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Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849).

poet, short-story writer, critic. Poe was the son of a talented actress, Elizabeth Arnold, and her second husband, David Poe, Jr., an actor and the son of a prominent officer in the Revolution. Orphaned in Richmond late in 1811, Poe was taken into the home of John Allan, a wealthy merchant. Allan, who regarded the boy as a genius, became his godfather but did not formally adopt him. The Allan family went to England in 1815, where Poe attended the classical academy of Dr. John Bransby at Stoke Newington. In the summer of 1820 the family returned to Richmond, where the boy entered the school of Joseph H. Clarke and composed a number of verses in honor of local schoolgirls. These are lost, but a satire, written when Poe was enrolled at the school of William Burke in 1823 and 1824, has survived.

Poe fell in love with Elmira Royster and was secretly engaged when he went to the University of Virginia in February 1826, but the engagement came to nothing, for her family intercepted the letters of the pair, and shortly thereafter arranged for her to be married to Alexander Barrett Shelton of Richmond. At the University Poe stood high in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, but remained only one term; apparently Allan had refused Poe spending money, and the young man gambled in hopes of raising funds. When Poe went into debt, Allan withdrew his godson from the university. Tales of Poe's heavy drinking at that time are probably exaggerated, since Poe was constitutionally unable to tolerate liquor, and even small amounts often had disastrous effects on him.

On his return to Richmond Poe quarreled with his godfather and ran away to Boston, where he arranged for his first volume, <IR> TAMERLANE AND OTHER POEMS </IR> (1827), to be published anonymously. SOme of the poems concerned his unhappy love affair with Elmira Royster; the best one, "The Lake," is about the legends told of the Lake of the Dismal Swamp, near Norfolk. Poe was unable to find employment, and, in desperate financial straits, enlisted in the army under the name Edgar A. Poe. He was sent to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, the scene of his later story, "The Gold Bug." He wrote to Allan, asking him to help secure his release from the army, but Allan refused until the death of his wife, who pleaded Poe's cause on her deathbed. Allan sent for Poe on the condition that Poe enter West Point, and the two were reconciled, at least temporarily.

Poe published another volume, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems ( <IR> see AL AARAAF </IR> ), in Baltimore in 1829. Included is "Fairyland," an archly humorous poem owing something to A Midsummer Night's Dream and entirely unlike anything else Poe wrote. He returned to Richmond and quarreled again with John Allan before entering West Point in the summer of 1830. When Allan remarried in October of that year, it was apparent to Poe that he could expect little further aid from that quarter; shortly thereafter, Allan disowned him because of a disparaging remark made by Poe in a letter that Allan was given. With no immediate financial resources and no hope of any from the Allan family, Poe set about getting himself expelled from West Point.

Poe came to New York, where he published Poems (1831). The preface to this volume shows he took an interest in Coleridge's critical theories, by which some critics feel Poe was influenced. Others find in Poe a kinship to Byron, Moore, and Shelley alone among the great romantics. The influence of the Baltimore lyrist, Edward Coote Pinckney, also seems sure. But Poe was already much his own man, as is evidenced in the great brief lyric <IR> TO HELEN </IR> , in <IR> ISRAFEL </IR> , and in "The Sleeper," a macabre verse of which the poet was curiously fond. The two strange landscapes, <IR> THE CITY IN THE SEA </IR> , which describes the ruins of Gomorrah, and the "Valley of Unrest," about the Hebrides, show great originality.

Poe went to Baltimore and began to write short stories. Some of these, submitted in a prize contest, were published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832. In 1833 the <IR> MS. FOUND IN A BOTTLE </IR> won a $50 prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter and brought Poe some national recognition. He set to work on a play, <IR> POLITIAN </IR> , which he never finished. Through the novelist <IR> JOHN P. KENNEDY </IR> he established a connection with the <IR> SOUTHERN LITERARY MESSENGER </IR> of Richmond, became its assistant editor and then, in December 1835, its editor. He urged high literary standards, and during his editorship the Messenger's subscription list increased from 500 to over 3,500. However, his castigations of unimportant books led to literary quarrels from which he was never to be free thereafter. Meanwhile Poe's aunt, Mrs. Maria Poe Clemm, with whom he had lived in Baltimore, arranged a marriage there in September between Poe and her daughter Virginia, who was then only thirteen years old ( <IR> see VIRGINIA CLEMM </IR> .) The couple lived for two years as brother and sister, but the marriage led to some social disapproval. Virginia was a devoted and sometimes a tolerant wife, but "never read half" of her husband's poetry. During her life Poe addressed no poems to her. He was apparently very much attached to Mrs. Clemm, who was the mainstay of the family during their long bouts of poverty and Virginia's illness. Poe wrote for her his charming sonnet "To My Mother" (1849).

For the Messenger Poe wrote <IR> BERENICE </IR> and <IR> MORELLA </IR> , as well as "Hans Pfaal," a comic tale of a voyage to the moon. ( <IR> See THE UNPARALLELED ADVENTURES OF ONE HANS PFAAL </IR> .) Two poems, "Bridal Ballad" and "To Zante," may have related to a meeting with his first love, Elmira Royster, now Mrs. Shelton. Poe also began a serial, "Arthur Gordon Pym" ( <IR> see THE NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM </IR> ), installments of which appeared in January and February of 1837; however, he then resigned from the Messenger and came to New York, where he published the complete serial as a book in 1838. An account of sea adventures based on fact, The Narrative is a grotesque and imaginative tale that ends in wildly incredible scenes near the South Pole. It was greatly admired by Baudelaire, though Poe himself called it a silly book.

In the summer of 1838 Poe was in Philadelphia, helping a Professor Thomas Wyatt bring out two books on natural history. Finally he became an editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in May 1839. The magazine was owned by the comedian <IR> WILLIAM E. BURTON </IR> , with whom Poe remained until they quarreled in June of 1840. Poe had plans for a magazine of his own to be called, punningly, the Penn, and later the Stylus. Beyond several prospectuses, the last in 1848, nothing came of the Stylus. He also solved ciphers in a paper called Alexander's Weekly Messenger and wrote miscellaneous papers, including a few news articles. In the Saturday Evening Post for May 1, 1841, Poe predicted the ending of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge from the first chapters.

George R. Graham bought Burton out and established <IR> GRAHAM'S MAGAZINE </IR> in December of 1840. Poe became an editor in charge of reviews with the April issue, and remained until May 1842. As had been the case with the Southern Literary Messenger, the circulation of the magazine increased dramatically while Poe was associated with it.

Although <IR> TALES OF THE GROTESQUE AND ARABESQUE </IR> (1840), containing twenty-five pieces, sold badly, Poe was busy with short stories and produced some of his masterpieces. <IR> THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE </IR> was in Graham's for April 1841; if not the first <IR> DETECTIVE STORY </IR> , that story set the form. Poe was also to invent almost all the species of the genus. He made an attempt, not wholly successful, to solve a real crime in <IR> THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET </IR> in 1842; he dismissed the crime itself as of no interest in <IR> THE PURLOINED LETTER </IR> (1844); and in the same year he wrote the little-read "Thou Art the Man," the first story in which the criminal is at first undetected because he looks like a wholly respectable person. His other notable stories written between 1838 and 1843 include <IR> LIGEIA </IR> , <IR> THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER </IR> , <IR> WILLIAM WILSON </IR> , the enigmatic <IR> ELEONORA </IR> , <IR> THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH </IR> , <IR> THE TELL-TALE HEART </IR> , <IR> THE BLACK CAT </IR> , <IR> THE PREMATURE BURIAL </IR> , and the most popular of all, <IR> THE GOLD BUG </IR> , perhaps the greatest of all tales of buried treasure.

Misfortune struck the Poe household in January of 1842 when Virginia broke a blood vessel while singing. Her life was despaired of, and although she recovered somewhat, her health continued to be poor until her death from tuberculosis five years later.

Poe met Charles Dickens in Philadelphia in 1842 and hoped, vainly, to form some connection in England through him. Poe was also in correspondence with <IR> JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL </IR> ; they met in 1845 and did not like each other. In April 1844 Poe, with Virginia, Mrs. Clemm, and the celebrated pet, Cat-erina, came to New York. He sold his <IR> BALLOON-HOAX </IR> to the New York Sun and went to work on the genial Major Mordecai M. Noah's paper, the Sunday Times. In October he joined N.P. Willis and General George P. Morris on the new "paper for the upper ten thousand," the Evening Mirror. He lived for a time "in the country" (near what is now Eighty-seventh Street and Broadway), and there wrote a final draft of <IR> THE RAVEN </IR> . After it was rejected by Graham, it was sold to George H. Colton for pseudonymous publication in the February issue of a new magazine, the American Review. Willis saw it in proof and published it in the Mirror on January 29, 1845, with an enthusiastic introduction and the author's name. Success was instantaneous. "Mr. Poe the poet" was to be permanently world famous.

He became an editor of a weekly paper, the Broadway Journal, and published a series of papers on Longfellow's "plagiarisms"--although Poe meant only that Longfellow was a derivative poet. He lectured on poetry at the Society Library. He met Mrs. <IR> FRANCES SARGENT OSGOOD </IR> (temporarily separated, though not publicly, from her husband), and fell in love with her--perhaps platonically, and in any case with Virginia's approval. He also frequented the salon of Anne Charlotte Lynch, later Mrs. Botta. And he was pursued by Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellet, a woman of bad character--vain, ambitious only of reputation, and given to writing anonymous letters. This all led to complicated quarrels that may be left to the major biographers. He published The Raven and Other Poems and a selection of a dozen of his Tales. He went to Boston to lecture, became drunk, and read his poem "Al Aaraaf," which the audience found baffling, although T.W. Higginson testified to its beauty. He became the sole proprietor of the Broadway Journal, in which he published revised versions of most of his stories. But the paper collapsed, the last issue being that of January 3, 1846.

At the advice of the eccentric through melodious poet, Dr. <IR> THOMAS HOLLEY CHIVERS </IR> , he moved again from the city to the cottage at Fordham, his last home. He published <IR> THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION </IR> in Graham's Magazine in April 1846. For Godey's Lady's Book he wrote a series of papers called <IR> THE LITERATI OF NEW YORK </IR> , most of which were innocuous; however, one on Dr. <IR> THOMAS DUNN ENGLISH </IR> , with whom Poe had had a fist fight (remotely connected with Mrs. Ellet and Mrs. Osgood), led to bitter controversy. Poe ultimately sued for libel and won his case, but at the expense of all reputation for sobriety or reliability. Godey gave up the Literati series, but printed <IR> THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO </IR> , a story of revenge now thought to be in part inspired by the author's own bitter quarrels. The story is ironic--a villain murders his enemy and is not found out, but at the end he realizes that the victim has rested in peace, while he has not.

Early in 1847 Virginia died. Poe was also very ill and was nursed by Mrs. Clemm and Mrs. Marie Louise Shew; the latter was the daughter of a physician and had been trained as one at home. To her Poe wrote several poems; one, "The Beloved Physician," of some length, is lost save for ten lines. She is supposed to have suggested <IR> THE BELLS </IR> to him. Mrs. Shew consulted Dr. Valentine Mott about her patient; she was told Poe had had a brain lesion in youth and would not live long. The lesion is thought to have produced manic and depressive periods, which might account for some of Poe's wild freaks and for occasional references to his being kept under sedation. All medical men who knew the poet or have studied his case agree that he did not use drugs habitually. The poet's one important work of 1847 was <IR> ULALUME </IR> .

Early in 1848 Poe gave a lecture on the universe, which was revised as a book, <IR> EUREKA </IR> . In September he went to Providence and became engaged to the local poet <IR> SARAH HELEN WHITMAN </IR> , to whom he had written a second "To Helen" (now sometimes called "To Helen Whitman") before their meeting. This affair produced a number of impassioned and literary letters, but soon ended. Poe had visited Lowell, Massachusetts, in July and lectured on the "Poetic Principle"; while in Lowell he first met Mrs. Annie Richmond, with whom he fell in love. In 1849 he addressed to her a long poem, "For Annie," ascribing his recovery from illness to the thought of the beloved lady's presence.

Poe began to write for the Boston Flag of Our Union, a cheap paper that paid well. To it he sent his last horror story, "Hop-Frog," his sonnet "To My Mother," and the short poem "Eldorado," which is about a search for beauty rather than gold. Poe also found a patron, Sarah (or Estelle) Anna Lewis, who employed him as her press agent. Poe and Mrs. Clemm spent a good deal of time visiting the Lewis home in Brooklyn.

Late in June of 1849, after having composed a final version of "The Bells" and <IR> ANNABEL LEE </IR> , Poe went south. He had a horrible spree in Philadelphia, but was rescued by C. Chauncey Burr, a minor writer, and John Sartain, the engraver who now ran the Union Magazine. They sent the poet to Richmond, where he had a happy summer, becoming engaged again to the sweetheart of his youth, the widowed Elmira Royster Shelton. He was also received in society and enjoyed the friendship of the young poet Susan Archer Talley, later Mrs. Weiss. Poe lectured both in Richmond and Norfolk. He went on two spress, however, and on August 27 joined the Sons of Temperance.

Late in September he started for the North by boat and arrived in Baltimore probably on the twenty-eighth. There, according to Bishop O.P. Fitzgerald, he attended a birthday party, pledged his hostess in wine, and went on a spree. His whereabouts are unknown from then until October 3, an election day, when he was found in great distress by a compositor, Joseph W. Walker. The story that he had been taken, drunken or drugged, to polling places by "repeaters" is a hoax, though widely related. Friends brought him to the Washington Hospital where, under the care of Dr. John J. Moran (who later published overcolored reminiscences), he died without ever becoming completely conscious. The last words attributed to him, "Lord, help my poor soul," seem to be authentic. He was buried in what is now Westminister Churchyard on October 8, 1849, where a monument to him was erected in 1875. Mrs. Clemm and her daughter now rest beside him.

Poe was primarily and by choice a poet. He held three important ideas besides his insistence on brevity: poetry is close to music, beauty is the chief aim of poetry, and a poem may be composed logically ( <IR> see THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION </IR> ). He was deeply interested in prosody and other technical aspects of verse, and published on the subject The Rationale of Verse (October and November 1848, in issues of the Southern Literary Messenger).

For reasons of economic necessity, Poe wrote little verse between 1831 and 1845, concentrating instead on the tales. Nevertheless, <IR> THE HAUNTED PALACE </IR> , an allegory of madness, and <IR> THE CONQUEROR WORM </IR> , the most pessimistic yet the most powerful of all his poems, belong to this period. With the sudden recognition brought by the publication of "The Raven" in 1845, he turned more to poetry. In the last years of his life he wrote the cheerful short lyric "Eulalie"; "The Bells," which had been begun by Mrs. Shew; "For Annie," the simplest of his ballads; and the courageous brief lyric "Eldorado."

Poe cared less for his tales than for his poems. Nevertheless, he had a firm and workable theory about the short story, which he expounded in his review <IR> GRAHAM'S MAGAZINE </IR> , April-May 1842) of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. A skillful literary artist, said Poe, does not fashion his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, "but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. . . . In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design." He insisted on unity of mood as well as of time, space, and action. Poe is credited with the invention of the modern detective story with its amateur detective. He was similarly original in his version of the treasure hunt, "The Gold Bug," particularly in his introduction of a cryptogram.

Although Poe fancied his humorous work, the best of it is too much taken up

with the faults and foibles of the world around him. "Some Words with a Mummy," for instance, deals with a brief American fad for Egyptology, and "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob," the best of the humorous tales, was a satire on the magazines of his day. Both are too dated to give pleasure to any but a few students of the period. He also wrote a gentle little love story, "Three Sundays in a Week," but his great stories, beyond any doubt, are the tales of horror, ratiocination, or pure beauty. The style of Poe's stories progressed from highly decorated and elaborate, as in <IR> THE ASSIGNATION </IR> , to straightforwardly simple, as in <IR> THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE </IR> and "Hop-Frog." He said that the stories of pure beauty, most notably <IR> THE DOMAIN OF ARNHEIM </IR> , had in them much of his soul. Toward the end of his life he remarked that he thought he had accomplished his purpose in poetry, but that he saw new possibilities in prose. These were almost certainly in the realm of pure beauty. Besides the books of criticism mentioned above, there is a great deal extant of Poe's work as a day-to-day critic. Much of it is about works that came unchosen to a reviewer's table. It often contains keen remarks of great significance, although too much of it is devoted to the examination of flies in amber.

Poe had a tremendous influence abroad. His special kind of poetry was echoed by Tennyson, Swinburne, and Rossetti; his stories influenced Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Huysmans, and many others. It was in France that Poe's influence attained its widest range, largely owing to the deep respect of Baudelaire for Poe's poems, stories, and aesthetic theories. Between 1856 and 1864 Baudelaire wrote three articles on Poe and translated, with singular felicity, several of his works. Lois and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., translated and edited Baudelaire on Poe (1952), which contains Baudelaire's three major essays and various prefaces and notes. Mallarme, Valery, and Rimbaud, as well as the whole flock of Parnassians, symbolists, and surrealists, exhibit the influence of Poe. ( <IR> See SYMBOLISM </IR> .) Covering the entire range of influence is a volume on Poe in Foreign Lands and Tongues (1941), edited by John C. French.

Poe was given to telling romantic stories of himself, and the construction of an accurate biography has been fraught with the greatest difficulties. The first formal biographer, <IR> R.W. GRISWOLD </IR> , published in the Works a memoir (1850) that was bitterly unfriendly to the poet but cannot be wholly neglected. In 1859 <IR> SARAH HELEN WHITMAN </IR> published Edgar Poe and His Critics, the first full-length defense of her fiance. In 1885 appeared <IR> GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY </IR> 's valuable Edgar Allan Poe (rev. ed. 2 v. 1909). In 1926 <IR> HERVEY ALLEN </IR> published <IR> ISRAFEL </IR> , widely read but nevertheless misleading; it was begun as a novel, and the author never completely eliminated all fictional passages. The first accurate scholarly biography of Poe was <IR> ARTHUR HOBSON QUINN </IR> 's Edgar Allan Poe (1941), though it is too much for the defense to be wholly satisfactory. He also prepared in collaboration with R.H. Hart an edition of Edgar Allan Poe Letters and Documents in the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Other biographies are Edward Wagenknecht's Edgar Allen Poe: the Man Behind the Legend (1963) and Julian Symons, The Life and Works of Edgar Allen Poe (1978).

Most of the many editions of Poe's works are founded on Griswold's (1849-56). Ingram's edition (1874-75) made a few additions to the canon, as did that of Stedman and Woodberry (1895). The only edition that even approached completeness was the seventeen-volume work (1902) of James A. Harrison. T.O. Mabbott edited the poems, tales, and sketches in a three-volume Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe (1969-1978).

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Author:Mabbott, Thomas Ollive; Perkins, Barbara
Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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