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, on the first day of the 2022 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

As the following offering demonstrates, we may find pathos (and perhaps even some 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, that Edgar Allan Poe himself had become tragically (and mysteriously, by all accounts) 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 dusty 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 glare 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" was Thayer's modern version of the ballad.


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, illustration of 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…

Well I know now this landscape macabre,

            With its shadows so hapless and drear--

Thus propelled by the peripeteia

            Brings the catharsis of pity and fear!"


--With thanks to Edgar Allan Poe, apologies to Ernest Thayer, and a nod both to Aristotle and Thomas Macaulay

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 by placing it within the classical framework of Greek tragedy--employing all the classical 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 of the poem giving way to this recognition, angrily pounding his bat on the plate and realizing 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's "Ulalume,"  written in 1847 and set within a dismal October landscape, offers perhaps a strange foreshadowing of Poe's own mysterious death, which would occur on October 7 only two years later. John Evangelist Walsh, in Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe (2000) has revealed an imaginative and credible explanation of Poe's demise. 

[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.

 #CaseyattheBat #EdgarAllanPoe #Halloweenpoetry 


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