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Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Kushal Tekwani

Born Edgar Poe, the American poet and literary critique lived a convulsive life from the very beginning. Most of us have heard his name, some of us know him for his works but few know who he was in actuality, and how his life and dealings, or rather; misdealings had a pervading influence on his works. His works range from poetry, essays, short stories, a novel, but he was recognised mainly as a literary critique during his lifetime. Starting off, he often suffered great failure, but his resolve to pursue a career and earnings as a professional writer were stronger than anything else he believed in. However, though he rose to be known by people across the country and by men of letters; that is, certain intellectual men, he never was financially stable which constantly marked his sufferings.

He was born to actor parents in Boston, the American actor David Poe Jr. and the English actress Elizabeth Hopkins. He was abandoned by his father at one and his mother passed away from tuberculosis when he was two. He was deeply affected by this even though he was too young then to realise what had happened. He was taken in by John Allan, a tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia and later the family moved to Britain where he received classical (standard) education. Five years later, he was back in Virginia. While his foster father wanted him to join the tobacco business, he wanted to follow the lines of Lord Byron, his idol and whose work he was inspired from. The last pages of his notebooks had his early scribbled poems, marking the beginning of his journey, clearly against his father's wishes.

While he was enrolled in the University of Virginia, his disdained father provided him with such little to survive on, he had to burn his furniture for warmth. He accumulated a lot of debt due to gambling and alcohol habits and had to be withdrawn. It was at this time when he published his first collection of poems titled “Tamerlane and other poems” which did not receive any attention. His not-so-loving foster father then tried to enroll him at the Military Academy, from where he wanted to escape and so, he consciously acted negligently and missed classes for a week to get expelled, in which he succeeded.

He moved in with his aunt Mrs. Clemm and her daughter Virginia who was 12 at the time and then married her when she was 13. His second collection which was his first commercial publication “Al Aaraf, Tamerlane and other poems” was published, which didn't garner much attention as well. Tamerlane is about the 14th century Mongol conqueror and his quest, where he talks about beyond good and evil and the idea of absolute beauty, which is reflected in his other works like “To Helen” as well.

“The Raven” was published in January, 1845 in the Southern Literary Magazine which made him a household name because of its stylistic writing and musicality. Here he talks about the possibility of life after death for his romantic partner to which the bird - that is, the raven, replies 'Nevermore.' The popularity of this poem can be appraised to the fact that it resonated with both, the layman as well as the literary critiques.

His works were influenced by Lord Byron, Shelly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, who were the pioneers of the romantic movement. It focused on emotions, nature, life, childhood, subjective experience. It grew mainly as a reaction against the industrial age, suppression of individuality and expounding of rationalism. Poe was inspired by the romantics and included a uniqueness of his own, which led to a newer form of writing. His literature is categorised as classic Gothic with themes of horror and death, shadows and moonlights, castles and creeks and also drew from Romanticism as his themes were centred around love, the loss of a loved one, melancholy, extreme detailing and fantasizing aspects of life, much of which arose from the events of his personal life and sufferings.

His work also touched mortifying and psychological insights, especially in his short stories, and he is credited with the introduction of the detective story genre with ”The Murders In Rue Morgue,” which begins with the sentence, 'The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis', where he talks about the method of 'Ratiocination' or deductive reasoning. It had the character of Auguste Dupin, a fictional detective and his sidekick from whom the character of Sherlock Holmes is said to be inspired. His grip on language brought about an eerie, mystical and sometimes love and sometimes frightening emotions to the readers. His writing style wasn't popularised until the 20th century and later on it can be seen in and through the works of Ambrose Beirce and H.P Lovecraft. Lovercraft read Poe at a very early age and found in him his teacher, guide and inspiration. In his letter to Reinhart Kleiner, he writes, ‘Poe was my god of fiction,’ and that ‘when I write, Poe is my model.’ An unknown, sinister and foreign terrain is the common theme in Poe's “The narrative of Arthur Gorgon Pym of Nantucket” and Lovecraft's “At the mountains of madness.” He is also known for his influence on surrealism and symbolism movements.

Despite his literary genius, the copies he sold, his recognition couldn't save him from sufferings, dark days and addictions. For most of his life he'd buffer between sanity and intoxication, insanity and sobriety. He didn't get any inheritance from his foster father after he passed away, and he juggled around for survival. Money was scarce. One of his admirers and perhaps a lifelong friend, John P. Kennedy, a novelist recommended him for the position of assistant editor to Mr. Thomas White in the Southern Literary Magazine where he established himself as a learned literary critique. He joined Burton's Gentleman's Magazine as an assistant editor in 1839 where he published his short horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in September the same year, which is now recognised as an American Gothic masterpiece. He dreamt of starting his own literary journal The Penn renamed The Stylus which never materialized. He then moved to work as an assistant at Graham's Magazine in 1841, a position that was taken up by Griswold, another writer, after Poe moved to New York, and with whom Poe shared a complicated relationship, which included both extreme praises and harsh criticisms of each other's works. Poe then joined the editorial staff at Broadway Journal in New York and later took ownership of it but it ceased publication in January 1846, leaving Poe adrift once again. It is during this period that he published some of his short stories and “The Raven and Other Poems,” the selection and publishing of which was done by a Mr. Evert Duyckinck, biographer and publisher.

Virginia's (his wife) health deteriorated and they shifted to Fordham, New York where he published his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” which describes the process of writing his famed poem “The Raven,” propounding his theory of writing literary works methodically and analytically as opposed to intuition and spontaneity, which basically were the tenets of romantic literature and thus it showcases his shift and evolution of his literary style from that of his predecessors.

On January 30, 1847, Virginia passed away leaving Poe in shambles. “To Helen” was written to woo his love Sarah Helen Whitman, who he fell for after Virginia's death in 1847. They exchanged several letters and poems following which he proposed to her, and while she accepted the proposal, the relationship fell out due to Poe's inchoative alcoholism and reckless behaviour. Poe struggled with the pains of existing and surviving in a material world where his life had never been stable for long. In a letter replying to Ms.Whitman, he writes, "You do not love me, or you would have felt too, thoroughly, a sympathy with the sensitiveness of my nature, to have so wounded me as you have done with this terrible passage of your letter: ‘How often I have heard it said of you, he has great intellectual power, but no principle -- no moral sense.’” He writes that he is incapable of dishonour, except indulging in occasional follies (intoxication) which he laments but is driven by intolerable sorrow.

In a reply to Mr. John Kennedy inviting him to dinner, he writes that he'd be unable to come because of a reason of the most humiliating nature; his personal appearance, and asks for a loan of $20 without which he'll be left to his fate. In another letter to Mr. T.W White, he thanks him for the double loans of $5 and $4.94. In a letter to R.W. Griswold, he accuses Professor Longfellow for plagiarising his “The Haunted Palace” with his own version “Beleaguered City,” both of which speak about the mind haunted by phantoms; that is, a disordered brain. In other letters he talks about being seized by a fit of the industry; working 14 hours a day and also acknowledges the 'unconquerable procrastination' which besets the poet for months. He writes to Mr. Duyckinck, November 13, 1845, “For the first time during two months, I find myself entirely myself - dreadfully sick and depressed, but still myself. I seem to have just awakened from some horrible dream, in which all was confusion and suffering.”

Poe's health was already deteriorating but after Virginia's death, he couldn't put himself together. After a string of romantic affairs, he was supposed to marry Ms. Sarah Shelton in Richmond, after Poe's trip to Philadelphia and New York. Poe made an unplanned stop at Baltimore and his whereabouts were unknown for 5 days where he roamed the streets in delirium. He was found semi-conscious in a bar room of a public house from where the magazine editor and his friend Joseph Snodgrass sent him to Washington College hospital. He died a few days later, while his fiancée got to know about this through the newspaper. A few days after his death, Grisworld, his friend/foe wrote a long defamatory obituary meant to discredit Poe's works. He wrote that Poe was a drunkard with multiple affairs with women, no morals and no real friends. This obituary did the opposite, and the distorted image led readers to explore his works, boosting his sales. His works have been explored by many literary critiques and opinions have been divided. T.S Elliot said his works were of 'pre-adolescent' nature and Aldous Huxley too, dismissed them while Yyur Winters wanted him removed completely from history. However, many saw and admired the greatness of his works among whom were Charles Baudelaire, through whom the literary people in France admired him.

His image and works have been interpreted differently by so many people, it's hard to narrow it down to one account as truth and how he was as a person. In a note to a letter by Poe to Mr. Thomas, a writer and Poe's closest confidante, Mr. Thomas writes, ‘I have seen a great deal of Poe, and it was his excessive, and at times morbid sensibility which forced him into his “frolics,” rather than any mere morbid appetite for drink, but if he took but one glass of weak wine or beer or cider the Rubicon of the cup was passed with him, and it almost always ended in excess and sickness. But he fought against the propensity as hard as ever Coleridge fought against it, and I am inclined to believe, after his sad experience and suffering, if he could have gotten office with a fixed salary, beyond the need of literary labour, that he would have redeemed himself. The accounts of his derelictions in this respect when I knew him were very much exaggerated.’ And after all, what Byron said of Sheridan, was also true of Poe --

"Ah little do they know

That what to them seemed vice might be but woe"

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