Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul—
- Now that the scene has been set, we get into the real action of the poem.
- The speaker puts himself in the scene, roaming through "an alley Titanic/Of cypress." That just means that he was walking down a path that was bordered on each side with rows of giant ("Titanic") cypress trees. (He's not talking about Kate, Leo, and the sinking ship. That was way after Poe's time.)
- Cypress tend to be tall, dark, trees, so that just adds to the spooky feeling. (Check out a picture of a cypress forest here.)
- Oh, and he also tells us that he is walking with his "Soul." Well, it's pretty normal to be with your soul, but, as we'll see, our speaker's soul is an actual character in this poem.
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
- Here's where we meet the speaker's soul for real and learn its name: Psyche. This is a reference to ancient Greek mythology, where a woman named Psyche (pronounced like "sike-ee") was the personification of the human soul.
- We're not positive that we know why this guy is walking with his soul, but it's definitely worth thinking about.
- Also, keep reading aloud and using your ears. Do you hear how Poe repeats the same "s" sound three times in this line? The cool thing about this alliteration is that the three words (cypress, Psyche, soul) all look completely different on the page. When you read them aloud, though, you can hear the repetition in their opening sounds (s, s, s).
These were days when my heart was volcanic
- We think this is such a cool image. The speaker says that back when this story happened, his heart was "volcanic." What a great metaphor for the fire and passion of the spirit! We can almost see the hot lava shooting out of his chest.
As the scoriac rivers that roll—
- All of a sudden, we're off on a pretty epic simile. The speaker continues the volcano imagery, telling us that his heart is as volcanic as the "scoriac rivers that roll."
- "Scoriac" comes from "scoria," which is a kind of volcanic rock. So, the image is of a river of hot rock running down the side of a volcano.
- Poe was the first to use the word "scoriac" in print, and it definitely has his trademark sound, as sharp-edged and fiery as the thing it's meant to describe.
As the lavas that restlessly roll
- Here we get more description of the rivers of lava coming from the volcano that's like the speaker's heart. These rivers "restlessly roll" down the mountain.
- Isn't that a great description? Can you imagine what "restless" lava would look like? The image is really vivid, but also a little mysterious, which is just the way we like it.
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole—
- He just keeps rolling with this simile, spinning it out as far as it will go. Those lava rivers (from lines 14-15) roll their "sulphurous" (made up of sulfur, a farty-smelling element that's part of lava) currents down the volcano.
- Poe calls that volcano "Mount Yaanek." There's no such place of course, but the sound of the word is great.
- He also tells us that it's located in the "ultimate climes" (farthest regions) way up by the earth's pole. Somehow we don't think the speaker will be running into Santa any time soon, though.
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.
- These lines close this whole heart/volcano comparison by sort of repeating (but also changing) lines 16-17. He stirs in a couple details, telling us that the lava is groaning, and that Yaanek is specifically at the North ("boreal") pole. (Nerdy trivia: If Poe were talking about the south pole, he would have said austral pole. Both words come from Latin.)
- What the heck is Poe doing here? We've never heard of Yaanek, and we got the point about the heart/volcano thing pretty fast, so why hammer us over the head with it?
- Well, we think he's just riffing. Like a rock guitarist or a jazz soloist, he's just playing, enjoying the sounds, seeing where they can take him. It's not improvisation, since Poe had lots of time to think it over, but it is a kind of celebration of words for their own sake, for the ways they can move and twist and grow. We think he's darn good at it, too.