As I write this it’s a wild night, headed toward a Full Moon conjunct Uranus opposing Venus retrograde in Scorpio in the morning. The artist for this project, Celeste Pille, just happened to send me the final edits of the Two of Swords today, and I thought – why not discuss Poe’s richly sonorous poem, “Ulalume,” and its haunting evocation of the crescent Moon and Venus morning-star in a blog, since the astrological weather is so fitting? Just one quick review of a poem I have read and scanned and taught and recited many times over should provide me with enough content for a short blog, I thought. But that “quick review” of “Ulalume” suddenly turned into a hard blink when I realized that Poe, the amateur astronomer, had composed in “Ulalume” a poem about Venus retrograde.
First, some uncanny asides: I awoke this morning out of a sad and lovely dream about my friend Sam See, an egregiously talented English professor at Yale who died raving all too young in troubling enough circumstances to rival Poe’s own infamous demise. In the dream, Sam and I spoke at length; he had traveled from “another country” to pay me a visit. His ship was preparing to sail as we made our good-byes. Venus retrograde signifies a time when the beloved ones we’ve lost, whether through death or separation, tug at our heart-strings and demand to be remembered. The ghostly figure who graces the Two of Swords is a portrait of a dear friend of the artist’s who died tragically last December; Celeste has memorialized her in our project.
As to the poem, it was written late in the year 1847, the same year that claimed Poe’s beloved wife Virginia in January. “Ulalume” is often assumed to be autobiographical and an expression of Poe’s mourning for his lost love. The action of the poem is convoluted; the speaker finds himself in a ghostly woodland region accompanied only by Psyche, his personified soul. The sudden appearance of a star (Venus) inspires the speaker to follow its path, in spite of Psyche’s mistrust of the sparkling apparition. Venus as morning-star ultimately leads the speaker straight to the tomb of his lost love, Ulalume. The final stanza is close to impossible to parse, but suffice it to say that the speaker now curses the “sinfully scintillant planet” concocted “from the Hell of planetary souls.”
In spite of Poe’s gift for gloom, I have to laugh at how closely the action of the poem mimics the behavior of the lovelorn during Venus retrograde. Many of us find ourselves looking up old friends or phoning ex’s, and before we quite understand what’s happened, old relationship wounds have re-asserted themselves and we wind up cursing Venus too! I’m not suggesting that Poe understood something about twenty-first century pop astrology, the 2018 version of which is so specific as to have turned Venus retrograde into a meme about looking up past lovers. Rather, I’m suggesting that, if the planets can be seen to correspond to recognizable patterns of human behavior, those patterns would likely be consistent over time. In other words, it’s probable that nineteenth-century folk also became nostalgic for lost loved ones under Venus retrograde, and Poe was nothing if not extraordinarily prescient.
There’s also some celestial imagery at work in “Ulalume,” as well as some historical evidence, to support the hypothesis that Poe wrote a poem about the visual phenomenon of Venus retrograde during Venus retrograde. Mabbott’s research into the composition of Poe’s “Ulalume” (hosted by the invaluable online resource, the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) demonstrates that Poe had a musical poem such as this in mind by September of 1847, and by December, “Ulalume” was published in the American Review. It’s easy to deduce that October, 1847 was the time of the poem’s composition, since Poe lays out a haunting autumn setting in the first stanza:
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere –
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.
In my first foray into an ephemeris to research “Ulalume,” I discovered that Venus was indeed retrograde in October of 1847 when Poe was drafting the poem. If you click the link and look under the vertical Venus column, you can see the planet’s retrograde positions in red; notice that the degrees are moving backwards. The 40-day Venus retrograde period actually started in September of 1847.
Well, so what? Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Yet it hardly seems possible that Poe would pen a poem about the “love” planet behaving unaccountably, appearing out of nowhere and heading “up,” not down or over or across, if he wasn’t trying to conjure the backward motion of Venus across the ecliptic. Consider these astrologically-tinged stanzas; if “star-dials” are not astrology charts, what are they?
And now, as the night was senescent,
And star-dials pointed to morn –
As the star-dials hinted of morn –
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn –
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent,
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
And I said – “She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs –
She revels in a region of sighs.
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks where the worm never dies
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies –
To the Lethean peace of the skies –
Come up, in despite of the Lion
To shine on us with her bright eyes –
Come up, through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.
On October 3, 1847, Venus moved into alignment with the Sun during its retrograde period, into what’s known as an inferior conjunction. This is significant in so far as we know that Venus is not visible in the sky when so closely conjunct the Sun. However, according to Michael R. Meyer in an article on astro.com, “Venus appears in the pre-dawn sky about a week after the inferior conjunction, when the Sun and Venus are about ten degrees apart. As a herald of the new day, Venus is called Phosphorus and Lucifer, the latter name meaning ‘light bearer.’” The association of morning-star Venus with “Lucifer” was ancient, and Poe clearly exploited this devilish connotation for the sinful and hellish planet he conjures up at the poem’s close.
Around October 10, 1847, retrograde Venus became “Lucifer,” or visible in the pre-dawn sky, an event that followed closely on the New Moon in Libra on October 9th. Though it seems absurd to assign a date to an otherworldly and evocative poem like “Ulalume,” the poem describes just such a Luciferian, retrograde Venus rising with the crescent Moon. Critics have long puzzled over the poem’s vision of a “miraculous crescent” with its “duplicate horn”; by duplicate, does Poe mean “double,” as in a crescent with two points, or “two,” as in two crescents? The turn to the Venusian goddess Astarte in the next moment confounds our lunar associations with the word “crescent,” and yet Poe likely knew that Venus goes through waxing, waning, full, and crescent phases, just like the Moon. In fact, Venus would have been in her crescent phase when she became visible around October 10, just like the New Moon. Double crescents, anyone? It’s hard to imagine that Poe was not gazing at the “duplicate horn” of crescent Venus through a telescope in that lonesome October of his most immemorial year.
I’ve read various bad astrological interpretations by non-specialist critics regarding the movement of Venus in the poem past the stars of the “Lion.” Does this mean Venus was in Leo, and is that a “bad” or unlucky placement? Venus spent her entire retrograde period in the sign of Libra in 1847 which, because of precession, means that the planet would have actually appeared to have been moving backward through the constellation of Virgo in October. Leo is the sign just before Virgo, so perhaps you see where I’m headed with the “retrograde” reading of this poem. Let’s just go ahead and note that “Lion” makes a perfect rhyme with “Dian,” the Moon, and because of the lilting, musical demands of the poem, may just have obtruded itself into the scene, Leo-like, for purely technical reasons.
The speaker claims that Venus has moved past the stars of the Lion, as she would have in her direct motion, and now has “come up,” in despite of the Lion. She “comes up,” he repeats, through the lair of the Lion. Now while Poe doesn’t come right out and say that Venus has moved through the constellation Leo into Virgo, and then come to a stop and gone back the other direction, there is room to infer this. It is the surprising, unnatural quality of the planet’s appearance and direction that so moves the speaker; he takes it as an omen that the “Sybillic splendor” of Venus “is beaming/ With Hope and in Beauty to-night.” Psyche, his soul, is apparently a practiced astrologer, because she mistrusts the star, and is ultimately reduced to “terror” and “agony” when the speaker ignores her warnings.
Venus retrograde is of course not a phenomenon that an observer might grasp in a single viewing, but rather one that becomes apparent over time. The site Naked Eye Planets provides this helpful visual of the path of the current Venus retrograde motion. We can see that after months of direct motion, Venus appears to come to a standstill and reverse its course in the sky, traveling “up” or back whence she came (bottom left-hand corner of the map). Currently, Venus is in Scorpio, and we can see how the planet is en route to leave the constellation Libra and cruise past the stars of Virgo again. In 1847, Venus in Libra would have appeared in the constellation Virgo and reversed course in the direction of the stars of the Lion. If you scroll down on the same page, you can also see a chart depicting the full and crescent phases of Venus.
Fear not, I have not forgotten that this is a Tarot blog! Many of us are familiar with the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith image of the Two of Swords, in which a blindfolded figure holds further consciousness at bay with two crossed swords under a crescent Moon. With the card’s theme of blindness or refusal to see, I knew that “Ulalume” was an appropriate poem for bringing out the nuance of situations in which we fail to recognize the things that are right in front of us. Unaccountably, “Ulalume’s” speaker does not remember that he buried his wife one year ago in this same region “down by the dank tarn of Auber,/ In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.” The trauma of her loss has thrown a mist over his sensibilities, so that he experiences only an enchanting familiarity in the spooky setting, until the horror of her tomb is revealed and penetrates through to his slumbering consciousness.
Celeste and I discussed various poses that the speaker might take in the scene, though the idea that he might try to push away the painful consciousness of his wife’s death with outstretched hands had never come up. However, when I opened up my email and saw this version of the card, I knew that Celeste had struck the right tone. The speaker is in too much pain to acknowledge the reality of his loss, and Psyche, his good angel, attempts to intervene by shielding this dreadful memory from his consciousness. For me, both the poem “Ulalume” and our homage to it in the Two of Swords evoke the spectre of trauma. Many of us walk naively into psychological traps like the one the bereaved husband sets for himself in “Ulalume”; the psyche obliterates conscious access to painful experiences to spare us suffering, and yet some inner drive to integration spurs us to relive our traumas until they are healed.
The Two of Swords is the decan represented by the Moon in Libra, and that combination of Venusian and lunar energies is particularly well-illustrated in this poem that features the interplay of solace (Moon) and desire (Venus). Because of the strong association of Libra with art and beauty, I think of the Two of Swords as signifying a time when the best way to address emotional issues (the Moon) is through the soothing, elevating qualities of the creative arts (Libra), whether as sound, image, or text. The rhythmic, dirge-like quality of “Ulalume” is hypnotic, and belies some of the harsher elements of the poem’s action. It’s as if the transcendent musicality of the poem provides the justification for the terrible losses that all of us must eventually endure. I encourage you to recite “Ulalume” out loud, or listen to someone else do it, and if you do the latter it may as well be Jeff Buckley, yet another singularly talented presence to die tragically in his prime.
In closing, I’ll just say that I love how Venus-Lucifer the morning-star is the evil agent behind this whole coming-to-painful-consciousness-in-the-woods thing that we have going on in “Ulalume”! Venus, as many of us know, functions as a peace-keeper in the Hermetic arts, an influence that knits together what has been rent asunder, and also promotes social graces like courtesy, compassion, and goodwill. But not when she’s in her retrograde mood! For some reason I keep imagining a nude Astarte brandishing a whip and storming our personal lives while riding in the chariot of Poe’s “sinfully scintillant planet.” When Venus retrograde wreaks havoc in our lives, it can certainly feel as if our little loves make us the play-things of the gods. Astarte is an ancient Middle Eastern goddess heavily associated with the Venus cycle. We have chosen to use her symbol, the 8-pointed star, to represent the demon from “the Hell of planetary souls” that tempts “Ulalume’s” speaker to confront his grief at love’s loss. Venus goes direct on November 16, 2018.