Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), was an American poet, short-story writer, and literary critic. Poe’s stormy personal life and his haunting poems and stories combined to make him one of the most famous figures in American literary history.
Poe’s influence on literature has been immense. His short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is considered the first modern detective story. His reviews of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne mark him as the first significant theorist of the modern short story. His poetry and his stories of terror are among the most influential in modern literature. Writers as diverse as the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky have used Poe’s stories to launch their own fictional experiments.
Poe celebrated pure forms of beauty and opposed the didactic (a tendency to instruct or moralize) in poetry. These attitudes laid a foundation for later literary movements, notably symbolism. Poe worked as an editor and contributor to magazines in several cities, including Richmond, Virginia; New York City; and Philadelphia. He unsuccessfully tried to found and edit his own magazine, which would have granted him financial security and artistic control in what he considered a hostile literary marketplace.
During his lifetime, Poe made many enemies through his challenge to moralistic limits on literature, his confrontation with the New England literary establishment, and his biting critical style. Some readers too easily identified Poe with the mentally disturbed narrators of his tales, a belief reinforced by Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor. Griswold wrote a malicious obituary (1849) and memoir (1850) of Poe that combined half-truths and outright falsehoods about Poe’s personal habits and conduct. Griswold portrayed Poe as envious, conceited, arrogant, and bad-tempered. Griswold’s portrait severely damaged Poe’s reputation and delayed a serious consideration of the writer’s place in American literature. But Poe’s later rediscovery by the French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, and Paul Valery helped restore his reputation.
Poe was born in Boston, the son of traveling actors. His father deserted the family. After his mother died in 1811, Poe became a ward of John Allan, a wealthy Richmond merchant. The Allan family lived in the United Kingdom from 1815 to 1820 before returning to Richmond. In 1826, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia. There he acquired gambling debts that John Allan refused to pay. Eventually, Poe was forced to withdraw from the university.
Poe’s relationship with Allan deteriorated, and the young man enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827. During the same year, Poe’s first book was published. Its title was Tamerlane and Other Poems, “By a Bostonian.” While waiting for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, Poe published his second volume of poems, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). Both collections show the influence of the English poet Lord Byron. In 1830, Poe entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he excelled in the study of languages. But he was expelled in 1831 for neglecting his duties.
Poe’s Poems (1831) contained two important poems, “To Helen” and “Israfel.” He began to publish tales in the early 1830’s while living with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia. Poe suffered financial difficulties, especially after being ignored in John Allan’s will. He received help from American novelist John P. Kennedy in winning an editorial post with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. For the Messenger, Poe contributed reviews, original or revised poems and stories, and two installments of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Poe produced several of his finest tales in the late 1830’s, including “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “William Wilson.” These and other stories were incorporated into Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1839). In 1841, he became an editor of Graham’s Magazine, to which he contributed “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Poe won greater recognition with “The Gold Bug” (1843), a prize-winning tale that appeared in Philadelphia’s Dollar Newspaper. The poem “The Raven” (1845) made him famous. Two more collections, Tales and The Raven and Other Poems, appeared in 1845. Early in 1845, Poe antagonized many people with a scathing campaign against the popular American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for supposed plagiarisms. At a public appearance in Boston later that year, Poe admitted to being drunk, which further alienated the public.
Poe’s later years were colored by economic hardship and ill health. Nevertheless, he published the story “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), and part of his “Marginalia,” a collection of critical notes written for various periodicals during the 1840’s.
Virginia Poe died of tuberculosis in 1847, after five years of illness. Poe then sank into poor health, and his literary productivity declined. In the middle and late 1840’s, he sought to support himself as a lecturer. His lecture on “The Universe” was expanded into Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), which explores the mysteries of the universe.
In 1849, Poe became engaged to marry the widowed Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, his boyhood sweetheart. On his way to bring Mrs. Clemm to the wedding, Poe stopped in Baltimore. On October 3, he was found semiconscious and delirious outside a tavern used as a polling place. The cause of his death four days later was listed as “congestion of the brain,” though the precise circumstances of his death have never been fully explained.
Poe began his career as a poet, and composed or revised poems throughout his career. A tone of amused distance can be detected even in poems that critics consider serious. However, these elements coexist with themes that are more typical of the romantic movement, such as dreams and nightmares (see Romanticism). Poe handled such material through images and tropes (figures of speech) designed to signify uncertain states of consciousness represented as lakes, seas, waves, and vapors.
Nearly all Poe’s criticism on poetry was written for the magazines for which he worked.
Although the pieces were published intermittently, they reflect a remarkably coherent, self-conscious view of poetry and of the creative process. Poe wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” to explain how he composed “The Raven.” The essay opposes the romantic assumption that the poet works in a “fine frenzy” of pure inspiration. Instead, Poe wrote a carefully deliberate account of poetic creation. The essay analyzes the central role of “effect,” the conscious choice of an emotional atmosphere that is more important than incident, character, and versification. Poe also offered his famous pronouncement that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world. In “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Poe claimed that poetry works to achieve “an elevating excitement of the soul,” an emotional state that could not be long sustained. He further declared that a “long poem” is a contradiction in terms.
Poe believed that a poem’s emotional impact was enhanced by music or “sweet sound.” He thus devoted considerable attention to techniques of versification, especially in his essay “The Rationale of Verse” (1848).
Poe’s “SonnetTo Science” (1829) subtly shows how beauty is destroyed by the coldness of the modern scientific intellect. “To Helen” (1831) is a brilliant example of precision and balance and perhaps Poe’s classic poetic statement on the idealization of women.
Despite its theatrical effects and stylistic flaws, “The Raven” (1845) is Poe’s best-known poem and one of the most famous works in American literature. It treats his favorite theme, the death of a beautiful woman. This theme also appears in “The Sleeper” (1841) and “Ulalume” (1847). In all three poems, Poe chose elaborate musical and metrical effects, aspects of his verse that have been widely criticized and parodied. Poe sought an incantatory quality in his versethat is, a hypnotic quality of rhythm.
Reflecting his interest in musical effects, Poe made no rigid distinction between music and poetry. “Eldorado” (1849), which originated as a song of the American West about the California gold rush, is an outstanding example. Poe went beyond the poem’s topical nature. The theme is universalized, as a knight learns that the true Eldorado is a wealth beyond this world.
Poe’s review of American novelist Robert Montgomery Bird’s supernatural novel Sheppard Lee (1836) offers penetrating comments on fantasy literature. Poe distinguished genius from talent in his review of English novelist Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Critiques of American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales offer his most sustained views on prose fiction. Poe approached the tale as a painter or a landscape architect might deal with his or her craft. He discussed the importance of “design,” the reconciliation of diverse elements into a “unity of effect or impression.” Poe’s review of Twice-Told Tales (1842) celebrates the short prose tale as much as Hawthorne’s artistry. “Tale-WritingNathaniel Hawthorne” (1847), in contrast, criticizes Hawthorne’s lack of originality and his strong liking for allegory . According to Poe, the “proper uses” of prose fiction are served only when allegory is suggestivethat is, when it ceases to “enforce a truth” and offers an unobtrusive “under-current” of meaning.
Much of Poe’s early fiction was written for Tales of the Folio Club, a series of satires on the literary pretensions of his day that was never published as a separate volume. In these pieces, serious and satirical elements coexist. These stories, the most notable of which are “Metzengerstein” and “The Assignation,” do not conform to his principle of “unity of effect.” Rather, the tone is a combination of “half banter, half satire.” Poe’s only long work of fiction, the sea story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), may have been begun in this style. But modern critics have uncovered suggestions of mythical, religious, and visionary meaning in the work’s ending.
Poe’s most famous fictional expression of the unity of effect is “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). The story is a portrait of a suffering artist isolated from the tides of life. Subtle psychological meanings can also be found in “Ligeia,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “William Wilson.” In all three tales, bizarre and frightening details and events conceal Poe’s subtle probing of the warfare he observed in the human soul.
Frank, Frederick S., and Magistrale, Anthony.The Poe Encyclopedia. Greenwood, 1997.— Silverman,Kenneth.Edgar A. Poe. 1991. Reprint. HarperPerennial, 1992