Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and E. A. Poe), “The Valley of Unrest,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 189-196 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 189, continued:]

THE VALLEY OF UNREST

This poem is a great achievement in a kind Poe made peculiarly his own, the imaginary landscape. In the series of unfinished notes for the introduction to a book he planned to call “The Living Writers of America,” he discussed what he thought the most suitable themes for the artist. “Distant subjects,” said he, are “in fact the most desirable . . . The true poet is less affected by the absolute contemplation than the imagination of a great landscape.”(1) In the present poem and its companion piece, “The City ­[page 190:] in the Sea,” he had exemplified his theory much earlier. The landscapes are bathed in “the light that never was on land or sea,” and call to mind the scenes painted by the artists of the Hudson River School, to whom he was closely akin in spirit. But Poe was less a follower than a leader, and the reader may well be reminded of later impressionists.

The first form of the poem was published in Poems (1831). In 1836 Poe revised it, changing the last twenty lines very considerably but retaining the original title. In 1845 he revised it again, omitting nearly half and changing the title to “The Valley of Unrest.” It was published three times in 1845, with minor variations. The vagueness of the final version is intentional; the poet’s revisions removed some of the clearer allusions and eliminated almost all of the story. Surely the reader may choose to regard the poem as a picture of dreams alone.(2) Yet Poe did not put his valley entirely “out of space” — a reference to the Hebrides remains in every form of the poem. The underlying ideas are not wholly concealed, but they are more readily understood from the early versions called “The Valley Nis.”

The Scottish antiquarian, R. M. Hogg, found the poems to be based on memories of things seen and heard by Poe during his brief stay with his foster parents at Irvine in 1815.(3) Hogg suggests that “Nis” was the way Poe wrongly heard the Gaelic word for island, innis, which forms part of such place names as Innisfallen. (Poe omitted the name in the late versions of his poem, as might be expected had he learned of an error.) There is a “Syriac tale” about the Isle of Skye, told in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, under the date of September 17, 1773. The Reverend Mr. Donald M’Queen told the amused and incredulous Dr. Johnson that he believed some local stone ruins to be those of an ancient temple of the Syrian goddess Anaïtis. Another local story is that on the island of Fuiday a Norse maiden told her Gaelic ­[page 191:] lover that Norsemen were powerless after sunset. He invaded the island by night and exterminated the Norsemen who had not gone to the wars in Ireland. The stars did not watch faithfully.

The nameless grave — note the change from the earlier “forgotten grave” — is very well known locally. It is near Boston Cottage, which Mr. Hogg said was a regular halting stage on the old road from Glasgow to Edinburgh, over which Poe journeyed with the Allan family in 1815. The story is that a farmer, Adam Sanderson of Black Hill, on November 28, 1666, tried to help a dying Covenanter, fatally wounded at the battle of Rullion Green. The man, without revealing his name, died in the arms of Sanderson, saying at the last, “Bury me in the sight of the Ayrshire Hills.” Sanderson carried him to the top of Black Hill and buried him, marking the spot with a small cairn. It is hard to believe that Poe did not know this touching story, nor is it surprising that he used it in his poem. In recent times an inscribed monument has been erected at the nameless grave, above which “the blue bells of Scotland weep.”

 

TEXTS

(A) Poems (1831), pp. 73-75 (as “The Valley Nis”); (B) Southern Literary Messenger, February 1836 (2:154) (as “The Valley Nis”); (C) American Review, April 1845 (1:392); (D) Broadway Journal, September 6, 1845 (2:135); (E) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), p. 6; (F) Works (1850), II, 34 (verbally like E). The texts given are the first (A) and final version (E).

[[n]]

THE VALLEY NIS [A]

Far away — far away —

Far away — as far at least

Lies that valley as the day

Down within the golden east —

[[n]]

5

All things lovely — are not they

[[v]]

Far away — far away?

 

It is called the valley Nis.

And a Syriac tale there is ­[page 192:]

Thereabout which Time hath said

10

Shall not be interpreted.

[[n]]

Something about Satan’s dart —

Something about angel wings —

Much about a broken heart —

All about unhappy things:

15

But “the valley Nis” at best

Means “the valley of unrest.”

 

[[v]]

Once it smiled a silent dell

Where the people did not dwell,

Having gone unto the wars —

20

And the sly mysterious stars,

With a visage full of meaning,

[[v]]

O’er the unguarded flowers were leaning:

Or the sun ray dripp’d all red

[[v]]

[[n]]

Thro’ the tulips overhead,

25

Then grew paler as it fell

[[n]]

On the quiet Asphodel.

 

Now the unhappy shall confess

Nothing there is motionless:

[[n]]

Helen, like thy human eye

30

There th’ uneasy violets lie —

There the reedy grass doth wave

[[n]]

Over the old forgotten grave —

One by one from the tree top

[[n]]

There the eternal dews do drop —

[[n]]

35

There the vague and dreamy trees

[[n]]

Do roll like seas in northern breeze

[[n]]

Around the stormy Hebrides —

[[n]]

There the gorgeous clouds do fly,

Rustling everlastingly,

40

Through the terror-stricken sky,

Rolling like a waterfall

O’er th’ horizon’s fiery wall —

There the moon doth shine by night ­[page 193:]

With a most unsteady light —

45

There the sun doth reel by day

[[n]]

“Over the hills and far away.”

[1831]

 




[page 196, continued:]

VARIANTS [[For version E]]

18  rustle / rustles (misprint, C)

19  Uneasily / Unceasingly (C, D)

27  After this C has three more lines:

 


[page 193, continued:]

NOTES [[For version A]]

Title:  While it seems clear that Poe had Hebridean stories in mind, the name Nis as yet cannot be explained with complete certainty. Mr. R. M. Hogg’s explanation is given in the commentary above. Another explanation has been offered me by Professor DeLancey Ferguson. The old word nis, ­[page 194:] meaning “is not,” is familiar from Chaucer and Spenser. This would accord with the idea that Poe’s poem is an allegory of the world — a place of unreality or illusion. A combination of ideas in Poe is not to be dismissed lightly, and he certainly on occasion remarked on life as a dream. Only these two explanations seem to me likely. But the word is a crux, hence all other important suggestions should be given. These are as follows:

Killis Campbell in Poems, p. 217, mentions that the phrase ha nis occurs in some ancient texts of Jeremiah 48:44 — usually corrected to ha nâs, “those who flee.” In Norse mythology a Nis is a water spirit — usually feminine. In Latin nis’ is a contraction for nisi, “unless.” An old city in Serbia, a place of many battles, is Nis, pronounced Nish. Nis might be a misspelling for [Loch] Ness in Scotland.

Many readers notice that Nis is Sin backwards. This pleased Quinn, p. 184; and Frances Winwar in The Haunted Palace, p. 133, would see a reference to the lover’s circle in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. Poe did not elsewhere use this kind of anagram in serious poetry. There are also other suggestions. The Wilderness of Sin (“marsh” or “clay”) is mentioned in Exodus 16-17; in Ezekiel 30:15-16 is a curse on a city Sin, probably Pelusium; Sîn is a Semitic moon-god for whom Mount Sinai may be named; the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is sin or shin (sometimes a sacred symbol); and finally, in Scottish dialect sin is the sun.

5-6  Compare from the 1841 version of “Israfel”: “. . . the beauty / Which we worship in a star / The more lovely the more far.”

11-13  See the introductory note. The dart may be the bullet that fatally wounded the Covenanter; the angel wings, those that bore him to heaven; his heart was broken by his inability to return to his native Ayrshire.

24  Poe may have had in mind a note by Letitia E. Landon, in The Golden Violet (1827), p. 810: “The tulip symbol . . . bears the allegorical construction of eternal separation in the beautiful language of Eastern flowers.”

26  The asphodel, among the ancients, was a plant of the lily family, with light gray and yellow flowers, thought to be of a corpselike color and hence sacred to Proserpine as a symbol of death. In the tales “Berenice” and “Eleonora” Poe uses asphodels with different symbolic meanings.

29  “Helen” seems here to refer to a living person, the poet’s present inspiration, rather than to the beloved Jane Stith Stanard.

29-30  In “Eleonora” Poe wrote of “dark eye-like violets.” See also, in a song from Scott’s Lord of the Isles, I, iii: “The dew that on the violet lies / Mocks the dark lustre of thine eyes.” Violets are symbols of purity, but some of the flowers do look like eyes.

32  For the “forgotten” or “nameless” (line 24, version of 1845) grave, see the introductory commentary.

34  In Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, IX, 1981, we are told that Night “weeps perpetual dews.”

35-42  Compare Poe’s “Silence — A Fable”: “There, like the waves about the Hebrides, the low underwood is agitated continually. But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And the tall primeval trees rock eternally hither and ­[page 195:] thither with a crashing and mighty sound. And from their summits, one by one, drop everlasting dews. And . . . overhead, with a rustling and loud noise, the gray clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon.” See also “Arthur Gordon Pym,” chapter xxv: “The range of vapor . . . I can liken to nothing but a limitless cataract rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far distant rampart in the heaven.” There are also parallels in “Fairyland” and “The Sleeper.”

86-337  Compare Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper”:

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings? —

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago.

37  Milton in “Lycidas” refers to the “stormy Hebrides,” and the epithet has become the stock one.

38-42  Compare “The Island of the Fay”: “There passed down noiselessly into the valley a rich golden and crimson waterfall from the sunset fountains of the sky.”

46  The old song, “Over the Hills and Far Away,” is best known from being mentioned in the nursery rhyme, “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” The melody and refrain are used in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, I, xiii.

 


[page 196, continued:]

NOTES [[For version E]]

(See also notes to the first version.)

22  Lilies are symbols of purity and the Resurrection; compare lines 43-44 of version B.

28-30  (text C) Compare the following from Shelley’s “Sensitive Plant,” I, 25-28:

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue;

Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew

Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,

It was felt like an odor within the sense.

Poe refers more than once to that poem of Shelley, with unexpected and perhaps nostalgic admiration; he may have suppressed his own lines because he thought them too imitative. Part of Shelley’s poem was reprinted in the Richmond Enquirer, April 2, 1824, according to Agnes Bondurant, Poe’s Richmond (1942), p. 108.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 189:]

1  The quotation is from the original manuscript of 1846 to 1848, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 190:]

2  The final version may indeed be, as Edgar Lee Masters told me he thought it, an allegory of this world.

3  See Phillips, I, 397-410. Hogg’s hobby was Poe in Scotland, and he rode it hard. He did not present his case well in the matter of “The Valley Nis,” mingling fact and fancy in so forbidding a way that his remarks have been practically ignored since 1926.

 


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Notes:

The attempt to explain the “nameless grave” offered by Douglas Sherley is clearly fanciful.


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Valley of Unrest)