Casey in Ulalysium

Now come the dreary days of October, when the hopes of the fans of 29 major league teams will ultimately be dismantled. Not today, though, approaching the 2021 playoffs, when hope still springs eternal for 12 teams! For the rest of us, already looking ahead to next season, and as Halloween swoops down upon us with ebon pinion, who better to address the grim afterlife of a baseball season than Edgar Allan Poe? 

Daguerreotype photograph by Edwin Manchester,  Nov. 9, 1848 Morgan Library and Museum

And yes, "base ball" was played during Poe's brief lifetime (1809-1849)--and even in the Elysian Fields--a venue in Hoboken, New Jersey where teams from New York City and Brooklyn often contended. Perhaps no other American poet could better articulate the gloom of a season "dreamed, dared, and dragged in the dust" than the author of such dark imaginings as "The Raven," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and of course, "Ulalume." It would be wrong to suppose (as I have) that Poe cloistered himself in shadows all his life--as Matthew Redmond reminds us, the young Poe was a "lively, charismatic, and intelligent boy...a strong swimmer and a natural at field sports [including] bandy, a form of ice hockey."[1]

The game of bandy as played in the English fen country. The young Poe played an American version of this game, a precursor of ice hockey

Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," in the opinion of Major League Baseball's official historian, John Thorn, is the most emulated (and therefore most parodied) American poem of the 20th century--though the ballad itself was written in 1888. (Thorn, by the way, states that Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" was the most parodied poem of the 19th century--yet cannot have been far ahead of Poe's "The Raven" in my opinion!) Since the inception of https://caseyatthe.blog/ , whimsy led me to imagine the forms "Casey at the Bat" might have taken, if attempted by other bards and poets born or active in the 19th century, including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and even Robert Frost. In each case, I have tried to imagine the familiar poem framed within each poet's unique style, voice, and versification.

Admirers of Poe's astonishing originality will recognize the essential element of pathos present in Thayer's epic ballad. Pathos is experienced in some form during any baseball season by all fans and players of the game. As the season nears its end, autumnal gloom descends upon the hearts of fans whose teams will not prevail--or not even appear--in the playoffs. Thus I attempted the daunting project of placing the brooding, post-strikeout Casey within one of Poe's haunted landscapes.

As the following offering demonstrates, we may also find pathos (and perhaps even somber relief) in the fact that when the hour came round for The Mighty Casey to make his appearance in American newspapers and on the musical theater stage, Edgar Allan Poe himself had become tragically unavailable to welcome the Muse--or Muses--who would grace the Worcester doorstep of young Ernest Thayer in the early spring of 1888. 

 

Poe in baseball uniform, courtesy of the creativity of Novel-T, whose website offers the unique Edgar Allan Poe baseball card displayed on a t-shirt! (The flip side displays a version of baseball Poe's most famous offering, "The Rookie.")

Casey in Ulalysium                                                        

The skies they were ashen and sober

            The outfield was littered and sere;

It was late in a lonesome October

            Of a most unremarkable year;

In a field on the outskirts of Mudville

            Where the grasses lay dusted and sere,

Long past was the cheering of April,

            And the crack of the bat on a sphere

            Under skies where no cloud would appear. 

 

Here once where we strode like the Titans

            I wandered alone with my Soul--

With Psyche whose spirit embrightens

            The clouds to roll back as a scroll;

Where memories nearly forgotten

            Of contests begun--lost or won--

Are revealed for their deeds misbegotten

            And exposed by the westering sun--

By the wearily westering sun.

 

Illustration by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944)

Our colloquy there had been sober,

            And our ponderings abject and sere;

I knew not the month was October,

            Nor remember'd the day of the year,

When last where the green diamond glisters*

            I brandished my bat at the plate,

Poised where the three spinning sisters

            Wove their web on the loom of my fate--

            On the implacable loom of my fate.

 

Then my Psyche uplifting her finger

            Gave a warning I could not mistrust:

"Among these dark shades do not linger--

            Of deeds dreamed, dared and dragged in the dust;

Let us flee from these precincts long haunted

            By the gibbering ghouls in the gloom;

Depart from these meadows unvaunted

            By their foul emanations of doom--

            Their mephitic miasmas of doom.”

 

"Stay!" I cried, "Do not disallow us

            These scenes of our youthful delight--

When we warriors contested our prowess

            In the gleam of a crystalline light--

Like Astur so bold and behelméd

     Advancing with swaggering stride,

Toward that sanguineous bridgehead--

            Though the gods told of what would betide,

            Where the Tiber with scarlet was dyed."

"Publius Horatius Cocles and Two Companions Defend the Tiber Bridge," Augustyn Mirys (1700-1790). This legend was popularized by parliamentarian and historian Thomas Macaulay in his 1842 ballad, "Horatius" -- which became known in the United States as "Horatius at the Bridge." "Casey at the Bat" was Thayer's contemporary version of the ballad, a misprision (or creative misreading, as Professor Harold Bloom termed it) of Macaulay's original.  

But her auguries would not be preempted:

            Apprehensive she trod through the night;

Soft she sang of the deed I attempted
        

            In that yesteryear trial of my might;

Thus she summoned those sorrowing phantasms--

            Ulalume, Annabel, and Lenore--

Who call from unbridgeable chasms

            O'er the banks of the Stygian shore--

            From the blackness beyond that far shore.

 "Among these dark shades do not linger..." Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustrating Poe's "Ulalume" ca 1847-48
 
Then my heart fell ashen and sober,
            As the grass shivered, withered and sere,
And I cried, "It was surely October
            On the very same night of last year!
And that pitch that I should have knocked over --
            With a twist did it swift disappear…
Now I know that this landscape macabre,
            Wrapped in shadows so doleful and drear--
When revealed by the peripeteia
            Brings a catharsis of pity and fear!"
 
--With thanks to Edgar Allan Poe, apologies to Ernest Thayer, and a nod both to Aristotle and Thomas Macaulay
*glisters: "All that glisters is not gold-- / Often you have heard that told."--Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

For those curious as to how other prominent 19th century American poets might have similarly misappropriated the immortal "Casey at the Bat," see Emily Dickinson in the Elysian Fields and Song of Our Game: The Ballad of Casey as Imagined by Walt Whitman. Then you may (or may not) be fortified for Casey Stops by the Ball Park on a Snowy Evening as imagined by Robert Frost...

Thayer's brand of humor elevated the duel between slugger and spinner to the classical heights of Greek tragedy--employing all the dramatic elements of hubrisperipeteia (the sudden reversal of fortune), and anagnorisis (the sudden recognition, or "knowing back" as Bernard Knox has translated it). Think of Casey in the penultimate stanza giving way to this recognition, angrily pounding his bat on the plate and realizing--too late--that he should never have window-shopped those previous two strikes.  In this way Casey fulfills Aristotle's definition of the tragic character "between these two extremes--that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty."[2]  

Poe revised "Ulalumeseveral times between 1847 and 1849, including a last version only a month before his own death. Set within a dismal October landscape, "Ulalume" offers a strange foreshadowing of Poe's own mysterious death, which would occur on October 7, 1849. John Evangelist Walsh, in Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe (2000) has posited a thoroughly-researched and credible explanation of Poe's sad demise. 

As Oscar Wilde said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery..." but few recall his entire witticism: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness." George Bernard Shaw rephrased the thought and removed the sting of it: "Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it is the sincerest form of learning." So should I ever encounter in some tenebrous vale of the Elysian Fields the shades of oft-emulated poets Ernest Thayer and Edgar Allan Poe, from whom I have learned so much, I trust they would perceive no malice in my modest mimicry. 

"No malice...." Author and Edgar Allan Poe at the Poe International Festival, Baltimore 2023
 
[1] Matthew Redmond, "Edgar Allan Poe Needs a Friend," Lapham's Quarterly (Roundtable) September 7, 2021.
[2] Aristotle (S. H. Butcher, translator), The Poetics of Aristotle (Macmillan, 1902), quoted by Bernard Knox, translator and commentator, in Oedipus the King, by Sophocles (New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 1994, pp. 109-110. In The Poetics Aristotle also provides the definition of tragedy accepted from his day to ours: "...the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language ... not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions."
 #CaseyattheBat #EdgarAllanPoe  
 

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