from WILLIAM WILSON
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!—to the earth art thou not for ever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?—and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day, January 19th in 1809. He is a master of macabre, but no tale is more unsettling than William Wilson. It is the story of a man haunted from youth by a double who shares his name, his size, his features, and even his birthday. Intimate rivals as schoolboys, the two Wilsons part ways, but the narrator finds, as he leads a life of cruelty and extravagant debauchery across Europe, that his double appears again and again at his side to remind him of his nature in low, insinuating whispers. When, finally, the narrator is driven to murder his twin, he finds that he has murdered himself. In a further blurring of identity, the Wilsons share their birthday with their creator, Edgar Allan Poe.
We all get it. Man was created in God’s image and our hearts aspire to the eternal. We were created for glory but each of us (as the Bible says) has chosen to worship ourselves rather than our Creator. That is the essence of sin and its wages are always death. Like William Wilson, it is likewise by our own hand. Only Jesus can change that sad outcome, and only we can make the consequence bearing decision of choice.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
Art: Narcissus by Caravaggio – 1597
It is housed in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. The painting was originally attributed to Caravaggio by Roberto Longhi in 1916. This is one of only two known Caravaggios on a theme from Classical mythology, although this reflects the accidents of survival rather than the historical reality. The story of Narcissus, told by the poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, is of a handsome youth who falls in love with his own reflection. Unable to tear himself away, he dies of his passion, and even when crossing the Styx, keeps looking at his own reflection (Metamorphoses 3:339-510).
Literature – Edgar Allan Poe
The saddest and the strangest figure in American literary history is that of Edgar Allan Poe. Few writers have lived a life so full of struggle and disappointment, and none have lived and died more completely out of sympathy with their times. His life has been made the subject of minute and prolonged investigation, yet there are still periods in his history that have not been satisfactorily cleared up. And the widest differences of opinion have existed as to his place and his achievements. But there are few today who will not readily concede to him a place among the foremost writers of America, whether in prose or in verse, and there are not wanting those who account him one of the two or three writers of indisputable genius that America has produced.
He lived a tortured life and on October 3, 1849 was found delirious in a gutter in Baltimore, Maryland under mysterious circumstances. It was the last time he was seen in public before his death.
Tennyson’s “Palace of Art” pictures the unbelieving soul who in that habitation enthrones herself. It seems a description of Poe’s ambition and of Poe’s end:
‘I take possession of man’s mind and deed.
I care not what the sects may brawl.
I sit as God holding no form of creed,
But contemplating all.’
“Full oft the riddle of the painful earth
Flash’d thro’ her as she sat alone,
Yet not the less held she her solemn mirth,
And intellectual throne.
“And so she throve and prosper’d; so three years
She prosper’d; on the fourth she fell,
Like Herod, when the shout was in his ears,
Struck thro’ with pangs of hell.
“Lest she should fail and perish utterly,
God, before whom ever lie bare
The abysmal deeps of personality,
Plagued her with sore despair.
“Deep dread and loathing of her solitude
Fell on her, from which mood was born
Scorn of herself; again, from out that mood
Laughter at her self-scorn.
“ ‘What! is not this my place of strength,’ she said,
‘My spacious mansion built for me,
Whereof the strong foundation-stones were laid
Since my first memory?’
“But in dark corners of her palace stood
Uncertain shapes; and unawares
On white-eyed phantasms weeping tears of blood,
And horrible nightmares,
“And hollow shades enclosing hearts of flame,
And, with dim fretted foreheads all,
On corpses three-months-old at noon she came,
That stood against the wall.
“She, mouldering with the dull earth’s mouldering sod,
Inwrapt tenfold in slothful shame,
Lay there exiled from eternal God,
Lost to her place and name;
“And death and life she hated equally,
And nothing saw, for her despair,
But dreadful time, dreadful eternity,
No comfort anywhere;
“She howl’d aloud, ‘I am on fire within.
There comes no murmur of reply.
What is it that will take away my sin,
And save me lest I die?’
Tom Nissley. A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year (Kindle Locations 593-595). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, The Cameo Edition., vol. 5 (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1904), 143.
Augustus Hopkins Strong, American Poets and Their Theology (Philadelphia; Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; Los Angeles; Toronto: The Griffith and Rowland Press, 1916), 177.
William Peterfield Trent, ed., Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 2, Cambridge History of American Literature (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, n.d.), 55.