Edgar Allan Poe

1809-1849

Life

Family

Homes

Occupations

Chronology

·1809: Born in Boston on January 19 to David Poe, an actor, and Elizabeth Poe, an actress

·c. 1810: David Poe abandons the family

·1811: Elizabeth Poe dies in Richmond; John Allan, a tobacco merchant, and Frances Allan take in Poe, but never adopt him.

·1815-20: Lives with the Allans in England and Scotland before the family returns to Richmond

·1826: Attends the University of Virginia, where he covers the walls of his dormitory room with sketches and strikes at least one classmate as gloomy and morose. In less than a year, Allan removes him, ostensibly because of gambling debts Poe incurred.

·1827: Goes to Boston, where he publishes Tamerlane and Other Poems

·1827: Joins Army and serves on Sullivan's Island, setting of "The Gold-Bug"

·1829: Leaves Army; publishes Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems

·1830: Enrolls at West Point with Allan's help

·1831-35: Deliberately has himself dismissed from West Point. After a short stint in New York City, where he publishes "Israfel," "To Helen," and other works in Poems, Poe moves to Baltimore with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and makes a living writing nonliterary material. In 1833, he wins a prize for "MS Found in a Bottle," which appears in the Baltimore Sunday Visitor. John Allan dies in 1834.

·1835: Poe becomes assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and moves back to Richmond. He marries Maria Clemm's daughter and his cousin, 13-year-old Virginia Clemm. In a letter to another poet, Poe boasts of the accuracy of his ear and invokes musical terms such as "harmony" and "discords" to discuss poetry.

·1836: Poe publishes a review in which he celebrates phrenology. Later, in 1841, he will admit to being examined by several phrenologists.

·1837-39: After raising the Messenger's circulation 700 percent but quarreling with colleagues, Poe leaves and goes to work for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia. He publishes "Ligeia," The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and other works.

·1840: Publishes Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, a book of previously published stories, including "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

·1841-42: Works for Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia; publishes "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

·1843: Works for The Saturday Museum in Philadelphia and publishes "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Gold-Bug," and "The Black Cat."

·1844: Moves to New York, where he works for the Evening Mirror and the Broadway Journal.

·1845: Poe wins national fame with "The Raven," published in the Evening Mirror and in The Raven and Other Poems. At the peak of his popularity, he produces a five-part plagiarism series that, among other things, charges Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with "the most barbarous class of literary piracy." In Boston, after promising to write and read a new poem for a convocation, Poe instead dusts off the 16-year-old, windy, and none-too-popular "Al Aaraaf." Listeners leave early.

·1846: Poe moves to Fordham, New York, with Virginia. Although ill, he publishes "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Philosophy of Composition," and other works.

·1847: Virginia dies of tuberculosis. Poe publishes "Ulalume." Around this time, according to a letter the Poes' nurse wrote in 1875, Poe shows signs of a lesion on one side of his brain.

·1848: Poe writes in a letter that he has tried to commit suicide.

·1849: En route to Philadelphia from Richmond, where he had arranged to marry Sarah Elmira Royster, Poe stops in Baltimore, where he is found unconscious on the street. He dies four days later on October 7.


Themes and issues

Edgar Allan Poe--author of the "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," vituperative critic, and troubled man--is one of the world's most famous and controversial writers. For works such as "The Raven," which has been called the best-known poem in the Western Hemisphere, he has assumed a place among the popular imagination alongside William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Thomas Malory, author of the most famous Arthurian romance, Le Morte D'Arthur. Responses to him have been more ambivalent in literary circles, however. French writers, particularly Charles Baudelaire, have hailed Poe as a superior genius, and his British and American admirers include George Bernard Shaw, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, and Willa Cather. Somewhat less favorable reactions have come from the American novelist Henry James, who sniped, "An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection" (Clarke 209), and British writer Aldous Huxley, who said: "To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry; we notice the solecism and shudder" (Clarke 251).

Among the general public, Poe is known primarily for his mastery of the Gothic genre. Made popular in the 18th century and early 19th century by British writers such as Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley, Gothic literature has a number of conventions, including evocations of horror, suggestions of the supernatural, and dark, exotic locales such as castles and crumbling mansions. Poe's short stories "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia" are both classic examples of the genre. Poe also has earned a reputation among general readers for his musical poems, such as "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells," and his fascination with death, particularly the death of women--a subject that has been studied by the biographers Kenneth Silverman and Marie Bonaparte, as well as others. Perhaps Poe's most enduring contribution to popular culture has been his invention of the detective story. His chief detective, C. Auguste Dupin, and stories such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" have inspired countless imitators, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Much of Poe's popularity has grown out of a fascination with his peculiar, tortured life. Abandoned by his father while he was still an infant, he lost his mother to tuberculosis before he was three years old. Partially because of his own petulance, he frequently fought with his foster father, John Allan, who withdrew Poe from the University of Virginia before he had completed a year there. While in his mid-20s, he married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm and for the next several years maintained an unusual relationship with Virginia, whom he called "Sissy," and her mother, whom he sometimes treated as his own mother. For several years in the 1840s, he suffered through Virginia's bout with tuberculosis, finally losing her in 1847. Always poor, he continually ruined opportunities for success by embarrassing himself and antagonizing important figures. Several incidents, including a suicide attempt, suggest that Poe suffered from some kind of mental illness, and the modern researcher Kay Redfield Jamison has presented compelling evidence that he was manic-depressive. Even after death, misfortune haunted Poe. Rufus Griswold, an enemy whom Poe curiously had chosen to be his literary executor, wrote a condemnatory obituary, which begins: "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltmore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one of its most brilliant, but erratic stars" (69). In another work, Griswold further tarnished Poe's reputation by misquoting his letters and overplaying Poe's drinking problem, which modern scholars attribute to a low tolerance for alcohol rather than habitual abuse. The physical and mental struggles of this life emerged in fictional form in Poe's highly autobiographical writings. Calling Poe "the hero of all his tales," the critic Roger Asselineau has written: "If Roderick Usher, Egaeus, Metzengerstein, and even Dupin are all alike, if Ligeia, Morella, and Eleonora look like sisters, it is because, whether he consciously wanted to or not, he always takes the story of his own life as a starting point, a rather empty story on the whole since he had mostly lived in his dreams, imprisoned by his neuroses and obsessed by the image of his dead mother" (60). To support this assertion, Asselineau cites Poe's own testimony: "The supposition that the book of the author is a thing apart from the author's Self is, I think, ill-founded" (Asselineau 52).

While literary scholars have analyzed all of these aspects of Poe's work, they have studied many more, as well. Of particular interest is Poe's fascination with psychology. An outspoken admirer of phrenology, a pseudoscience based on the premise that various functions are controlled by specific regions of the brain, he tirelessly explored subjects such as self-destruction, madness, and imagination in works such as "The Imp of the Perverse," "William Wilson," and "Ulalume." If the mind was Poe's favorite place, it should come as no surprise that many of his tales are set there. Stories such as "Ligeia," "Landor's Cottage," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "MS Found in a Bottle," and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym all make more sense when read as journeys into and around the mind rather than accounts of the physical world. Specifically, I have argued in Poe in His Right Mind that Poe had an unusually potent right cerebral hemisphere--which many researchers believe plays an important part in visual imagery, music, emotions, reverie, and self-destructive urges--and tapped the resources of this psychological region to create his extraordinarily powerful works.

Poe's literary criticism, which he produced in great volume as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and other publications, also has attracted attention from scholars. Indeed, Poe is the only major American writer to excel in poetry, fiction, and criticism. In an era when writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier were using literature largely to pursue truth or inculcate morals, Poe argued in "The Poetic Principle" that truth is not the object of literature and condemned what he called "the heresy of The Didactic." Indeed, a close look at Poe's work reveals almost no extended attention to contemporary or even universal social issues, such as community, democracy, slavery, and national identity. Instead, he praised the "poem per se--the poem which is a poem and nothing more--this poem written solely for the poem's sake." "Beauty," he wrote in "The Philosophy of Composition," "is the sole legitimate province of the poem." In his regard for beauty, "effect," and form, Poe anticipated the critical principles of many later writers.


Works

"Al Aaraaf"

"Romance"

"The City in the Sea"

"To Helen"

"Israfel"

"MS. Found in a Bottle"


The narrator discovers the word "DISCOVERY" on a sail. What kinds of discoveries take place in this story?

"Berenice"

"Shadow"

"Ligeia"

"William Wilson"

"The Fall of the House of Usher"

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

"The Descent into the Maelstrom"

"The Masque of the Red Death"

"The Pit and the Pendulum"

"The Gold-Bug"

"The Imp of the Perverse"

"The Black Cat"

"The Balloon Hoax"

"Dream-Land"

"The Raven"

"The Philosophy of Composition"


What does Poe say he is trying to do in his work?

"The Cask of Amontillado"

"Ulalume"

"Hop-Frog"

Eureka

"The Bells"


Bibliography

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Raven."  Performed by Richard Bauer.  Weekend Edition Sunday.  31 October 1999.  National Public Radio.  7 June 2000 <http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm?PrgDate=10/31/1999&PrgID=10>.

Click on "The Raven" while at this site and hear actor Richard Bauer read "The Raven."

“Present At the Creation: ‘The Raven.’” Morning Edition.14 January 2002.National Public Radio.15 January 2002.<http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/me/20020114.me.13.ram>.

This report discusses Poe’s composition of his most famous poem.


© Mark Canada, 1997

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