Skip to main content

Edgar Allan Poe on Poetry, Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare

In his "Letter to B——," Edgar Allan Poe, who was born 207 years ago today, imagines "immortal Shakespeare" scowling at Dr. Johnson's definition of poetry:
What is Poetry? — Poetry! that Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations as the nine-titled Corcyra! [Corfu] “Give me,” I demanded of a scholar some time ago, “give me a definition of poetry?” “Très-volontiers;” and he proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr. Johnson, and overwhelmed me with a definition. Shade of the immortal Shakespeare! I imagined to myself the scowl of your spiritual eye upon the profanity of that scurrilous Ursa Major. Think of poetry, dear B——, think of poetry, and then think of Dr. Samuel Johnson! Think of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all that is hideous and unwieldy; think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and then—and then think of the Tempest—the Midsummer Night’s Dream— Prospero —Oberon—and Titania!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Accurate List of Hamlet's Soliloquies

Though Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is his fourth soliloquy, many websites call it his third. They're skipping the twenty-line speech that follows his interview with the Ghost, which in my view is a particularly bad mistake since Hamlet's monomaniacal vow there is at the heart of his tragedy.

The internet's cosmic sinkhole of misinformation will never be filled, but it's worth throwing some dirt in when we can, so here's an accurate list of Hamlet's soliloquies, with a short description of where they occur and what they say, along with a few observations.

Titus Andronicus on YouTube

Julie Taymor directs Anthony Hopkins in Titus.
Scenes from Julie Taymor's 1999 Film
Overimaginated has posted all of Julie Taymor's Titus (1999), with Anthony Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as Tamora, Harry J. Lennix as Aaron, Alan Cumming as Saturninus, Laura Fraser as Lavinia, Colm Feore as Marcus, James Frain as Bassianus, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chiron, and Matthew Rhys as Demetrius. Here's a selection from act three, in which Titus tells his sorrows to the stones, and here's the play's gory climax.Other
The Reduced Shakesperare Company does Titus Andronicus as a cooking show

Shakespeare-Movie Soliloquies and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight

Directors usually handle Shakespearean soliloquies in three ways: (1) they have actors speak directly to the audience, as they would have on the Elizabethan stage; (2) they have actors speak to the air, as yammering on Bluetooth-enabled cellphones; or (3) they use a voice-over, as if we were wire-tapping the characters' brains.
Each strategy has its advantages.
Speaking directly to the audience works well for villains, who share their nasty schemes, preparing us to watch with horror as they dupe unknowing victims. The technique also allows for dark comedy: for example, Ian McKellan's Richard III and Harry J. Lennix's Aaron (in Julie Taymor's Titus) act as satanic stand-up comedians, terrifying us and making us laugh with the same speech.
Having actors talk to themselves produces a different effect, allowing us to pretend we're hearing a character's inward thoughts. This works in both comedies and tragedies. In a comedy, we laugh—or chuckle inwardly—when we hear Em…