THE SIMPSONS & THE LADYKILLERS
Introducing the Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe Using Clips from “The Simpsons” Version of The Raven and “The Ladykillers”
Length: Snippet: recitation of The Raven from “The Simpsons”: 5 minutes; recitation of To Helen from “The Ladykillers”: less than 3 minutes; Lesson: from one to three 45 – 55 minute classes, depending on the assignments given.
Students will be introduced to the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe through two of his most famous poems: The Raven and To Helen.
James Earl Jones’ voice coupled with the silliness of Homer Simpson will draw students into the weird world of Edgar Allan Poe. Once in, the students can then explore many works of Poe with a mind opened by a popular animated comedy series. Tom Hanks’ reading of To Helen in the comedy, “The Ladykillers”, will further draw interest to Poe’s work for students who may not be moved by simply reading the poem.
DESCRIPTION OF SNIPPET
“The Simpsons” version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven begins with Lisa Simpson assuring Bart that, although she is about to read from a school book, there is no danger that he will learn anything. She then begins to recite Poe’s poem and is voiced-over by the resonant sound of James Earl Jones, whose delivery is interrupted by Homer as he flounders about in fear. Bart’s visage is suggested in the raven that hops into the room and his voice repeats the famous line, “Nevermore.” Marge is shown in a painting titled “Lenore”, done in triptych in order to make room for her hair.
The poem is edited to about half of the original but carries the full weight of the message and is enhanced by Homer’s antics. At one point Homer pulls books off the shelf entitled “The Purloined Letter,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Telltale Heart,” all short stories written by Poe, a bust of whom is seen in the background. The episode ends with Homer cowering in his bed, comforted by Marge.
“The Ladykillers” is a 2002 release starring Tom Hanks as a southern gentleman-thief, posing as a scholar to take up residence in a rooming house so that his gang can dig a tunnel into a bank. The film is a comedy. Hanks recites part of To Helen, one of Poe’s most beautiful poems, in DVD scene six. The reading of the poem is enchanting. Students will listen.
1. Review the Snippet and to make sure it is suitable for the class. Review the Lesson Plan and decide how to present it to the class, making any necessary modifications.
2. Before class begins, prepare any vocabulary lists that will be used with the lesson as well as class copies of The Raven and To Helen.
3. Become familiar with the location of the clips on the DVDs. Cue the DVD to the first clip. Make sure that all necessary materials are available.
STEP BY STEP
1. Deliver the biographical information on Poe in a brief lecture or have the class read a brief written biography of the poet.
Edgar Allan Poe lived a bizarre life, died a bizarre death and wrote short stories, poems and essays about bizarre topics. His writings still awe readers of all ages. Born in Boston in 1809 to parents who traveled from one acting job to another, Poe was never secure in his early years. By 1811 his father had abandoned the family and his mother was dead. Poe became the foster child of Mr. and Mrs. John Allan, a wealthy couple who were able to provide the young boy with a sophisticated upbringing including private schools and travel.
Clearly capable of academic success, Poe dabbled in studies at the University of Virginia but left abruptly for Boston where he gambled, published some of his writing and joined the army. Little success resulted from any of these endeavors but Poe continued to write and work at various editing jobs. As he grew increasingly estranged from his foster father and found it difficult to get along with others, Poe began to develop the image of the quirky and troubled artist whose poverty and failure to gain recognition pushed him into neurosis.
During the years between 1831 and 1835, Poe lived in Baltimore where he worked on creating an artistic philosophy and married his thirteen year old cousin, Virginia Clemms. Some of his best work came from this period; he published The Raven in 1845 which was met with both critical and popular acclaim. After his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe sank deeper into estrangement and poverty. His reputation as a womanizer and alcoholic grew until his death in 1849. He was found unconscious on the streets in Baltimore and died several days later in a hospital. It was believed that he suffered from the dementia of alcohol or some physical illness that caused his mind to deteriorate.
Poe may have been something of a madman but he nonetheless contributed a great deal to the body of American literature. In his various essays on the nature of literature, he asserted the value of emotion above thought as the basic intention of a writer. He eschewed didacticism and disdained moral lessons. Poe believed that literature should be about illumination of the unchanging human experienced and claimed that the best subject for poetry was the death of a beautiful woman, perhaps because he experienced the deaths of important women in his own life. He died young, at age forty, but left behind works so important that they are still used in schools throughout the country and even appear in animated TV shows.
2. After students have become familiar with the biography of Edgar Allan Poe, show the episode of “The Simpsons” for overall delight unencumbered by the notion that a test may follow. Then distribute the following list of vocabulary words and ask that the students find definitions, either on their own or in groups. This task should be completed prior to the second viewing of the episode or reading the poem.
Vocabulary list for The Raven: aidenn; balm; beguile; betook; censer; countenance; craven; crest; decorum; desolate; dirge; discourse; divine; entreat; gaunt; gilead; gloat; implore; implore; lattice; lore; melancholy; methought; mien; nepenthe; obeisance; ominous; Pallas; pallid; placid; Plutonian; quaff; respite; surcease; thereat; undaunted; ungainly; wrought; yore.
3. Once students are familiar with the definitions of the words used in the poem, distribute the complete version of The Raven. Read it with the students, again noting the vocabulary words and making certain that the definitions they have found fit into the context of the poem. For example, the word “gloat” means not only to delight in self-satisfaction; it means to “refract light from”. Students may enjoy noting the double meaning,
4. Show “The Simpsons” episode again and have the students notice which verses have been excised from the reading. This is tricky; the voices run rapidly over the poem, but working cooperatively they will see that the missing verses are numbers 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16. They may note that lines from some verses have been dropped and others repeated.
A. Students can be asked to read Poe’s essay, The Philosophy of Composition in which he explains how he composed The Raven. This is a difficult but interesting essay, the details of which can be presented to the class as a whole if the assignment is given as extra credit for advanced students. TWM has edited Poe’s essay for easier reading.
B. Have students look over the excised verses and determine whether one or more of them should have remained in “The Simpsons” episode. They must take care to justify their opinions by reference to both the verse itself and the place it would belong in the episode.
C. Ask students to write a scene from “The Simpsons” in which an excised verse could be added to the episode. Tell them to add dialogue, action, music or whatever else may make the verse fit into the general tone and energy of the episode.
D. Students can be asked to imitate Poe’s style in The Raven by using a verse as a template from which they can compose their own poem on a topic of their choice.
E. Vocal quality is an important element in “The Simpsons” episode. Students can be asked to address the use of sound including Jones’ voice-over, Homer’s intrusions into the recitation and any other noise that adds to the overall work. Students are quite familiar with voice from “The Simpsons” and will be able to comment on the tone or feeling created by the sounds.
F. Select students to work in groups to perform an oral reading of The Raven. Give them time to practice and to develop confidence in their delivery. Each group should be able to present its readings, possibly in other classes or in local grammar school classrooms. Students may want to prepare readings of Annabel Lee or another of Poe’s musical poems for presentation to the class.
G. Classes in which the teacher is conducting a serious study of poetic form may want to use Poe’s work as illustrative of many of the devices that poets use. The following list of terms is basic to the study of poetry; students can be asked to find definitions of the terms and then illustrate examples of their use in any poem written by Poe.
Glossary of terms for analysis of poetry:
6. Using To Helen from “The Ladykillers”
Distribute To Helen and show the segment from “The Ladykillers”; otherwise read the poem with the class. From this poem there is a famous line at the end of verse two: “To the glory that was Greece/ And the grandeur that was Rome.” In Poe’s first version he had written: “To the beauty of fair Greece/And the grandeur of old Rome.” Engage the students in a discussion about why the re-written lines are superior to the original.
Students may want to explore the use of literary allusion in To Helen. What is a Nicean bark? Who were the naiads? Who was Psyche? What is an agate lamp? What famous woman from literature was named Helen and considered to have caused wars because of her beauty? Who might have been a wanderer headed for his native shore?
7. If the textbook being used in class contains a short story by Poe, read it and carry on with the usual assignments applied to Poe’s work. The information given and the experience of seeing and hearing the performances of Poe’s poetry should help the students better understand his short stories. If no textbooks with Poe’s work are available, teachers can ask students to select a Poe short story to read on their own from any of a number of sources, including libraries and various websites. Ask them to write essays in which they show how Poe’s style helps illustrate theme.