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The short poem "Alone" by Edgar Allan Poe was written in 1829 or 1830, when he was a young man, but only published in 1875 long after his death. Its full text is as follows:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov’d — I lov’d alone —
Then — in my childhood — in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still —
From the torrent, or the fountain —
From the red cliff of the mountain —
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold —
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by —
From the thunder, and the storm —
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view —

It starts off being about a young person who feels isolated and different from everyone else around them, but the second half of the poem seems deeper and more mysterious. What is "the mystery which binds me still", and how does it relate to landscapes and weather? What is the significance of the cloud taking the form of a demon? Why does the poem end suddenly, mid-sentence? Is there any significance to the frequent dashes used throughout the poem, or the lack of paragraphing into stanzas? How about the choices of metaphor, e.g. does the "spring" in line 4 relate to the "torrent" or "fountain" in line 13, or the "stormy life" in line 10 to the "lightning" and "thunder" later?

Per the tag, I'm seeking a full analysis and interpretation of this poem.

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This 22-line poem is constructed in iambic tetrameter with rhyming couplets.

Anyone who has studied Shakespeare will know the structure of his iambic pentameter and its biological association with a heartbeat. Poe’s use of iambic tetrameter is similar in nature and fitting structure for a poem that is, arguably, about life.

With negatively charged diction woven with chaotic weather patterns establishes his hallmark gothic tone—but does not reach the full eerie register of his later poems such as “The Raven.”

The title “Alone” denotes ‘apart’, ‘separated’, ‘isolated’ carrying the negative connotations associated with such synonyms. However, the notion of “separation” might also convey “set apart” (or holiness). So even the concise title, in addition to his trademark gothic tone— gives us metaphysical possibilities—another hallmark of Poe’s work. Connection to life and weather–his being stormy–is yet set apart as if for some sacred purpose. In Hebrew the word קֹדֶשׁ qodesh denotes not only “apartness” but also “holiness” and “sacredness” (Davidson 654). Taking this notion deeper, one could say Poe had premonitions of a deeper purpose to his life–the source or outcomes of which could prove to be holy (or unholy)—but he is set apart, i.e. “alone”, by design nonetheless. This notion being “set apart” for some special fate is framed by the title and by the end line “Of a demon in my view” (line 22) denoting the supernatural at work.

One might read the poem as the normal adolescent struggles of the speaker’s (or Poe’s) acceptance into society—trying to fit in, as it were, or find one’s place in the world. But another possibility is that the speaker (or Poe) KNOWS early in life that he is indeed set apart (i.e. alone) for some special purpose. He is different from others—for better or worse as:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring (lines 1-4)

The enjambment of these lines denotes the continuity of theme of his separation, aloneness, because he “[sees]” what others do not (line 3) and his “passions” (4) (i.e. desires and cravings) come from a different source (“spring”) entirely (4). Even in his youth (“childhood”) Poe recognizes that he is drinking from a different well than his peers (or perhaps choses to do so). The word ‘spring’ as a source denotes gustatory imagery of imbibing something peculiar, “uncommon”, and begs the question of what source is he then partaking? With this question in mind, the line registers as delightfully ambiguous. He drinks,

From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone— (lines 5-8)

Partaking of the same source as his “others” (arguably his peers) would not bring him joy—shifting from gustatory to sonic imagery—‘tone’—is to say that listening to what others hear would not bring him joy either—even though his own “source” (line 5) seems to bring him “sorrow” (line 6). What he loves (even though sorrowful) he loves “alone” (8)—denoting his mournful, yet “preferred” separation from others. Again, as to whether this is physical, metaphysical, or intellectual separation is not defined—yet registers his uniqueness or individuality.

Reflecting backward in time with the transition,

Then—in my childhood—in the dawn (line 9)

with “dawn” denoting very early stage—his genesis, Poe draws on potent meteorological imagery of a “stormy life” (10) conjuring images of a wild, unpredictable, or unstable existence—over which he has no control. And for better or worse “good or ill” (11) he is [“bound”] (12) to this stormy, unpredictable, fate even as an adult and also signifies the ambiguity—the “mystery” (line 12)—of the source of his fate to which he is assigned.

Poe’s anaphoric use of ‘from’ in the subsequent lines:

From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm (lines 13-19)

catalogue a plethora of natural elements: “torrent” (denoting perhaps rain); “fountain”; “mountains”; the “sun”; the “lightening”; “thunder”; and “storm” notably all natural (notably non-sentient sources) FROM which his fate might originate. They additionally serve as a crescendo to the final lines:

And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view— (lines 20-22)

The “cloud” (20), yet another meteorological element, stands itself alone (like Poe) contrasted against the “blue” of “Heaven” registers with more ominous portent. One might think of the proverbial “dark cloud” hanging over Poe’s young head. The fact that ‘Heaven’ (21) is capitalized might carry fifth dimensional connotations as it is associated with the afterlife. It also contrasts with the word “demon” in final line which registers as conflict in the supernatural realm—the struggle between the forces of Heaven and Hell, as it were. The personification of the cloud as a demon opens numerous metaphysical possibilities. The term ‘demon’ from the classical Greek δαίμων (daimon) can denote “gods” and “divine powers”—thus signifying supernatural powers at work (Kittle 2: 2). It can also, of course, carry more nefarious connotations—as found in the New Testament (Kittle 2: 17) and other places—where they are beings to be avoided. The demon itself is merely a personification of the cloud—but this personification speaks to unseen forces at work and is distinguished from the natural elements catalogued in the previous lines—and is itself alone (set apart)—in Poe’s Heavenly gaze. The duality of the possible nature of the demon—by definition being either good or bad— punctuates Poe’s motif of ambiguity leaving us (and him) to ponder who or what is ultimately responsible for his fate.

Sources

Davidson, Benjamin. The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, 1981.

Kittle, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 Volumes). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.

Lust, J. et. al. Analytical Lexicon to the Septuagint. Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

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  • 1
    Wow, great answer! Thank you very much. – Rand al'Thor May 31 at 6:37
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As a young man, Poe felt more than "isolated and different from everyone else."

It was as if he felt "vision impaired" or "sensory impaired" and was unable to "pick up" things that were obvious to ordinary people. (This sometimes happens to very bright people whose intelllectual standards are so high that they miss out on what everyone else "knows." As one such person said to me, I don't want to just "get it," I want to "kill it.")

The "mystery which binds me still" is this cognitive block. It "keeps" him

"From the torrent or the fountain..." and a bunch of things that other people manage to enjoy, "as it pass'd me, flying by."

And most people would say that "the heaven was blue," but "the cloud took the form of a demon in my view." This is called "variant perception",* and is considered the mark of either a genius or a fool.

*This term comes from the investment world, and refers to the tendency of high level investors to "go against the crowd." I am the published author on a book about investing, https://www.amazon.com/A Modern-Approach-Graham-Investing, whose thesis was a "variant perception."

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