Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“Quote the Raven, nevermore”

For those who did not realize it, Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday has come and gone. Many of us grew up watching the lurid film versions of his stories on Saturday afternoons at the picture show, and then had nightmares for years thereafter. His “Premature Burial” (1850) still frightens me with its lurid depictions of a gentleman who was susceptible to cataleptic fits, and whose greatest fear was being buried alive while suffering from one of these exquisite seizures of paralysis.

My little friends and I watched the film version of “Premature Burial,” starring Ray Milland (1962) many a time in the old Ellis Theatre of Cleveland. As a nine-year-old, just beginning to come to term with human mortality, I was thrilled by its macabre depiction of this most unfortunate catastrophe. Finally, our parents would not let us go any longer as they were tired of getting up with crying children in the night.

I can still hear the narrator’s opening words, however: “There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he does not wish to offend or to disgust. They are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of Truth sanctify and sustain them…To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?”

Poe’s other works, particularly his poem “The Raven” have entertained for many years. My friend Jim McClanahan memorized it and still loves to repeat it for any audience that will listen.

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) was the quintessential “gothic” poet and writer. This year, for the 56th year, a man stole into a locked graveyard early on Poe’s birthday and placed three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on the writer’s grave. “It was absolutely frigid,” said Jeff Jerome, of the sub-20 degree temperature. About 20 people waited in the shadows last Tuesday night to glimpse the ritual. The visit was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe’s death.

The Poe burial site is in the churchyard of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, an appropriately foreboding 19th century Gothic structure. Deep in the inner city, the church no longer houses an active congregation and has been converted into a Poe shrine and museum of the writer’s life.

When Poe was originally buried in 1849, he was placed in an unmarked grave. Over the years, the site became overgrown with weeds. Eventually, George W. Spence (the Sexton), placed there a small block of sandstone. Reports of Poe’s anonymous and unkempt grave began to circulate, first privately then in the newspapers. In 1860 a proper headstone was ordered. The three-foot high, white Italian marble tablet was inscribed with the following epitaph, which read (in Latin) “Here, at last, he is happy.” Edgar Allan Poe, died Oct. 7, 1849.” The reverse side of the stone read in Latin “Spare these remains.” But before it could be installed the heavy marble stone was destroyed in an accident.

By 1865, a movement began, under the leadership of Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, to provide for a new monument to Baltimore’s neglected poet. This was set up in a more prominent corner of the cemetery and Poe’s body was exhumed and moved to this new location. There was much confusion and rumors arose that the memorial committee exhumed the wrong remains, instead moving those of some other poor soul. The monument was finally paid for and dedicated ten years later, with the poet Walt Whitman in attendance. Letters from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Alfred Lord Tennyson were read.

For decades a frail figure made the annual visit to Poe’s grave. But in 1993 the original visitor left a cryptic note saying, “The torch will be passed.” A later note said the man, who apparently died in 1998, had passed the tradition to his sons. This time the visitor appeared at 1:10 a.m., in a heavy coat, his face obscured by a black pullover. He was not wearing the traditional white scarf and black hat. He put the roses and cognac at the base of Poe’s grave and put his hand on top of the tombstone. 

According to the Associated Press, this year, for the first time, some in the audience accosted the visitor and tried to discover his identity.

On a happier note, for many years in the chapel of our church in Chicago (also a looming Gothic structure), someone had a fresh orchid delivered every Monday to go on a small table near the altar. Though others may have known the donor’s identity, I never did, and assumed it was a sentiment expressed in tender devotion to “one loved long since and lost awhile.”

Such expressions of sentiment, with their mystery and romance, are testimonials to a noble instinct within the human spirit. It was a poor woman, after all, who poured a bottle of costly ointment upon our Lord’s head, then washed his feet with her tears. Jesus commended her act of love, and in our ever-coarser and forgetful world, orchids, roses, and cognac stand out as reminders of a deeper devotion within.

The old Westminster Church in Baltimore bears witness to that.

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