In Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven," the narrator laments the loss of his beloved Lenore and begs the question: "Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician here?" These are undoubtedly questions that plagued Poe himself throughout his life, most notably following the deaths of his mother, foster mother and wife.
"No Balm in Gilead" imagines Edgar Allan Poe's last night in a Baltimore bar where, drinking absinthe and barely lucid, he imagines that the barmaid is his wife Virginia, who died of tuberculosis only two years earlier. Two other women appear, who introduce themselves as Lenore and Annabel Lee, figures from his poems who accuse him of depriving them of life and love, but creating them only to have them die. Tormented between tragic reality and fierce illusion, Poe staggers out into the night.
Daniel Hartis is as apt to write a screenplay about zombies or a libretto about Edgar Allan Poe as he is to write about the craft beer industry. His first book, "Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City," was published in 2013; his second, "Beer Lover's The Carolinas," hit shelves in April 2014.
In 1842, Virginia Eliza Clem Poe contracted tuberculosis, the disease that had already killed the brother, mother and foster mother of her husband, Edgar Alan Poe. She was 19. The emotional strain of her illness, with its intermittent improvements and relapses, drove Poe to fits of depression and excessive drinking. He wrote, “During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife”
During this time he wrote “The Raven” in which a lonely man tries to ease his ‘sorrow for the lost Lenore’.
The stately Raven perches on the bust of Pallas, the goddess of wisdom and the man soon learns that to his many questions posed in the ensuing dialogue the Raven can only answer “in stock and store” the word taught it by “some unhappy master, ‘Nevermore’”. The chair where Lenore once sat brings painful memories. The narrator can anticipate the bird’s responses. “Is there balm in Gilead?-Nevermore”
Finally the man concedes, realizing that to continue is pointless. And his “soul from out that shadow” that the raven throws on the floor, “Shall be lifted—Nevermore”
After the death of Elizabeth, Poe traveled, lecturing and searching for happiness. His drinking increased. He seemed to have found hope in a renewed commitment to his first fiancée, Elmira Royster Shelton. Then on a trip from Richmond to Philadelphia he disappeared for 5 days. He was found in a bar in a public house in Baltimore. His publisher had him taken to a nearby hospital where, surrounded by strangers, he died only a few days later.
Here we find Poe in a bar. Perhaps it is in Baltimore. He is surrounded by women. Are they real? They are Eliza, Annabel Lee, Lenore, of whom he wrote “the queenliest dead that ever died so young”. They could be Ligeia, Ulalume or Virginia.
Shortly after his death in 1849 was published “A Dream within a Dream” which concludes:
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
Notes by Andrew Wentzel, Professor of Voice, University of Tennessee
Introduction of a performance of “No Balm in Gilead”, an opera by Michael Rickelton presented at the 2014 JOINT REGIONAL CONFERENCE OF THE COLLEGE MUSIC SOCIETY SOUTHERN CHAPTER AND MID-ATLANTIC CHAPTER AND THE ASSOCIATION OF TECHNOLOGY IN MUSIC INSTRUCTION
Marjorie Stephens, soprano
Cecily Nall, soprano
Lorraine DiSimone, mezzo-soprano
Andrew Skoog, tenor
Kevin Class, piano