.. ive 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 arms. 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 his 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 believe 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 determine 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 assumed, 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.