engravings of Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for the same subject, which were published during the year following his death. The long shadows, the subdued furnishings, and the drabness of the mourner’s clothing, are only offset by the lightness of the lady’s portrait in its golden frame above the fireplace, where a further dreariness is evoked by the cold and empty grate.
In an essay entitled “Death of Edgar A. Poe.” N. P. Willis8 included an obituary of the author, written by Poe’s rival wordsmith, Rufus W. Griswold (1815-1857), and which Willis described as “a graphic and highly finished portraiture.” This had appeared in “The (New York) Tribune” newspaper and contained the following appraisal: “The remarkable poem of ‘The Raven” was probably much more nearly than has been supposed, even by those who were very intimate with him, a reflection and an echo of his own history. He was that bird’s ‘ — unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore — Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore Of ‘Never—never more.’”
7. To One in Paradise
“Ah, dream to(o) bright to last! Ah, starry Hope! That didst arise but to be overcast!”
This was the final version of a poem originally from 1833, published with the title “To One in Paradise” in 1843. The graceful, alabaster figure of a girl dances alone, draped in satin whose fluidity follows the curve of waters flowing past her, as if falling from the pale stars that are echoed in the glimmering flowers at her feet.
Dulac lyrically reflects one of Poe’s recurrent poetic themes, the evanescence of lost love, dreamingly recalled in the final verse: “And all my days are trances, And all my nightly dreams Are where thy grey eye glances, And where thy footstep gleams — In what ethereal dances, By what eternal streams.”
Published in 1843, the poem “Lenore” was inspired by the death of Mrs. Helen Stannard, eulogized in the stanzas of “To Helen” (see caption 20). It was initially a juvenile poem named “The Paean”, which Poe “subsequently greatly improved both in rhythm and expression, and republished under the musical name of “Lenore”. The description which Poe afterward gave to a friend of the fantasies that haunted his brain during his desolate vigils in the cemetery*, the nameless fears and indescribable phantasms ‘Flapping from out their Condor wings Invisible Woe!’ (are) compared to those which overwhelmed De Quincey at the burial of his sweet sister and playmate.” The memoirist believed that it was illuminating to “linger somewhat over this little-known epoch of Poe’s (life) story, because (it appears to be) ‘a key to much that seems strange and abnormal in the poet’s after life, in those solitary churchyard vigils with all their associated memories’”
The poem was apparently “always his favorite, and above his desk always hung the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore.”9
Dulac’s capture of the lines: “The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes, — The life still there, upon her hair; the death upon her eyes.” makes Lenore’s cascade of golden curls the focus of a painting otherwise defined in gloomy tones of blue and grey – the spectral backdrop of sea and sky; the hooded figures enveloped in the folds of their heavy and all-concealing cloaks; the drab drapery of the bier; the bleakness of the awaiting rock and stone – the pallor of death reflected in the faded flowers and the dully gleaming fabric of the deceased woman’s dress. Perhaps Dulac was also intent on interpreting an earlier part of the poem: “See! On yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore!”
* See caption 20 and associated footnote for the fuller story & source details.
9. To Helen
“To Helen”, the second poem of this name, dates from 1848, and its subject was Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878), an apparently controversial romantic interest of Poe’s.10 In nebulous shades of blue, Dulac illustrates several of the sentimental lines that set the wraithlike woman within a phantasmal rose garden, reminiscent of the place where Poe appeared to have first set eyes on her:
“Clad all in white, upon a violet bank………..
The pearly lustre of the moon went out: The mossy banks and the meandering path, The happy flowers and the repining trees,…………
And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained;………….
—— the stars I kneel to In the sad, silent watches of my night;”
10. The Haunted Palace
“The Haunted Palace” was published as a poem in 1839, but later that year incorporated as a song in the macabre short story*, The Fall of the House of Usher, an unsettling tale of the morbidly disturbed Roderick Usher and his ill-starred sister, Lady Madeline. The poem appears as a song of Usher’s own composition (referred to by the narrator as one of the writer’s “wild fantasias”) which eerily presages the fate of the foredoomed pair. Dulac’s ghoulish figures with their gaunt features and fiendish glare, mirror the final verses:
“But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn! – for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody…………..”
* As a narrative device, Poe incorporated a tale within his tale, for the storyteller takes up “(An) antique volume (called) the ‘Mad Trist’ of Sir Launcelot Canning”, which describes “a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanour, and of fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver: and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten — ‘Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin; Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win’.”
11. The City in the Sea
“The City in the Sea” is a poem known originally as “The Doomed City” when published in 1831, and renamed in 1845. The dates correspond with the original version of “The Valley Nis”, later redrafted in a companion piece to this as “The Valley of Unrest”. (See Caption 21.) Dulac portrayed the stone spires and pinnacles of a city sinking into the swirling waves of “the lurid sea” that will eventually submerge them. Left to the imagination are the “shadowy long-forgotten bowers Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers — …many and many a marvelous shrine Whose wreathed friezes intertwine The viol, the violet, and the vine.” The accompanying headpiece, however, where the sinister, crowned figure of Death stands surveying his newly acquired realm, captures the eerie opening lines of the poem: “Lo! Death has reared himself a throne In a strange city lying alone Far down within the dim West.” Equally evocative, Andrew Lang said of Poe: “ He dwells in a world more vaporous than that of Shelley’s ‘Witch of Atlas,’ in a region where dreaming cities crumble into fathomless seas, in a fairyland with ‘dim vales and shadowy woods,’ in haunted palaces, or in a lost and wandering star.”6 (Shelley’s poem, written in 1820, dedicated to Mary Shelley, was published posthumously in 1824.)
12. The Sleeper
”The Sleeper” was first published in 1831, and several revised versions apparently followed. In a letter dated July 2nd 1844, written from New York to the poet and penman James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), Poe expressed his belief that “The Sleeper” was one of his best poems – he named the others as “The Conqueror Worm”, “The Haunted Palace”, “Lenore”, “Dreamland” , and “The Coliseum” – but added that “all have been hurried and inconsidered”.11 Dulac painted a fairytale figure swathed in the pale sheen of satin robes, with an opulent canopy that echoes the coverlet of the carved bed on which she lies. Her luxuriant, bejewelled hair is spread about her like a lustrous mantle, in peculiar contrast with the ghastly hue of her complexion. The curiously clouded, vaporous shades of her surroundings suggest “the pale sheeted ghosts” that linger insubstantially in the air, to steal away the spirits of the dead.
This poem was published in the American Review magazine in December 1847. Like other writings, it reflects on the grief and yearning for a lost love, telling in curiously dirge-like tones, the story of a bereft young man drawn almost supernaturally to the tomb of his dead sweetheart, one year to the day of her demise. Dulac’s illustration is defined again in the “dye-like colours” already commented on in caption 6. In shades of deepest indigo, the “alley Titanic, Of cypress…” looms on either side of a stone sepulchre, where sits, not the lovelorn wanderer, but the fragile form of Psyche, frail wings folded as she contemplates the closed door of a crypt, carved deep within the rock. “Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!” In a letter to N. P. Willis, quoted in his memoir of Poe8, Mrs Whitman10 described the “lofty and picturesque avenue across the aqueduct (close to his residence at Fordham, a then rural part of The Bronx, New York, and the place in which Poe is said to have written both the poems “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume”) where, in ‘ the lonesome latter years’ of his life, the poet was accustomed to walk ‘at all times of the day and night, often pacing the then solitary pathway for hours without meeting a human being.’ A rocky ledge in the neighborhood, partly covered in pines and cedars, and commanding a fine view of the surrounding countryside, was also one of his favorite resorts, and here, resumes our informant, ‘through long summer days, and through solitary starlit nights, he loved to sit, dreaming his gorgeous waking dreams.’ Towards the close of this ‘most immemorial year’, this year in which he had lost his cousin bride Virginia (née Clemm, 1822-1847), the assumed subject of “Annabel Lee”, he wrote his weird monody of “Ulalume”. Like so many of his poems it was autobiographical, and, on the poet’s own authority, we are informed that it was, ‘in its basis, although not in the precise correspondence of time, simply historical.’”
Andrew Lang, so comparatively poetic in his essay on Poe6, wrote – in what would have been a perfect reference to this poem – that “his spirit was always beating against the gate of the grave.”
The myth of the Golden Man drew numerous conquistadors and adventurers into odysseys of hardship and often death in the remote highlands of Columbia and Ecuador. The persistent legend, like that of Cibolà and other fabulous cities of gold, is a symbol of the mad quest; perhaps Poe saw this as a parable for his own life, striving for golden horizons, forever lost in a wilderness of one’s own choosing. Possibly he came to see death as “the Valley of Shadow” leading to the final pass, with the bright horizon of peace at last beyond. Dulac’s striking painting depicts the rider galloping dead in the saddle, head bowed, urged on by a mocking Death against the black blue of space. The poem was first published in the April 21, 1849, issue of the Bostonian weekly story paper The Flag of Our Union. If the four sestets were indeed inspired by the California Gold Rush, Dulac’s image reaches out to depict the infinity of despair that inevitably follows the impossible quest, with only a life wasted as unique accomplishment. It is possibly the most powerful image in the book.
15. The Conqueror Worm
“Out — out are the lights — out all! And, over each quivering form, The curtain, a funeral pall, Comes down with the rush of a storm While the angels, all pallid and wan, Uprising, unveiling, affirm that the play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’ And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
In the guise of a grotesque epilogue, a heavy grey curtain falls on the ashen and inert figures that litter the ground beneath gloomy pillars, like bones from the decaying carcass of some colossal prehistoric beast. Dulac illustrated the final stanza of Poe’s desolate poem “The Conqueror Worm”, first published in 1843 in Graham’s Magazine (see caption 25), and then apparently added to a revised version of the short story “Ligeia” , as a suitably morose and melodramatic lament composed by the dying heroine. According to Killis Campbell (1872-1937), editing a 1917 publication of Poe’s poetry12, “The title was probably suggested…..by (a stanza from) a poem of Spencer Wallis (sic) Cone’s:
‘Lay him upon no bier,
But on his knightly shield;
The warrior’s corpse uprear,
And bear him from the field.
Spread o’er his rigid form
The banner of his pride,
And let him meet the conqueror worm,
With his good sword by his side.’ “
16. To the River
Doubtless Dulac’s portrayal of the elegant, ebony-haired damsel gazing at a pair of swans – symbolic of beauty, grace and fidelity – as they drift serenely on the water, was inspired by the following lines of this poem, “To the River”, published in 1828: “Fair river! In thy bright, clear flow Of crystal, wandering water, Thou art an emblem of the glow Of beauty — the unhidden heart —.” He would surely be at one with Poe’s own belief13 that the true poet perceives Poetry “ – in the gleaming of silver rivers – in the repose of sequestered lakes – in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds – in the harp of Æolus – in the sighing of the night-wind – in the repining voice of the forest – in the surf that complains to the shore – in the fresh breath of the woods – in the scent of the violet – in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth – in the suggestive odour that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored.” An echo of the exotic elements Dulac appeared to employ in the poetry of his own paintings and illustrations. Yet the perception of the poet or the artist also interprets beauty, and finds enchantment, in the simplest of experiences. So the pure and lyrical perfection of birdsong is comparable to the more elusive magic discovered in distant lands of make-believe.
17 & 18. Al Aaraaf
Apparently based on stories from the Qu’ran, this was published by Poe in a collection dated 1829. The poet and critic George E. Woodberry (1855-1930)14 provided the following overview: “In the rapid growth of (Poe’s) intelligence, beauty, which had been merely a source of emotion, became an object of thought, — an idea as well as an inspiration. It was the first of the great moulding ideas of life that he apprehended. Naturally his juvenile fancy at once personified it as a maiden, Nesace, and, seeking a realm for her to preside over, found it in Al Aaraaf, — not the narrow wall between heaven and hell which in Moslem mythology is the place of the dead who are neither good nor bad, but the burning star observed by Tycho Brahe, which the poet imagines to be the abode of those spirits, angelic or human, who choose, instead of that tranquility which makes the highest bliss, the sharper delights of love, wine, and pleasing melancholy, at the price of annihilation in the moment of their extremest joy.” The descriptive passages explaining the poem continue at some length, but Woodberry concludes: “Of course, as a serious work it was a failure….(The obscure allegory)….was pardonable only in a boy. (This was amongst the earliest of Poe’s published poems.)
Dulac’s first illustration conjures the verses: “To lone lake that smiles, In its dream of deep rest, At the many star-isles That enjewel its breast — Where wild flowers, creeping, Have mingled their shade, On its margin is sleeping Full many a maid — “ In cool shades of lilac and blue, two of those aforementioned maidens recline, nymph-like, by the limpid waters of the lake. Their languid perfection of form is defined by an image of drowsy bliss. In the second painting, surrounded by distant starlight, “a maiden-angel and her seraph-lover” are seated “Upon a mountain crag” set above a cloudscape. And “Young Angelo”, beside his inamorata Ianthe, “ scowls on starry worlds that down beneath it lie……..his dark eye bent With eagle gaze along the firmament…” This is the pair – in Dulac’s painting curiously without expression, and lifeless for lovers – whom, Woodberry explains, “cannot hear the summons (from Nesace, that all her subjects should attend her) because of their mutual passion, and so in reminiscences of the past and dreams of the future: “Thus, in discourse, the lovers whiled away The night that waned and waned and brought no day. They fell: for Heaven to them no hope imparts Who hear not for the beating of their hearts.”
19. Bridal Ballad
Dulac chose suitably subdued cerulean shades for this illustration to the poem Bridal Ballad, dating from 1837. The painting captures a new bride, with wedding wreath still worn upon her brow, as she contemplates her doomed past love amidst a solemn setting of mournful cypress trees. By marrying another, after her first betrothed fell in battle, the bride, with her expression of misplaced melancholy, appears to beseech forgiveness of her lost beloved: “ And, though my faith be broken, And, though my heart be broken, Here is a ring, as token That I am happy now! Would God I could awaken! For I dream I know not how! And my soul is sorely shaken Lest an evil step be taken, — Lest the dead who is forsaken May not be happy now.”
20. To Helen
This, perhaps one of Dulac’s most strikingly literal portrayals of Poe’s words, illustrates the poem “To Helen” originally composed in 1831, followed by a revised version in 1845. Beneath the title is a note that “‘Helen’ was Mrs Stannard, whose death also inspired Lenore.” The classically draped figure, shrouded by surrounding shadows, and holding aloft a light that mirrors the starlit backdrop of a midnight blue sky, perfectly reflects the final verse: Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche How statue-like I see thee stand, The agate lamp within they hand! Ah, Psyche, from the regions which Are Holy Land.
A lengthy memoir8 of Poe includes a reflection on his first encounter with Mrs. Helen Stannard, the subject of these verses:
“He one day accompanied a schoolmate to his home…where he saw for the first time Mrs. H(elen) S(tannard); the mother of his young friend. This lady, on entering the room, took his hand and spoke some gentle and gracious words of welcome which so penetrated the sensitive heart of the orphan boy as to deprive him of the power of speech, and for a time almost of consciousness itself. He returned home in a dream, with but one thought, one hope in life – to hear again the sweet and gracious words that had made the desolate world so beautiful to him, and filled his lonely heart with the oppression of a new joy. This lady afterward became the confident (sic) of all his boyish sorrows, and hers was the one redeeming influence that saved and guided him in the earlier days of his turbulent and passionate youth.”
The account adds that Poe admitted much later in his life that “his exquisite stanzas…were inspired by the memory of this lady, by ‘the one idolatrous and purely ideal love’ of his tempest-tossed boyhood.”
A further revelation is provided by the fact that after Mrs. Stannard’s death and burial in a neighbourhood cemetery, “her poor boyish admirer could not endure the thought of her lying there lonely and forsaken in her vaulted home” and apparently made visits to the grave for months afterwards. “When the nights were very dreary and cold, when the autumnal rains fell, and the winds wailed mournfully over the graves, he lingered longest and came away most regretfully.”
21. The Valley of Unrest
Illustration for The Valley of Unrest, Poe’s poem first dated 1831, and doubtless depicting “….The sad valley’s restlessness. Nothing there is motionless — Nothing save the airs that brood Over the magic solitude.” Dulac’s landscape – perhaps less imaginary than Poe’s – reflects that restlessness in the churning clouds that spill over looming crags, the rushing of water, bordered by the contrasting stillness of enduringly rooted trees. The original poem was entitled “The Valley Nis”, and renamed in 1845. This was apparently a companion piece to “The City in the Sea” ( see caption 11), and according to Poe’s unpublished notes, the fabulous landscapes of make-believe and the mind’s eye are bathed in equally fantastical light. Although Dulac’s illustration is recognizably real, it is suffused by that magical radiance, despite the dismal headpiece that echoes the desolation of a now silent and deserted dell.
22. To – Mrs. Marie Louise Shew
A note beneath the title of this poem “To — — —“ identifies the individual as Marie Louise Shew (1821-1877), a close friend and confidante of Poe and his wife Virginia, whom Mrs. Shew supported during the latter’s illness. It was published in the Columbian Magazine of March 1848. Dulac chose soft and dreamlike tints to portray a romanticized vision of female perfection, placed on a pedestal by the poet. “This standing motionless upon the golden Threshold of the wide-open gate of dreams. Gazing, entranced, adown the gorgeous vista, And thrilling as I see, …Amid empurpled vapours, far away To where the prospect terminates — thee only.”
Published in 1831, the poem Israfel is preceded by a quote beneath the mystical monochrome headpiece: “And the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures. — Koran.” The opening lines echo this: “In Heaven a spirit doth dwell ‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’ None sing so wildly well As the angel Israfel, And the giddy Stars (so legends tell) Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell Of his voice, all mute.” That artful weaver of stories and enchantments, the aforementioned Andrew Lang (see caption 5), perfectly conjures an association with this poem, by concluding his 1906 essay on Poe with these words: “When all is said, Poe remains a master of fantastic and melancholy sound. Some foolish old legend tells of a musician who surpassed all his rivals. His strains were unearthly sad, and ravished the ears of those who listened with a strange melancholy. Yet his viol had but a single string, and the framework was fashioned out of a dead woman’s breast-bone. Poe’s verse — the parallel is much in his own taste — resembles that player’s minstrelsy. It is morbidly sweet and mournful, and all touched on that single string, which thrills to the dead and immortal affection.”6
In a symmetry of sepia tones, Edmund Dulac’s headpiece beautifully interprets the stanzas. His colour illustration defines a much more solid figure soaring heavenward on heavily-plumed wings, amidst what must surely be an example of the “complication of colour” regretted by The Studio’s critic. Certainly the arcs of colour and cloud that surround the figure of Israfel, whilst suggestive of the aether, seem curiously ill-suited to the surprisingly earthly substance of the angel’s nonetheless elegant form.
Fairyland was published in 1829. On “a mountain’s eminence”, Dulac’s misty-blue and many-turreted castle towers over winding river and dimly visible valley stretching out into the distance of a pale dreamscape below. A flock of tiny, fantastical birds (or perhaps “…those butterflies, Of Earth, who seek the skies,”) spiral “in a labyrinth of light” towards a luminous sun, limning “Dim vales — and shadowy floods — And cloudy-looking woods”. Only the castle lacks the exquisite lightness of touch that characterized Edmund Dulac’s orientalist paintings for folk and fairy-tale, and fails to convincingly evoke the ethereal landscapes of sleep.
First published in 1844, this poem appeared (without any form of illustration) in Volume XXV of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature & Art (embellished with mezzotint and steel engravings, music, etc.). George R. Graham (1813-1894), the proprietor, produced the periodical at 98, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. He shared the editorship with Edgar Allan Poe, whom he hired early in 1841. Poe also acted as the magazine’s literary critic. In keeping with this, an article penned by him, and a separate book review, appeared in the same volume as the poem.
Amidst predominant shades of turquoise and deepest blue, Dulac’s own dream vision of “…an Eidolon, named Night, On a black throne…upright,” enigmatic as a Sphinx, more solid than any mirage, rises over the landscape like an ancient monolith. The rendering in silver-tinged blue-grey, set against the faint glimmer of starlight, lends the figure the mystic and phantasmal allure of some long-forgotten goddess “From this ultimate dim Thule.”
(Had he lived longer, Poe might well have pored over with curiosity, and perhaps been inspired to explore farther horizons, by a publication of Blanchard & Lea, also of Philadelphia. In 1856 An Atlas of Classical Geography, compiled by William Hughes (1817-1876) & George Long (1800-1879), appeared, complete with accompanying maps, and included – in a plate of The World as known to the Ancients – the fabled isle of Thule, located close to the Shetland Islands, surrounded by those stormy seas beyond the northerly tip of Scotland, which must have seemed to be then, most suitably, the very edge of the Earth.)
Dulac’s illustration to the poem “Alone”, published in 1829, is almost a mirror image of The Wanderer Above the Mists, a painting executed circa 1817-18 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Poe may well have responded in spirit to the morbidly beautiful studies of ruined abbeys, ancient graveyards and other haunting visions of solitude set alongside the grandeur of Nature, or amidst crumbling and forlorn human edifices. The drifting clouds shaped into some strange and preternatural bird take the place of the obscuring mists, and clearly represent the last lines of the poem: “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.”
27 & 28. Tamerlane
Tamerlane, an epic poem written in 1827, when Poe was only in his eighteenth year, focuses on the mighty Mongol warrior from mythic Samarkand, otherwise known as Tamburlaine (1336-1405), or in the Persian tongue, “Taimur-lang”, Timur the Lame. On his deathbed, the Scythian shepherd who was to become a fierce and legendary conqueror, bestriding his empire like a colossus, apparently mourns the mortal emotions of love and loss. Reliving the memories of his fabled life, the formidable monarch who emerged from the humblest of origins recollects first love and the bitter cost of his ambitions. This is one of the aspects of the poem that Dulac chose to illustrate, where the more youthful Tamerlane, arms aloft in ardent aspiration, appears to gaze far beyond the slender figure of a young peasant girl, standing submissively in his shadow. Reflecting on his lifetime, this “diadem’d outlaw” ‘s memories of conquest and power are dimmed by his nostalgia and poignant longing for that pure and long lost love. “We grew in age – and love – together, Roaming the forest, and the wild; My breast her shield in wintry weather –“. Less romantically, in reality the brooding warlord had nine wives, and – concurrently – a number of concubines, throughout the charted course of his extraordinary existence.
The second illustration shows Tamerlane at the height of his historic rampage through the kingdoms that subsequently fell to his merciless campaigns. Dulac’s palette evokes the sciroccan dust of a barren, vanquished landscape, echoing the now harsh and brutal countenance of the mature, battle-worn but victorious warmonger. Even his horse is given a chamfrein that accentuates the look of peculiar ferocity in its eyes. This perhaps calls forth the playwright Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-1593) presentation of “Tamburlaine the Great”, circa 1587. At the heart of this was one wife, Zenocrate, upon whose death the savage tyrant is said in his torment to have put to the torch the town close to the encampment where she died:
“As I have conquer’d kingdoms with my sword.
This cursed town will I consume with fire,
Because this place bereft me of my love.”
Tamburlaine the Great, Part Two, Act Two, Scene 4, lines 136-138.
This could almost be Tamburlaine callously contemplating the cruel consequences of his grief.
In Poe’s own notes to the edition of 1827, he pointed out that: Of the history of Tamerlane little is known; and with that I have taken the full liberty of the poet. — That he was descended from the family of Zinghis Khan is more than probable —but he is vulgarly supposed to have been the son of a shepherd, and to have raised himself to the throne by his own address.” He added further on “………..I must beg the reader’s pardon for making Tamerlane, a Tartar of the fourteenth century, speak in the same language as a Boston gentleman of the nineteenth; but of the Tartar mythology we have little information.”15
“I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.”
Edgar Allan Poe – from his essay “The Poetic Principle”.13
The merging of that melancholy beauty manifested in Poe’s poetry, with Edmund Dulac’s exquisite mirroring of thoughts and feelings so powerfully evoked in a myriad verses, was perhaps an adventurous decision at the time, especially as a number of earlier illustrators had chosen a more conventional approach to interpreting the poems. But these two storytellers, born at the beginning and end of the nineteenth century, yet bound together by their artistic beliefs, each employed the devices of their distinctive crafts to create a book that still beguiles the reader to this day.
In preludes to the poetry, Dulac decorated the book with simple monochrome headpieces ~ the sounds of the titular bells given bizarre and hideously distorted faces; the eponymous raven perched balefully on a rock; the haunted gaze of the cadaverous horseman, doomed to search eternally – to seek but never to find; beautiful Israfel, surrounded by heavenly song; Death surveying with grim satisfaction a drowning city lapped by the relentless surge of Stygian waters. These cryptic prologues capture the essence of the poems, and serve to complement the sumptuous detail of those colour illustrations through which the artist breathed afresh a vivid and vital spirit into Edgar Allan Poe’s elegiac visions.
Pen & ink illustrations for The Raven, Lenore and The City in the Sea.
Pen & ink illustrations for Eldorado, Al Aaraaf and The Valley of Unrest
Pen & ink illustrations for Israfel, The Coliseum and Tamerlane.
1.Information for this and various other facts and dates found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica ↩
2.“It was early in the summer that he one day called and complained that he
had to write a poem, but felt no inspiration. Mrs. Shew persuaded him to
drink some tea in a conservatory whose open windows admitted the sound
of church-bells, and gave him some paper………(she) then wrote, “The Bells, by E. A. Poe”,
and added, “The bells, the little silver bells;”………(and after this)
“The heavy iron bells,”………Poe….headed it, “By Mrs. M. L. Shew” and called it
her poem.” Quoted – and purportedly derived from Mrs. Shew’s diary – in
Edgar Allan Poe, by George E. Woodberry. The American Men of Letters
series, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, in
1913. Chapter VII. “The End of the Play”. Page 302. ↩
3.The Genius of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian
Religion. Translated from the French by Charles Ignatius White (1807-
1878). Published by John Murphy & Co. Baltimore, and J. B. Lippincott
& Co. Philadelphia. 1871. Part the Fourth. Worship. Book I. Churches,
Ornaments, Singing, Prayers, etc. Chapter I. Of Bells. Pages 479-481. The
Alarm bells referred to remembrance of the French Revolution. ↩
4. See footnote 2. Edgar Allan Poe. Ibid. Page 303:
“Il nous semble que si nous étions poëte, nous ne dédaignerions point
cette cloche ‘agitée par les fantômes’ dans la vieille chapelle de la forêt,
ni celle qu’une religieuse frayeur balançoit dans nos campagnes pour
écarter le tonnerre, ni celle qu’on sonnoit la nuit, dans certains ports de
mer, pour diriger le pilote à travers les écueils. Les carillons des cloches,
au milieu de nos fêtes, sembloient augmenter l’allégresse publique; dans des
calamités, au contraire, ces mêmes bruits devenoient terribles. Les cheveux
dressent encore sur la tête au souvenir de ces jours de meurtre et de feu,
retentissant des clameurs du tocsin. Qui nous a perdu la mémoire de ces
hurlements, de ces cris aigus, entrecoupés de silences, durant lesquels on
distinguoit de rares coups de fusil, quelque voix lamentable et solitaire, et
surtout le bourdonnement de la cloche d’alarme, ou le son de l’horloge qui
frappoit tranquillement l’heure écoulée?” (From an edition published in 1836
by P. Pourrat Frères. Paris.) ↩
5. Encyclopaedia Britannica. ↩
6. Excerpt from The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with an Essay on his Poetry by Andrew Lang. Published in 1906 by Thomas B. Mosher, of Portland & Maine. ↩
7. Taken from verses* by the present-day poet Dannie Abse (b. 1923), unexpectedly apposite in the unusual context of past poetry, painting and song? * “Two Voices. I. A Woman to a Man.” Originally published by Hutchinson of London in Poems, Golders Green — 1962. ↩
8. Excerpt from the memoir printed as a preface to Poe’s Poems, published in the 1890s by The Henneberry Company of Chicago & New York. Several memoirs of Poe appeared in posthumous publications of his poetry, this one – sympathetic in tone – was apparently the work of his fellow writer and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867). The volume included an essay on “Death of Edgar A. Poe”, also penned by Willis. See also captions 13 & 20. ↩
9. Excerpt from the brief introductory note to an edition of Lenore published in 1886 by Estes & Lauriat, of Boston, and illustrated by the acclaimed Canadian artist and photographer Henry Sandham (1842-1912). ↩
10. Sarah Helen Whitman (née Power, 1803-1878). A poet, Spiritualist, and one of Poe’s romantic interests. As the above excerpt illustrates (see caption 13), she apparently corresponded with a number of his biographers ↩
11. Quoted in “Edgar Allan Poe”, by George E. Woodberry. The American Men of Letters series, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York. 1913. Chapter VI. “In New York”, page 214. ↩
12. In notes for The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Killis Campbell. Published by Ginn & Company, Boston & New York, in 1917. The verse by Spencer Wallace Cone (1819-1888) is taken from “The Proud Ladye”, (stanza III, verse 1), and verse 2 continues in like vein:
“To the dark grave we go,
Bearing the proud and great,
Where quick decay will know
Nor title nor estate…..” ↩
13. Excerpt from Poe’s 1848-9 lecture, “The Poetic Principle”. Reproduced as an essay in a number of posthumous publications, but taken here from The Complete Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe: With Three Essays on Poetry. Edited by Reginald Brimley Johnson (1867-1932). Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press. London. 1919. ↩
14. See Footnote 11. Ibid. Chapter III. “Wanderings”, page 48. ↩
15. Notes on Tamerlane taken from The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Collected, Edited, and Arranged with Memoir, Textual Notes and Bibliography by J. H. Whitty. With illustrations. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York. 1917. ↩