“Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

I’m not sure whether my student is trying to convey genuine enthusiasm or imitating that hearty voice that used to be the voice-over for the opening of The Lone Ranger. Either way, she is doing her best to ramp up the passion of the sentence. Those racing hearts, those famous words, the sonorousness of the final word as the emotion drops to despair….

Actually Edgar Allen Poe sometimes does have my heart racing. All the exclamation marks and dashes as the narrator insists on his sanity to the accelerating heartbeat under the sentences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The blind groping in the perilous darkness as the scythe-blade  swings closer and the walls push inexorably toward the fetid abyss in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” My startled realization that the “you” in “The Cask of Amontillado” is not a narrative convention, but an actual inclusion of me as a character, the aging murderer’s confessor, in the story.

Certainly the speaker’s heart has its racing moments, too, in Poe’s poetic triumph of rhythm, sound, and sensibility, “The Raven.” I’m not sure the reader’s heart follows suit, though: the refrain “Nevermore” is a long hollow fall rather than a shrilly climbing scream.

Nevertheless, a racing heart is what my student wants to point out. I hope her heart did race. And that must have been quite a race, too, to leave the heart all sweaty. Or perhaps the heart is always sweaty: the sentence is unclear as to that.

Did I miss something back there in Anatomy class?

The image is really almost too much. The reader of this sentence must, I think, take a moment to quell the rising laughter that accompanies the vision of a sweaty heart.

And the quelling is only momentary. Why in the sweet world did she put that “s” on “word”? Yes, the worD is famous. Poe’s own essay “The Philosophy of Composition” traces the intellectual process by which he crafted this poem, and puts special emphasis on his reasons for choosing the worD “Nevermore.” I’m glad my student responded to it. But she herself typed the worD correctly: “Nevermore.” Had she mistaken the line and transcribed it as ending “Never more,” she would have been talking about more than one word. She makes no such error, though.

Perhaps her sweaty heart dripped onto her typing fingers and caused them to slip onto the “s” unbeknownst to her.

Language is conceptual and often pictorial. Many of my students are blind to the pictures. A heart completing its first 10K race, flushed with pride and heat, dripping with sweat, its little undershirt soaked…didn’t she see the picture she evoked in her sentence?

Probably not. A student who actually capitalizes on the pictorial quality of language is a rare bird indeed nowadays, rarer than a talking raven sitting on a bust of Pallas.

For instance, on quite a fundamental level: If you read a lot of writing by younger people, you will wonder where the phrase “based on” has disappeared to. My students say, and write, “based around” and “based off of.” I bring in a little statue and a block of wood, identify the wood as a “base” for the statue, and then put the statue next to the block. They know that’s wrong. Presumably they know that a runner who is “off of” the base in a game of baseball is vulnerable to being tagged out, and they have not seen many base-runners run rings around the bases rather than actually step on them either. Yet even after my little object lesson (yes, I tried it this year, in frustration), my students continued to “base” interpretations, conclusions, and plans “off of” or “around” observations and data. This supposedly visually-oriented generation has no mind’s eye.

And I’m afraid they’re not going to develop one.

“Villain!” cried I, “thoughtless student, can you not be wise and prudent,

Standing things upon their bases as they stood in days of yore?”

Quoth the student, “Nevermore.”

(In a word.)

Ah, well. After all, she seems to have liked the poem. It seems to have stirred enthusiasm in her. So I have to say this: Bless her sweaty heart.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

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