Edgar Allan Poe

November 6, 2012 1:57 pm
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), American writer, known as a poet and critic but most famous as the first master of the short-story form (see Short Story), especially the psychological horror tale. Both his poems and his tales of the mysterious and macabre produce a haunting effect, often reflecting Poe’s obsession with death. Many of the stories express abnormal states of mind and are constructed in terms of a single mad obsession. Poe is also important for his literary theories and for his invention of the modern detective story. Many major American and European writers have professed their artistic debt to him. His influence can be seen in the work of such diverse writers as Charles Baudelaire, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe was orphaned in his early childhood and taken to Richmond, Virginia, to be raised by John Allan, a successful merchant, and his wife. From the Allans, Poe acquired his middle name. At the age of six Poe went to England with the Allan family and was placed in a private school. After returning to the United States in 1820, he continued to study in private schools. He attended the University of Virginia for a year, but in 1827 Allan, displeased by Poe’s drinking and gambling, refused to pay his debts and forced him to work as a clerk.
Poe, disliking his new duties intensely, quit the job, thus alienating Allan, and went to Boston. There his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), was published anonymously. Shortly afterward Poe enlisted in the United States Army and served a two-year term. In 1829 his second volume of verse, Al Aaraaf, was published, and he achieved a reconciliation with Allan, who secured him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After only a few months at the academy, Poe was expelled for neglect of duty, and Allan disowned him permanently.
Poe’s third book, Poems, appeared in 1831, and the following year he moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his aunt and her young daughter, Virginia Clemm. The following year he won a contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor with the short story “A MS. Found in a Bottle,” which relates how a sailing vessel is sucked down into an enormous whirlpool. In 1835 Poe became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, a magazine to which he contributed thoughtful but often scathing reviews, and tales of wonder and terror.
In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia, who was not yet 14 years old; her mother managed the household. His connection with the Messenger ended in 1837, when he was discharged for drunkenness. Throughout the next decade, much of which was marred by his wife’s long illness, Poe worked as an editor for various periodicals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. In 1847 Virginia died of tuberculosis and Poe himself became ill. His disastrous dependence on alcohol and his alleged use of drugs, recorded by contemporaries, may have contributed to his early death. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Among Poe’s poetic output about a dozen poems are remarkable for their flawless literary construction and for their haunting themes and meters. “The Raven” (1845) immediately established Poe’s fame as a poet. The narrator is overwhelmed by melancholy over the death of his beloved, “the lost Lenore,” when the black raven arrives. Taking the bird as a messenger from the next world, the narrator questions it and receives the same response to each question, “Nevermore.” The insistent meter and musical rhythm employed by Poe is evident from the poem’s first line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.” Poe heightens his effects through a number of literary devices, especially the use of repeated sounds, as in the line, “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.” The alliterative repetition of s sounds in “silken sad uncertain rustling” imitates the sound of swishing curtains in an excellent example of onomatopoeia (see Versification), whereas the repeated ur sound of “purple curtain” has darker overtones.
Poe’s extraordinary manipulation of rhythm and sound is particularly evident in “The Bells” (1849), a poem that seems to echo with the chiming of metallic instruments: “To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells /From the bells, bells, bells, bells, /Bells, bells, bells—.” “The Sleeper” (1831), a poem about death, reproduces a state of drowsiness in such lines as “Above the closed and fringed lid /’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid.” “Lenore” (1831) and “Annabel Lee” (1849) are verse lamentations on the death of a beautiful young woman.
In his editorial work Poe functioned largely as a book reviewer and produced a significant body of criticism; his essays were famous for their sarcasm, wit, and exposure of literary pretension. His criticism and his literary theories were greatly influenced by his own experiments in writing. Poe said that the purpose of literature is “to amuse by arousing thought.” He defined poetry as the “rhythmical creation of beauty.” He insisted that a poem, to be a poem, must be short, and that a long poem is, in effect, a series of short ones. For the short story he demanded a single unified effect.
Poe, by his own choice, was a poet, but economic necessity forced him to turn to the relatively profitable genre of prose. Whether or not Poe invented the short story, it is certain that he originated the novel of detection. One of his best-known tales in this genre is “The Gold Bug” (1843), about a search for buried treasure that involved the deciphering of a code. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842-1843), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844) are regarded as predecessors of the modern mystery, or detective, story (see Detective Story).
Many of Poe’s tales are distinguished by the author’s unique grotesque inventiveness in addition to his superb plot construction. Poe was unequaled in evoking an all-encompassing mood of horror through the rendering of setting and atmosphere. The opening description in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), for example, establishes a mood of gloominess that foreshadows the terrifying events to follow:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) a maniacal murderer is subconsciously haunted into confessing his guilt. Poe strived in this story for the single effect of total madness, which the narrator unintentionally confirms with every denial:

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why willyou say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled themHow, then, am I mad? Harken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Poe’s other masterpieces of horror include “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), a spine-tingling tale of cruelty and torture, and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), an eerie tale of revenge. Although Poe believed that the short story was the most suitable form for fiction, he wrote a short novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), in the hope of making some money. Based on tales of South Sea exploration and adventures, the work combines realistic material with wild fantasies. It failed to make him money because Poe claimed he had only edited Pym’s factual narrative, but the novel greatly influenced subsequent writers of the bizarre and phantasmagoric.
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