Puzzling Poe


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 9: Puzzling Poe
Oct. 14-18, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Edgar Allan Poe, A.B. Longstreet, and William Cullen Bryant.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Poe’s poetry, fiction, and criticism.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Edgar Allan Poe,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” “To Helen,” and “The Philosophy of Composition.”



Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), explicate “To Helen.”

Presentation:Puzzling Poe (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Effect: Use Poe’s description of his method in “The Philosophy of Composition” to analyze “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Mind: How does Poe depict aspects of human psychology in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven”?

Form: Explain how Poe uses imagery, allusion, and other formal devices to convey meaning and achieve effects.

Presentations: A.B. Longstreet (Jerry Bittle); William Cullen Bryant (Brandi Cutler)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Citing evidence from stories by both Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, describe the genre of the short story.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • Gothic
  • narrator
  • criticism


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the resource listed below:

All American: Edgar Allan Poe features a chronology, study questions, and more.

Updated October 11, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In this lesson, we continue our look at American Romanticism with a study of one of America’s most famous writers, Edgar Allan Poe.


Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849

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.


In our next lesson, we will look at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer whose work in some ways resembles Poe’s work.