Poe and 'The Awakening.' (Edgar Allan Poe)

Article excerpt

Like her critical predecessors, Emily Toth, in her recent biography of Kate Chopin, gives no source for the published title of The Awakening, or for its first title, "The Solitary Soul."(1) I believe the origin of both lies in one poem by Poe, "The Lake____To_____," or in this poem and a group of four others having to do with sleeping, dreaming, and waking.(2) Furthermore, this source leads us to a general examination of Poe's influence on Chopin's tone, diction, imagery and theme.

Two versions of "The Lake" are included in Thomas O. Mabbott's edition: the first is found in Tamerlane (1827) and the second in The Raven and other Poems (1845).(3) Chopin would have had to know the second version since only it contains in its penultimate line the phrase solitary soul":

In spring of youth it was my lot To haunt of the wide world a spot The which I could not love the less So lovely was the loneliness Of a wild lake, with black rock bound. And the tall pines that towered around.

But when the Night had thrown her pall Upon that spot, as upon all, And the mystic wind went by Murmuring in melody, Then - ah, then - I would awake To the terror of the lone lake.

Yet that terror was not fright, But a tremulous delight A feeling not the jewelled mine Could teach or bribe me to define Nor Love - although the Love were thine.

Death was in that poisonous wave, And in its gulf a fitting grave For him who there could solace bring To his lone imagining, Whose solitary soul could make An Eden of that dim lake. (p. 85; emphasis mine)

Poe pursues a paradox here that is similar to the one Chopin fashions around her title The Awakening. Poe's speaker awakens to the solace the lake provides, a return to Eden in death. The one who seeks this experience must be a "solitary soul," but the suicide he courts is no terror: rather, it is a "tremulous delight." Similarly, Edna dares death to take her on the evening when she is finally able to swim in the Gulf She is so delighted with her "newly conquered power" that she recklessly swims "far out, where no woman had swum before" (X).(4) As she moves further into the "solitude," however, she experiences a "flash of terror" that she might meet death. But finally, her sense of initiation gives her more "delight" than terror: she says to Robert that the entire experience is "like a night in a dream"(X).

Like "The Lake," many Poe poems develop a contrast between dreams and awakenings. Among those that appear to have influenced Chopin are "Dreams," "A Dream," "Alone," and "A Dream Within a Dream." Throughout the novel, Edna prefers, as does Poe, the romantic dream state, the realm of the imagination. Thus the title The Awakening seems to be in the main ironic because Edna is perhaps more often portrayed dreaming and sleeping instead of waking; furthermore, many of Edna's awakenings are not epiphanies at all, but jolts back to a harsh reality that she must confront.(5) Poe's "Sonnet - To Science" presents such an awakening as he consigns science to the realm of materialism and analysis, a system of values that arrests and exiles the "summer dream beneath the tamarind tree," the creative imagination. In the concluding chapters of the novel, Edna faces her dream of happiness, stripped of illusion, in two ironic awakenings, similar to those in Poe poems, that force her to confront what her imagination has spun. Chopin's attitude toward these awakenings is probably ambivalent.

The penultimate awakening to reality occurs when Edna, with an inward agony witnessed the scene [of] torture," Adele's child-birth.(6) Though Edna realizes she might have stayed with Robert that night rather than go to Adele, it seems the ordeal of her friend's labor is a reality that Edna forces herself to endure. As she returns to her "pigeon house," she says to Dr. Mandelet, "The years that are gone by seem like dreams - if one might go on sleeping and dreaming - but to wake up and find - oh! …