Over the course of Poes forty year stay on Earth, he was exposed early to several key people who would have a profound impact on his writings. Though this idea in and of itself is not uncommon in literature, for Poe it went far beyond being merely influenced. Beginning at age 3 when he lost his parents, Poe was subjected to a difficult life that would later play heavily in his works. Between his foster father (John Allan), his first love (Sarah Elmis Royster) and his young first wife (Virginia Cleem), Poes contacts largely dictated his works.
How was it that such an obviously brilliant individual like Poe allowed imself to be mentally manipulated by these people? To answer this question, it is necessary to take a step back and first get a little background. Edgar Allen Poe was born on January 19, 1809 to two struggling actors, David and Elizabeth Poe. When his father died at the age of 36, Edgar was left alone with his pregnant mother. He traveled with his mother and sister from theater to theater, often sleeping backstage. When his mother died of tuberculosis on December 11, 1811 at the young age of 24, Edgar and his sister, Rosalie, were orphaned.
Edgar was only two years old. His sister was sent to live with a Mrs. Mackenzie when she was one, Edgar went to live with John and Frances Allen. Edgar’s older brother William, was already living with their grandfather, David Poe, Sr. , because at the time of his birth, David and Elizabeth could not afford to care for him. Edgar moved to Richmond, Virginia with the Allans, where he had many luxuries that he had never had before. He had his own bedroom in the apartment above John Allen’s store, Ellis & Allen, and even servants to help him wash before bed and put away his clothes.
Growing up, Edgar never got along with his foster father, often arguing with him, nd rarely showing any affection. John Allen once even described his son as miserable, sulky, and ill-tempered. There was also the matter of Edgar’s alcoholism, which brought shame upon his foster family and friends. Even his beloved first fiancee Sarah Elmira Royster, eventually refused to see him, because of his drinking habits. One night after a particularly bitter argument with Mr. Allen, he decided to leave his home and go to Boston. Boston was only the short term answer and soon Poe was disillusioned with the city.
After an unpleasant month in Boston, Edgar was once again on the road. After aving a few poems published and withdrawing from a military academy he eventually wound up in Baltimore, Maryland, penniless. He soon found that his relatives there were as poor as he was. Even so, they welcomed him into their homes and hearts. He stayed for a while in the home of his aunt, Maria Clemm. Also living with Mrs. Clemm were her two children, Henry, 13, and Virginia; Poe’s cousin and future wife. In addition, his paralyzed grandmother and his dying brother William, 24 also resided there.
He tried unsuccessfully to get a job at several newspapers, before seeing a contest for the best short story in the ocal paper. Being rather poor, Poe proceeded writing short stories in attempt to win the $100 winners prize. Even though he did not win the $100 for his efforts, Poe did have some of the stories published in the years to come, but he never had anything to show for it , because the newspaper did not give him credit for writing the stories. Poe was offered a job back in Richmond, and he had to leave Baltimore(and worse, Virginia, with whom he had fallen in love) to take the job.
He rapidly fell into depression while in Richmond over the absence of his beloved Virginia and was driven once again to drinking. Poe’s drinking had gotten out of hand and he was fired. He went back to Baltimore on the spot and asked for Virginia’s hand in marriage. They got married a year later. Soon after he was wed, he was re-offered the job in Richmond, but only if he promised to never drink again. He promised to never let another sip of liquor pass his lips, and went to Richmond, this time taking Virginia and his aunt Maria. This would prove to be the high point of Poes life.
Not due to any success or recognition, but more importantly he was happy if only for a brief time. In the years to come there would be both better and worse times in Edgar’s life. After moving from the city his life totally fell apart, he had to shut down his newspaper because of bad reviews, his wife was growing increasingly ill, and he was sick as well. He eventually broke his vow and went back to drinking, which only caused problems. Several times he was found wandering drunk in the streets of New York where he had recently relocated with his wife and mother-in-law after taking an editing job at the Broadway Journal.
Virginia did not take to life in the city, however, and asked Edgar to move to the country. Eager to please his beloved wife, who was stricken with tuberculosis, he agreed. Virginia’s long struggle finally ended on January 29, 1847 at the age of 24, the very age as Edgar’s mother when she died. After her death Poe was inconsolable, once again thrown into the depths of depression and despair. If there were any positives about Virginias death, it would be that Poe was once again inspired to write. His post-Virginia material made up in pure genius what it lost in good mood.
These works can be distinguished as dark and morbid, traits not unlike his earlier work. They did however change subject matter even as they retained mood. In the “Oval Portrait” for example, Poe writes of a man obsessed with creating the deal portrait of his new wife. The piece is finally created at the cost of the young models life. The parallels to Poes own life are fairly obvious. He, like the painter, sacrificed everything for his art only to realize later that the price was too high. The first poem that he wrote after her death was Ulalume, a poem recalling a lover’s visit to his loved one’s grave.
Poe writes: Then my heart it grew ashen and sober As the leaves that were crisped and sere- As the leaves that were withering and sere- And I cried- It was surely October On this very night of last year That I journeyed- I journeyed down here- That I brought a dread burden down here- On this night of all nights in the year, Ah, what demon has tempted me here? Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber- This misty mid region of Weir- : Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber, This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. The tone of this poem perfectly reflects how forlorn Poe was at this point in his life.
His mastery of setting the mood is unequaled in all literature. Another aspect that puts Poe above the rest is his technique that compliments his style. A writing style that was entirely unique. His uniqueness can again be attributed to the people who passed through is life. All of Poe’s other writings reflect his life, be it sad or happy. As aforementioned, Poe had problems with his foster dad. As a result, Poe often portrayed men as bad people in his short stories. In the “Cask of Amontillado”, the protagonist is an apparently insane man who walls up his foe is his underground vaults. Hop-Frog” has a sinister king burned alive by his abused midget.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is another deranged man who slaughters an old man in his sleep and the list goes on. The very best example of this would have to be “The Black Cat”. The classic tale of man who comes home in a drunken daze. He is angered by his cat and in attempt to kill the animal with an ax, the main character buries the axes head into his wife, killing her. For the remainder of the story he is tormented by his failure to kill the cat. That, coupled with the loss of his wife, devour his mind until he is a rambling mess.
It is fairly clear where the inspirations come from in that story, as well as many of his others. The situations change, but the end result is always the man being portrayed in a poorly in his short stories (This isnt necessarily true in Poes poetry, which tends to feature more topics on loss and grief). This portrayals can be largely attributed to the daily struggle Poe had with John Allan. For Poe to create some mythical land where his relationships with males are tolerable, would have been untrue to himself as a writer. He is effective writing about topics he is familiar with.
Poe is the poster child of Ernest Hemmingways philosophy: “Only write about what you know, and then dont write too damn much. ” Another theme that frequents Poes literature, is the presence of a female. She is generally portrayed sympathetically and for the most part is dead, or dies in the course of the story. Ive already mentioned the “Black Cat”, which features a young wife brutally murdered by her husband. “Murders in the Rue Morge” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” were two detective style stories that featured women being killed.
Yet, there can be no better example of Poes women issues as well as his own mental instability than in a short story published in 1839. In “Fall of the House of Usher”, Roderick Usher has inadvertantly buried his sister, Madeline, believing her dead. It eventually comes to light that Madeline was buried prematurely when she arrives in time to die in her brothers rms. Again, this is an example of a women being mistreated, albeit accidentally, by a man. Though “Usher” is far more complex and compelling than merely that.
Read as Poe describes the Usher house in the opening paragraph: . I looked upon the scene before me –upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain –upon the bleak walls –upon the vacant eye-like windows –upon a few rank sedges –and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees –… I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves….
Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. After rereading the paragraph, the striking part becomes that Poe isnt merely describing a house, but a mind. It is clear to see that the bleak walls represent human skin even as the vacant eye-like windows symbolize human eyes. The white, decaying tree trunks are teeth and the “minute fungi” is clearing hair.
That leaves only the “perceptible fissure” that splits the house in half unexplained. This is finally explained as the narrator flees the house in horror. The entire house literally cracks in half, while the families mind metaphorically cracks. This fissure in the human mind mirrors Poe himself who long struggled with his own sanity. In addition to the enormous impact John Allan and Virginia had on Poes career, there is also another variable that has gone unmentioned. That would be William Henry, Poes older brother. Like both Virginia and his mother Elizabeth Poe, William died at age 24 of tuberculosis.
Though it is impossible to determine exactly how close the two ever were, I can speculate that his death had at least some effect on Edgar. In 1841, nine years after Williams death, Edgar wrote A Descent into the Maelstrom. In this tale, an aged Norwegian tells of his experience three years past, when his fishing boat became trapped in the Maelstrom, an enormous whirlpool speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of
Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven. Though frightened by the chaos of the Maelstrom, the fisherman also wants to understand it, and is saddened that he will not live to tell anyone else the secrets he might discover. Through a systematic analysis of the events within the Maelstrom, the sailor gradually realizes that the world of the Maelstrom is not entirely anarchic; he recognizes certain physical laws that hold for the various objects whipping around the whirlpool, and understands how he might escape.
Lashing himself to a cylindrical water-cask, he throws himself and the cask into the water; though is boat, carrying his brother, plunged headlong, at once and forever, into the chaos of foam below, the cask remained secure until the whirlpool calmed. The Norwegian was safe, though my hair, which had been raven black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. Though his escape is indeed very interesting the true focus of the tale is the relationship between the fisherman and his brother.
His older brother at that, who perishes while he lives. The fact that the fishermans entire “countenance had changed” would lead me to elieve that Williams death drastically changed Edgars outlook on life. Perhaps not to the catastrophic level that Virginias did, but nonetheless had some impact. It should also be noted that though clearly all of these tragedies had significant impacts on Poe himself, it should also be mentioned that Poe wasnt the most stable person to begin with. It seems unfair to Death itself to blame everything Poe did on tragic events in his life.
Variables like drinking must taken into account when considering his subject matter. No documents of his pre-drinking era exist, so it is quite impossible to etermine how developed his imagination was before his alcoholic delusions. As mentioned earlier, he was often found rambling to himself on the streets of Baltimore in inebriated states. Alcohol is mentioned repeatedly in his works (Black Cat, Cask of Amontillado… ) so the possibility of that also influencing him seems a realistic option.
Another aspect less talked about, but just as significant would have to be his addiction to opium. Though very taboo to his understudies and contemporaries, this hallucinogenic drug could easily have swayed his decision making and therefore his story writing material. Thing like alcohol and drug abuse can quite easily effect an individuals performance, but again Poe is no normal individual. At age seventeen Poe wrote the Spirits of the Dead. Not a normal topic for any teen, regardless the theme is very different than most latter Poe works.
The final stanza reads: The breeze, the breath of God, is still, And the mist upon the hill Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken, Is a symbol and a token. How it hangs upon the trees, A mystery of mysteries! Though this is one of Poes earliest pieces, it can be assumed that this poem doesnt carry the same melancholy tone that is typical of Poe. It doesnt have to be ssumed, because this poem deals more with the curiosity and mystery of adolescence than anything more serious. One should not think that Poes life was a completely horrific existence.
Though he certainly was forced to deal with his share of controversy and death, he was also influenced in a positive way by the people he came in touch with. This isnt particularly obvious in his prose, but in his poetry it is more blatant. Take for instance his poem, The Dream. Poe is speaking to the reader, of his mythical playland where everything is very surreal and very pleasant. There are no foreboding tones of death and decay. Clearly he has just as much potential to be cheerful and dreamy as he does morbid and pessimistic.
Yet Poe chooses the more unpleasant tone as his centerpiece, not because it sells better or to please anyone in particular, but because that is how he stays true to himself as a writer. Not only in The Dream, but even in some of his short stories does Poe keep an upbeat and fun tone. In both “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” as well as “Gold Bug” Poe is so optimistic of humanity to the point of being really funny. A reader certainty wouldnt expect this of a gloomy, dismal author like Poe which is exactly what makes him so special.
He is more famous for his terrifying accounts of death and revenge, but at the same time he has potential to change gears and write a piece that is so vastly different and just as appealing. There is no better summary of his life and work than the quotation from Francis Bacon, inscribed over the Poe Gate at West Point: There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportions. Poe himself is indeed an exquisite beauty with his completely unconventional style and unorthodox techniques. This, combined with his strangeness, has made Poe what he is; the most influential and talented American author of all time.