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Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), though descended on his father's side from a distinguished Maryland family, once called himself a Bostonian because he was born in the city of Boston; but he was reared in the South, and he usually designated himself as a Southerner, and he is generally so regarded. His genius, however, knew no restrictions of territory; in fact, Poe is perhaps the most universally detached of all our poets. His father, David Poe, was educated for the law, but a predilection for the stage led him to join a traveling theatrical troupe before he built up a practice. In this troupe he met Mrs. C. D. Hopkins, a talented English actress whose maiden name was Elizabeth Arnold. Shortly after the death of Mr. Hopkins, who was manager of the company, David Poe married the widow. Of the three children—two boys and a girl—born to David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, Edgar was the second son.
How Poe fell in with the Allans. The life of these strolling actors was a hard one. The family was forced to travel from city to city in order to earn a livelihood, which was at best precarious. It seems that the mother was depended upon to support the family, for David Poe was not a successful actor. Mrs. Poe was filling an engagement in Boston at the time of Edgar's birth, January 19, 1809. Her husband died about 1810, and in 1811 she found herself in the city of Richmond, Virginia, helpless and stricken with illness. An appeal in the Richmond newspapers brought material relief; but Mrs. Poe was beyond human aid, and within a few days she died. The children, thus left alone, were cared for by various persons. Edgar had attracted the attention of Mrs. John Allan, the wife of a well-to-do tobacco merchant, and he was taken into her childless home and rechristened Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe's education. The boy was an extremely bright and handsome child, and his precocity attracted much attention. Mr. and Mrs. Allan became devotedly attached to their ward and lavished on him all that partiality could suggest or wealth supply. In 1815 Mr. Allan moved temporarily to England to establish there a branch house for his firm. Edgar, who accompanied his foster parents, attended an English boarding school near London. In the story of "William Wilson" Poe gives many reminiscences of his school life there. After five years in England the Allans returned to Richmond, and Edgar was placed in a private school. In 1826 he was sent to the University of Virginia. Here he made a brilliant record in the languages and in mathematics, but he indulged in drinking and gambling and was removed from the university within a year.
Poe goes to Boston: "Tamerlane." Then began the period of wandering and unhappiness brought about by his perverse disposition. Mr. Allan, whose patience had already been sorely tried, took Poe into his office, feeling it would be better for the boy to earn his own living; whereupon Poe, who was now about eighteen years old, left home to seek his fortune in Boston. Here he succeeded in getting a publisher for his first slender volume of verses, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827, but little is known of his movements during the time he was in Boston.
Poe's military experience. The next we hear of Poe, he had enlisted, under the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry, as a private in the United States Army. He remained in the army for nearly two years, being promoted to the post of sergeant major. Part of the time he was stationed at the arsenal of Fort Moultrie, on an island in Charleston Harbor. Here he gained the local color for his famous story, "The Gold Bug," written some years later. Poe now began to feel the folly of his breach with his foster parents, and on hearing that Mrs. Allan was critically ill he made application for a permit to visit Richmond, in order that he might see her before her death. A partial reconciliation followed between him and Mr. Allan, who secured Poe's release from the army, and with the aid of influential friends obtained for him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. But the perversity of the young man's nature again asserted itself, and in less than a year he began to tire of life at West Point.
He deliberately neglected his duties until he had accumulated demerits enough to cause his dismissal.
The 1831 edition of his poems. Before he entered West Point, another edition of his poems, containing some new matter, had been published; and in 1831 still another was brought out. This volume contained the first draft of some of Poe's most famous poems, notably "To Helen" and "Israfel," which are now universally recognized as masterpieces in the pure lyric.
Poe's first stories. Mr. Allan had married again by this time, and Poe, finding that he had no longer any hope of a reconciliation with his foster parent, now turned to his father's relatives for help and sympathy. He made various attempts to secure employment, but was unsuccessful. In 1833 he won with his "MS. Found in a Bottle" the fifty-dollar prize offered by The Baltimore Saturday Visitor for the best short story submitted. Poe sent in several stories and poems, and won two prizes, the second being twenty-five dollars for the best poem; but the judges refused to give both prizes to one competitor.
His marriage: editor of "The Southern Literary Messenger." It was at this period of his life that Poe's love for his cousin, Virginia Clemm, sprang up. She was a beautiful girl twelve or thirteen years of age at the time, and Poe desired even then to make her his wife. In 1835, when he had secured regular employment as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Mrs. Clemm moved to that city, and Poe and Virginia were married, the latter being then not quite fourteen years old. Poe had a fixed salary now, and his success seemed assured. His articles, stories, and poems were attracting wide notice, and the circulation of the Messenger was rapidly increasing. But in 1837, perhaps on account of his irregular habits, he retired from the editorship which he had so acceptably filled for a year or more.
Other editorial positions: more short stories. Other editorial schemes were now tried. Poe went first to New York, then to Philadelphia, and did some literary hack work. In 1839 he obtained an editorial position on Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, but within a year he severed his connection with this periodical. He published in 1839 a volume of short stories called Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque. This volume brought him no money, but it broadened his fame. In 1841 he became editor of Graham's Magazine, and within a few months the circulation of this periodical increased from five thousand to thirty-seven thousand. Poe was now publishing some of his most original short stories, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Masque of the Red Death," and others. In 1842 the erratic editor of Graham's Magazine was supplanted by R. W. Griswold. The story goes that Poe disappeared for a few days, as was his peculiar custom, and when he returned to the office he found Griswold seated in the editorial chair. Without waiting for explanations, Poe turned on his heel and left the office. He continued, however, to be a contributor to this periodical.
"The Raven." Other ventures in editorial work and original schemes for founding an independent magazine occupied Poe at this time, but he seems never to have been able to put his plans into operation or to get on in the world. He gained wide fame through "The Raven," which was published in 1845, and a new edition of his verses with this poem leading in the title was issued in the fall of the same year. The next year, he took up his residence in the famous cottage at Fordham, near New York City. Here he tried to make a living by his contributions to various magazines, but he was continually yielding to his taste for drink and the use of opium. His young wife was desperately ill, his own health failed, and the whole family, including Mrs Clemm, his mother-in-law, was for a time dependent upon public charity.
Poe's last days. In 1847 his young wife died. From this time on to the end of his life, Poe seems to have been a brokenhearted and hopeless man. Once or twice he made a real effort to throw off the terrible gloom and the distressing habits which had gained such a grip on him. His genius had not yet been exhausted, for he produced in these last years some of his most exquisite lyric poems, such as "Ulalume," "The Bells," and "Annabel Lee." He was unable to make a living, however. He tried to earn something by lecturing, but he failed to attract an audience in New York. He then went South, and here he met with more success. At Richmond his friends rallied to his support, and in a benefit lecture he realized about fifteen hundred dollars. He intended to return to New York, where Mrs. Clemm was anxiously waiting to hear from him and learn his plans, but he never reached that city. Mystery hangs about his last days. No one knows what happened to him after he left Richmond on September 30, 1849. When his friends found him three days later, he was lying unconscious in a saloon which had been used as one of the ward polling places in a city election at Baltimore. The physician who attended him, and had him taken to Washington Hospital, testified that Poe was not drunk but drugged. The theory now generally accepted is that he fell into the hands of a corrupt electioneering gang, was drugged and robbed, and then carried around from polling place to polling place and made to vote under false names. On Sunday morning, October 7, 1849, the ill-starred poet passed quietly away.
Estimate of Poe's character. Such was the life of the most erratic and most unfortunate of all American men of letters. There are those who condemn Poe as an ingrate, a degenerate, a reprobate; but those more charitably inclined consider him an unfortunate son of genius who was unable, from his very nature, to control his actions. That he was unreliable, erratic, intemperate, his most ardent admirers will not deny. That he was dishonest, immoral, or licentious, his enemies will hesitate to affirm. That he was his own worst enemy, all will readily admit. His life is one to "point a moral or adorn a tale."
Classification of Poe's works. Poe's literary output clearly falls under three important headings,— namely, (1) his literary criticism, (2) his poetry, and (3) his short stories.
Poe as a critic. Poe is far and away the most important American literary critic of the first half of the nineteenth century. Of course much of his criticism is ephemeral, being made up for the most part of hastily written book reviews and general editorial and journalistic work contributed under pressure to the various magazines with which he was connected. He had a very keen critical sense and very definite critical principles, however, and on various occasions in set essays or lectures he enunciated these principles in such form as to make them of permanent value. For example, in writing a review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in 1842, he set forth very succinctly his theory of the short story, and his ideas have proved of such importance as to make this review a locus classicus in the criticism of this popular form of modern literary art.
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned 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. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no words written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
In his lecture on "The Poetic Principle" and in his essay entitled "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe has similarly expounded his theories on the composition of poetry. He asserted that to produce the proper emotional effect a poem should not be primarily didactic or moral in aim, that is, its main aim should not be to teach a lesson or inculcate a moral; and it should not be unduly long or unduly brief. A long poem, he contended, is a contradiction of terms, for if the emotional tension is continued beyond a certain point it becomes painful rather than pleasurable, and thus the whole aim of poetry, which, according to Poe, is to give pleasure through the rhythmical creation of beauty, would be completely vitiated or destroyed. Similarly if a poem is so condensed as to become epigrammatic or too highly intellectualized, it precludes the pleasurable emotion which is essential to the poetic mood. He also held that sadness is an essential element in the highest poetic beauty and that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical of ah themes. In "The Philosophy of Composition" Poe professes to explain in detail, by way of example, his own method of procedure in composing "The Raven," his most popular poem. Poe's theories of poetry are not to be accepted absolutely, because they are too narrow and confined in their point of view to be applied universally. In all fairness, however, it must be admitted that in his own compositions Poe succeeded admirably in vindicating his theories.
Poe's poetry. There are many critics, both at home and abroad, who esteem Poe as the greatest poetical genius produced in America. Unquestionably his lyrics possess a peculiarly haunting, mysterious, illusive, romantic beauty. Unquestionably, also, his poetry is unique and original in tone, subject-matter, and conception. Though he was strongly influenced by Byron, Hood, Coleridge, Shelley, and Tennyson among English poets, he disdained mere servile imitation, and he now and again essayed to invent an entirely new rhythmic form, as in the case of the original stanza employed in "The Raven." Poe's theories of poetry, as explained above, were apparently made to fit his own practice. He wrote no poetry of a strictly epic character, he was not successful in his attempts at dramatic poetry, nor did he write any very long poems. But in the briefer lyric forms he admirably fulfilled his own theories. His best poems are literally "the rhythmic creation of beauty." They are rich in musical effects, brought about by the use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, double and frequently repeated rimes, the refrain, or the repetend, and other musical devices. He is particularly happy in the invention and adaptation of proper names of a highly musical quality, such, for example, as Lenore, Eulalie, Annabel Lee, Ulalume, Ligeia, Israfel, Al Aaraaf, Auber, Yaanek. In his poetry as also in his prose tales he often strikes the solemn and lugubrious note of death, mystery, and the tomb, and the plaintive tone of unfulfilled desire and aspiration. He has filled his pages with wistful, mystical, ethereal figures, like flitting spirits from another world. A veil of romantic imagination is draped over all that he wrote, and his most characteristic productions are tinged with a quality of weirdness, melancholy, and unsatisfied longing thoroughly in harmony with his conception of what the highest poetry should be. Among his best poems for young readers to study in order to discover for themselves these qualities are "The Raven," "The Bells," "Eldorado," "Annabel Lee," "To Helen," "Israfel," "The Haunted Palace," "The Sleeper," "The City in the Sea," "The Coliseum."
Classification of Poe's short stories. Poe's most distinctive service to our literature is the work he did in developing and standardizing the short story as a distinct literary form. He not only laid down the strict canons for the structure of the modern short story, but he showed conclusively in his own practice the soundness and correctness of these canons. He was not the first of American short-story writers, for Irving and Hawthorne preceded him in the writing of excellent short narratives which must be admitted into the modern art form known as the short story. But he certainly was the first to conceive the essential elements of this type of literary art, and he left the stamp of his own genius so distinctly upon it that his influence has been far greater than that of either of his distinguished predecessors. Of the many classifications of Poe's stories, perhaps the simplest and most easily remembered is the one which groups them into two principal classes and one subordinate class: (1) the analytical stories, or as he himself -called them, the stories of ratiocination, including the strictly analytical stories like "The Gold Bug" and the detective stories, and the less important pseudo-scientific stories dealing with curious natural phenomena; and (2) the stories of horror and kindred emotions, in which resort is constantly made by Poe to themes of mystery, death, the supernatural, the fantastic, the weird, the uncanny. To these two principal classes may be added a third much inferior type of miscellaneous stories, including the minor sketches, such as "The Domain of Arnheim," "The Man of the Crowd"; the attempts at whimsical humor, such as "Loss of Breath," "The Devil in the Belfry," "X-ing a Paragrab"; and the pure allegories, "Silence" and "Shadow."
Poe's analytical stories. To the first group belong the cryptogrammatic or puzzle stories, of which "The Gold Bug" is typical. Poe had a wonderful analytic faculty, and he was exceedingly fond of working out cryptograms and puzzles and unraveling situations of mystery. He once dumfounded Charles Dickens by minutely forecasting the solution of the mystery of Barnaby Rudge long before the novel was completed. In applying his analytical faculty to the unraveling of famous murder mysteries and the like, Poe may be said to have invented the modern detective story. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter" are his great detective stories. M. Dupin, the famous French detective who applied with marvelous precision the simple laws of deductive logic to the solving of apparently baffling mysteries, has become the model for later writers of detective stories. Sir A. Conan Doyle, the English writer, has confessed his indebtedness to Poe in the creation of his own famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Poe's stories of mystery are usually more attractive to young readers than his more artistic stories of horror. "The Gold Bug" is perhaps the prime favorite of all. To this group may be added the realistic pseudo-scientific stories of strange natural phenomena, such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaall," describing with Defoe-like plausibility a trip to the moon; "Narrative of A. Gordon Pym," Poe's longest story; and "A Descent into the Maelstrom." This last might readily be classed among the tales of fear or horror, but its chief interest seems to center in the realistic presentation of the laws of suction as exhibited in the huge whirlpool.
Poe's tales of horror. The second class contains Poe's most artistic work, for he was at his best in portraying the emotions of horror, fear, revenge, remorse of conscience, and the like. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is usually selected by critics as the supreme example of Poe's art in the short-story form. In this story Poe exemplified his own theories almost perfectly. He settled at once upon the "preconceived unique effect" of the peculiar type of horror produced by premature burial and sudden death. The dominant tone is struck in the initial sentence. The setting is one of gloom and mystery. The characters are obsessed with uncanny visions of trances, premature burials, and ghost-like resurrections from the grave. The storm without is but a lugubrious accompaniment to the strange phantasms of the diseased minds within. The lurid tarn, the miasmatic effluvia, and finally the blood-red moon are fit accessories to the scene. Every sound, every color, every motion, every article of furniture, even the very atmosphere of the old mansion breathes of dankness and decay and death. The uncanny musical improvisations of Roderick Usher, his allegorical poem of "The Haunted Palace," the strange tale he is reading, the mysterious trance-death of his wraith-like sister Madeline, all conspire to enhance the wildly imaginative scene of the catastrophe. No sensitive person can read this tale without shuddering and trembling with fear. Scarcely inferior to "The Fall of the House of Usher" in artistic power are "The Cask of Amontillado," a story of revenge; "Ligeia," a mystical story of the reincarnation of a beautiful woman after death, claimed by Poe to be his most perfect story; "The Pit and the Pendulum," a story of the horrors of the medieval inquisition; "The Masque of the Red Death," a fantasia of death produced by a most repulsive disease; "William Wilson," a story dealing with the two natures in man, a theme which later attracted Robert Louis Stevenson in his powerful story "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." In tales like "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart," though these are extremely fascinating to readers who delight in "thrillers," Poe has somewhat impaired the artistic effect by overdoing the horror motive. All in all, however, his horror stories are his most original contribution to American literature.
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