Thursday, January 19, 2017

Edgar Allan Poe and Alcohol by Ferdinand Cowle Idlehart 1917

Edgar Allan Poe and Alcohol by Ferdinand Cowle Idlehart 1917

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{This author repeatedly states that Poe died in 1859, but he actually died in 1849)

Poe was in a class by himself in temperament, life and song. He was, perhaps, the greatest native poetic genius of all the group, and one of the greatest any nation ever had. The imagination, the creative faculty, the one that pictures and rhymes and sings, he possessed in so large a degree that there was no limit to the heights to which he soared when he felt most free. In keen, clear, intense lyrical quality his best songs have seldom been surpassed. His two volumes of short tales were up to the highest literary standard, and have furnished and have been taken as models for the story-writers of France for the past sixty years.

Poe was the only one of the great American poets who toyed with intoxicants and was ruined by them. The smoke of the distillery and brewery settled down as a cloud upon him, and many of the things he wrote in poetry and prose were darkened with misery and hopeless gloom, prophecies of the tragedy to follow. Did not his habit steadily, almost insensibly at first, but surely, build about him a cage against which he wounded the wings of his great soul, and against the bars of which he threshed out his precious life?

One of the best literary authorities has this to say of the effect of Poe's drinking habits upon his professional career. "His brilliant and well-known ability readily procured him employment, and his frantic habits of dissipation, with the regularity of a natural law, insured his early and ignominious dismissal."

In 1835 Poe was made editor of the Literary Messenger, in Richmond, with the promise of a good income and opportunity to redeem his name from the youthful follies and sins that had disgraced it, but his habit was so strong and will so weak that he went on frequent sprees, for which the owner of the paper discharged him. He wrote a letter with a pitiful plea for reinstatement, and the publisher sent back this reply: "That you are sincere in all your promises I firmly believe, but when once again you tread these streets, I have my fears that your resolution will fail and that you will drink again till your senses are lost. If you rely on your own strength, you are gone. Unless you look to your Maker for help you will not be safe. How much I regretted parting from you is known to Him only and to myself. I had become attached to you. I am still. I would willingly say return, did not a knowledge of your past life make me dread a speedy renewal of our separation. You have fine talents, Edgar, and you ought to have them respected as well as yourself. Separate yourself from the bottle and from bottle companions forever."

But he did not take the advice of this good man, did not give up the bottle nor bottle companions; he did not lean on God for help, but floundered, the mighty genius that he was, in the mire, a slave of evil habit. A biographer says he became so besotted that he sold the memoir of his beautiful wife whom he loved devotedly to get money to buy rum to drown his sorrow.

In 1859, realizing what a fearful wreck he was, and knowing that he would soon fill a drunkard's grave if he did not reform, he did what he had so often done before, resolved to quit drinking; and to help his resolution he joined a temperance society and took a pledge of total abstinence, which he kept for six months, to the joy of his friends and himself. Sobered up as he was, with a new start for life, he became engaged to marry a wealthy widow of Richmond, Virginia, whom he had loved in his youth. He went to Baltimore to make some preparations for his wedding, and there met some of his old convivial friends, who carried him away on a carousal which left him dead drunk in the gutter, from which he was carried to the Marine Hospital of that city. Awakening out of his drunken stupor, he opened his eyes widely and said, "Where am I?" The physician replied, "You are cared for by your best friends." With a look of insufferable weariness and inexpressible agony he answered, "My best friend would be the man who would blow out my brains." In four days after, on Sunday, October 7, 1859, he died.

Edgar Allan Poe died at forty years of age, with a life only fairly begun! What a sad commentary on the alcoholized times that were as much to blame as he for his ruin! If the trend of his environment could have been toward temperance and piety, and his will could have had better help to withstand the temptations of appetite, it is possible he would have lived to threescore years and ten, as all of his contemporary poets did, and sung sweet and marvelous songs all that time to bless his fellows in our own land and throughout the world.

What a glorious group of veterans his contemporaries were! Lowell lived to be seventy-three; Longfellow to be seventy-five; Bryant to be eighty-four; Whittier and Holmes each to be eighty-five.

It is mere speculation, and yet it is possible that Poe was made by nature to be the great American ideal poet, matching and expressing the magnificences everywhere else, and that the drink habit hindered and dwarfed him, cut his life short. If with his creative genius he could have had the abstinence of a Whittier and the religion of a Longfellow, whom he so mercilessly lashed in his criticisms, he might have measured up to the demands of so mighty a nation and been crowned as its poet laureate. Since Poe, under his fearful handicaps of drink and brief life of misery, could secure such a permanent place in literature, to what an eminence might he have been elevated, on what a throne of power might he have been seated, and what a scepter of authority might he have wielded, had he been free from those handicaps, free to soar and sing through a generation and generations to come?

The poet for whom the great America has looked has not appeared. God will send him in his own good time. In poetic genius, righteousness, truth, love and faith a giant like those of classic story, whose feet were on the earth and whose head was among the stars, and yet a charming minstrel, whose lyre will be sweet enough and strong enough to be heard by the millions of all nations and by the centuries to come.

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