Edgar Allan Poe is a man who is considered to be a true American genius of our time, and by many, the personification of death. His works have been collected and celebrated for over a hundred years from this day. He was a man who’s dreary horror tales captured and frightened the minds of millions. Poe differed from most other acclaimed writers though. The readers of his work do not admire him because they fall in love with his characters or because his writing touches their hearts. On the contrary, his readers admire him because
he managed to change reality for them. Edgar Allan Poe’s skill was developed in his subject matter of death and its horrid truths.Poe’s tales centered away from the life of a man and towards the effects of death on a man, whether it be his own or that of another. Poe was adept at creating an atmosphere of suspense with the minimum use of words and dramatic effects1.
Poe’s best known works include such masterpieces as Annabel Lee, The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Mask of the Red Death, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, and many others. Each and every one of these titles, among others, share one common trait that is more than evident, they all deal with death. When these tittles monopolize the attention, it is only natural that the central body of Poe’s work should seen to be a tissue of nightmares.2 How is it that a subject that is so repulsive to mankind can at the same time attract so many people? Perhaps it wasn’t the subject, but the skill with which it was written that lured people to it. Fish are lured to a deadly hook, but the bait makes it beautiful. In this same manner, people are mesmerized by the beauty and genius of Poe’s work. The better question is, what is it that drove Poe to become so obsessed with death? Why is it that he portrayed his genius through this topic? The only true way to answer these questions is through a deep
analysis of not only Poe’s works, but his life and his mind.
As stated earlier, one of his most acclaimed works is Annabel Lee. It is indeed a love tale. A poem written for his beautiful Annabel Lee. It speaks of the strong and unbreakable love that existed between them. This appears to be a happy enough topic, except for one significant fact. This Annabel Lee is dead.3 According to Poe, her death was caused by the angels who were jealous
of the love between him and Annable Lee.
It is odd that a love poem would be underlied by death, but the reasoning is unveiled with the study of Poe. Poe’s history included a sadly large collection of dying women in his life. First came his mother, Elizabeth Poe, later followed by Jane Standard, Frances Allan, and Virginia Clemm. All these women were very close to Poe, and many he was in love with 4. It is said that Virginia may have inspired him to write Annabel Lee 5. The topic of dying women certainly affected Poe. He came to see their deaths as a sort of tragic romantic beauty. Poe believed that the tone of the highest beauty in poetry is sadness and that melancholy. Poe’s notion of the function of melancholy in poetry lends him to ask himself what is the most melancholy of subjects. He was quoted to say, “Death, when it most closely allies itself to beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful
woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover. .”6 Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Poe’s belief, Annabel Lee definitely causes one’s emotions to stir.
As far as Poe’s literary career is concerned, he was far more than just a poet. Poe wrote many poems, short stories, and short prose pieces. His short stories and prose allow him more leeway with his words to make chills run down the spine of anyone who reads it. He is known to go into description of dark scenes that make the reader wish they were somewhere else.
One of his better known short stories would be The Fall of The House of User. In this story, Poe tells of a man who is haunted by the ghosts of his dead wife. He hears noises, her screams, and he believes to see her image. In the end, he discovers that his wife had not died, but had been buried alive, and then she dies in his arms. The description of the physical house in which this takes
place exemplifies the darkness of Poe’s style. Poe actually did not create this setting. Poe drew upon his memory for the Gothic mansion that provides this setting. He knew the feeling that comes over an imaginative human being when he meets face-to-face the Gothic past.7
Now, The Fall of the House of Usher is not the only story that Poe wrote dealing with pre-mature burial. He seemed to be almost fascinated by the idea of it. For him, premature burial was a rehearsal of death, a foretaste of the silence and darkness of which the corpse would be dimly aware. The idea of living internment provided a focus for more generalized anxieties about dying, enabling the writer to explore and particularize his own ideation of death.8 In this manner Poe was able to connect death with the living. He successfully captured the horror that the dead do not know. He puts the living in the place of a corpse so that they may have a sample of what eternity is like for a soul-less body. This may be a frightening and disturbing thought, but it did not only
accomplish Poe’s goal of providing a reader with horror, it also explored territory that had not been examined by previous writers. This aspect of death can not
be completely attributed to Poe. Pre-mature burial is something that people prefer not to think about. It is a fearful subject, but the well known fact, that cases do sometimes occur where people are buried alive, renders it proper and important that public attention should occasionally be called to it.9 Poe certainly must have heard of the occurrences in the past, but that living interment recurs
in Poe’s writing is not simply a case of use as a thematic source of terror, but more importantly as a foretaste of death and as a figure of the writer’s essential dilemma. To inscribe his narrative, he draws upon the isolation, dread, and silence which are the terms of his human confinement; and the underground memoir bears witness to the way in which writing is inherently a sign of survival, a heroic resistance to the “one sepulchral Idea.”10
From this case we see that Poe found presences of his lifetime as inspiration for expression. He took his surroundings and allowed himself to be set free by adapting the world to suit his mind. An adequate example of this fact can be found by reading The Murders of the Rue Morgue. This story can be described as a black comedy in a sense, but also as one of the first detective stories11. It begins as an investigation of mysterious murders that baffle everybody involved. In the end Poe reveals that the murders were not homicides, but in actuality killings by an escaped gorilla. This story created the eccentric amateur criminologist and his worshipful assistant, the crime that baffles police, the wrongly suspected person, the motif of the locked room, and the surprise solution. Poe may have very well gathered the ideas for his detective story from reading the headlines. American newspapers at the time were filled with reports of sensational crimes and murder trials12.
Poe continued this pattern for a few more tales. In The Mystery of Marie Roget, Poe applied his fully developed technique to the solution of a real-life case. In The Purloined Letter, Poe added the use of psychological deduction and double bluff – surprise by means of the obvious rather than the unexpected, the simple rather than the subtle.13
Drawing from the murders that he heard of, Poe managed to bring back his subject of death and also create a new genre for iterature. His detective stories served as the framework for authors including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes. Doyle always acknowledged his own personal debt to Poe for being his influence for Holmes.
Another instance in which Poe took the happenings of the real world to make a tale is evident in The Mask of the Red Death. Here, Poe places the reader in the middle of a masquerade ball, attended by the rich, that is interrupted by a masked man. This masked man is feared as he walks through the banquet hall and approaches the wealthy prince. He kills the prince and is attacked by the revelers who find that, on removing the corpse like mask from the figure, he is ‘untentated by any tangible form.’ Simultaneously comes the
realization that the figure has brought with it the Red Death.. Poe took the history of the black plague and personified it. The masked figure represents the plague that spares no one. Poe may have been influenced by Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man in this story.14
It is apparent that Poe’s choice to use death as subject matter came strongly influenced by the experiences of his life and time. He carefully selected the darkest images of what he saw and transformed them into his work of genius. This cannot be the only explanation for his unnatural obsession with death. Simply because death occurs in a society does not constitute that death should dominate the mind. Not everyone on this earth shows this kind of preoccupation with death. What could it have been about Poe that caused him
to stray so far into the realm of sorrow?
When one is confronted with a genius, it is natural to seek an explanation as to why a man can be blessed with an ability superior to the majority of his peers. The human race is not willing to accept that a person can be better than the rest for no apparent reason. Many people have conjured up theories as to why Poe was the way he was. The explanation of genius in terms of medical science is particularly tempting in Poe’s case. Hereditary madness, epilepsy,
dipsomania and degeneracy, sexual impotence, syphilis, drug addiction, sado necrophilia: more explanations of genius have certainly been propounded for Poe than for any other.15 Since Poe’s works place him to be referred to as an artist of nightmares, hallucinations, insane crimes and weird beauties, it is only
natural that the sanity of the author should become suspect.16
Edgar Allan Poe may have very well suffered from disorders. His nervous system was weak, he had a dual nature that tormented him, he suffered form fits of black depression. He was drawn to the themes of death and disease for more than literary reasons. His own personal illnesses may have caused him to see his own death approaching, while his case of depression is certain to only
worsen his attitude. 17 Poe’s personal problems also led him to a neurotic compulsion toward drink and self-destruction that may have also led him to have been sexually abnormal.18 The presence of such a vast number of problems can only lead a man to be somewhat abnormal.
Poe’s career life was not one that would give a person much desire to continue on its path. As a young man, Poe attended the University of Virginia. This could have taken him to a quick success in literature, but Poe suffered from a gambling problem. His problem worsened in the course of one year and his support from Allan, his foster father, was withdrawn19. He later enlisted into West Point but found that such a life as the service was an inappropriate career
for a young man of little means.20 At one point, Poe’s career and life took a turn for the better. When he became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in 1835, Poe found his vocation: editor, critic and contributor to a series of journals, each of which flourished under his guidance. Poe married
Virginia in 1836. With Maria Clemm they formed a household which, in 1837, moved from Richmond to New York and then to Philadelphia where Poe enjoyed his most productive and most contented years. In 1844, they returned to New York where Poe briefly owned his own journal. It was in New York that Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847. With her death, Poe began to disintegrate once again and found himself in the hands of substance addiction and a career that he was less than happy with.
The circumstances of Poe’s career were restless; on the whole, they were solitary. Throughout his forty years of mortal sunlight and shadow, he was never quite in accord with his surroundings. he was never tried by either of the tests for which ambition chiefly longs – the gravely happy test of wide responsibility, or the stimulatingly happy test of dominant success. Troublous from beginning to end his earthly life seems; to him, this world could not often have smiled contagiously sympathetic. Little money came to Poe. He reportedly received only $9.00 when “The Raven” was published in New York, a pitifully small wage
for one of the most popular poems in the English language.21 It must have kept his mind in a dreary state that is reflected in his writing.
Poe’s critics were not always kind to him in his early years. The publication of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym more often was condemned as a “willful hoax” because of its incredible and shocking episodes. Though some praise was found, it was usually in the context of motivational words to keep him going, and not in sincere admiration for his works.22
Poe’s personal family history may have had a strong influence on his melancholy being that would cause him to write as he did. By the age of six, his biological father had disappeared and left him deserted. His biological mother, whom he hardly lived with, died when Poe was only thirteen years old.23 Poe was sent to live with his foster parents, the Allans. He did not have the best relationship with the Allans. His eccentric and creative young mind was not appreciated, especially by the dominant male of the family, his foster father. There can be little doubt that the tension between the proud, dour, forceful Scot (John Allan) and his sensitive, imaginative adopted son produced one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our literature. It is in any estimation of Poe’s life impossible to overestimate the dominating influence of John Allan; their lives were intimately connected for more than thirty years – ending with Allan’s death.24 Another tragedy occurred when Poe left the country on a trip. He later returned to America, only in time to learn the severe illness of Mrs. Allen, who, in character, was the reverse of her husband, and whom he sincerely loved. He reached Richmond on the night after her burial.25
Poe’s dark attitude is often shown in his humor. Though it is unlikely that one would think of the dead and humor in the same sentence, Edgar Allan Poe proved to show a bit of malicious humor in his hoaxes. His purpose in the hoaxes was to make his readers absurd. Too this end, in his burlesques and extravaganzas, he showed human traits or lineaments in unbelievable distortion, using the grotesqueri which lies midway between the comic and the terrible. Poe is given to the leg-pull, a bent which he shares with other humorists, but Poe seems to wish to pull his reader’s legs off.26 His humor is a dark humor indeed. His laughter was of a single
order; it was inhuman, and mixed with hysteria.27
Perhaps Poe wrote so well of death because he could see it from an outside view. “Poe is hardly an artist. He is rather a supreme scientist.”28 “Whatever spiritual world there is for Poe is one in which spirit is no more than the particular intellect.” 29 A man who can look at things from a scientific standpoint is one who can understand their workings, both on the physical and the metaphysical.
Poe’s contemporaries had different opinions on what appeared to be his fanatical love for death. Some found his obsession to be disturbing at times. “it is not destitute of interest for the imagination, but the interest is painful; there are too many atrocities, too many strange horrors, and finally, there is no conclusion to it; it breaks off suddenly in a mysterious way.” 30 Others found his manner to be a well accomplished achievement. “The deep restlessness in Poe is itself ghost-like in its stirrings, drifting in an external world and by an act of the imagination attempting to subdue and exorcise that world from the mind.”31
Poe undoubtedly lived with a constantly troubled mind. He is said to have been so morbid of mind because he lived his life through eyes and a body that had already died. “Poe is a man writhing in the mystery of his own undoing. He is a great dead soul progressing terribly down the long process of post-mortem activity in disintegration. This is how the dead bury their dead.”32
Of course, in life, one learns the works of others and is, sometimes unwillingly, influenced through the subconscious. Poe’s writing of death would have been nothing would it have not been for his vivid imagery and description. He manipulated the scenery to become surroundings that are dangerous to the
mind. From Gothic fiction of the English eighteenth century, Poe took the imagery of terror. He found the blighted, oppressive country side and the haunted castle.33
Poe is undoubtedly a true American genius. His fixation on death only shows that he has the skill to frighten his audience, to make them afraid of sleep for fear of their nightmares. His talent was certainly not appreciated in his time. He gave us much and received pathetically little in return, for he was all his life a
starveling poet and a miserably paid writer for ephemeral magazines. It is a final irony that his letters and manuscripts have become the most valuable of all American writers.34
Regardless of what caused his obsession with death, he managed to create tales that will remain on the earth for as long as man exists. Poe is the genius that young children are taught of. He is an icon that America can always claim as her own. Whether Poe wrote of death because of depression, disease, personal losses, insanity, or simply because he may have been the only man bold enough to face the one thing that everyone fears, he interlaced it into his tales to provide us with horror, sorrow, and entertainment. Since his death, he has become appreciated and celebrated. His tales are taught in grade school. His works have been made for theater and film. His genius is preached to anyone who studies the English language.35 From a sad life and a troubled mind flourished a name that will remain in history.