Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 8
Edgar Allan Poe: In the Shadow of the Raven
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
So ends "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe s classic work of gothic poetry which chronicles lost love, emotional despair, and one mans descent into a tragic and dismal state of being. Poe insisted that his most famous poem was a mere work of fiction, yet sadly, it would come to reflect his own melancholic life.
A TRAGIC END
On October 3, 1849, forty-year-old Edgar Allan Poe arrived in a Baltimore tavern, barely conscious and clad in filthy, ill-fitting clothes that probably were not his. Ostensibly in town to drum up subscribers for a potential literary magazine, he was found at the tavern by an acquaintance who became alarmed by Poe's wrecked, incoherent state. The renowned author of "The Raven" was taken to nearby Washington Medical College, where his condition worsened. Miserable and delirious, Poe spoke to imagined people, and in one grimly lucid moment told a doctor that the best thing that anyone could do for him would be to put him out of his misery with a pistol.
Poe spent the next few days in the hospital, semi-conscious and raving, suffering from either severe alcohol poisoning or some form of encephalitis. Then, on the morning of October 7, his delirium abated, and the attending doctor heard him utter his last words: "Lord, help my poor soul." With that, the brief, unhappy life of Edgar Allan Poe was over.
No one knows how Poe ended up in Baltimore in such a pitiable state, but this denouement was very much in keeping with the rest of his life. Like a character from one of his own stories, Poe struggled mightily for a life of reason and refinement, but his every step seemed haunted by specters of madness and personal chaos.
THE EARLY YEARS
The second of three children born to actors David and Eliza Poe, Edgar was born in Boston on January 19, 1809. Almost immediately he knew loss and heartache; his father, a drunk, abandoned the family while he was still an infant and his mother died of a fever before he was three. Edgar, his brother William Henry Leonard and sister Rosalie were scattered to different adoptive families. Edgar wound up in the care of John and Fanny Allan of Richmond, Virginia.
The Allans were patrons of the arts and admirers of Eliza Poe's talents, but if Edgar had hoped to find the lasting love and harmony of a real family in their care, he was disappointed. Though his worldly needs were provided for and his life became more or less stable, he was never formally adopted and most likely harbored feelings of being an outsider. John Allan, a successful merchant, was not the most affectionate of men, and Fanny, though fond of young Edgar, was often plagued by illness (mostly psychosomatic) and could not always be an attentive mother to him.
When the Allans traveled to London to set up a branch of John Allan's business, Edgar came, too, and here he began his formal education in a succession of boarding schools. Living away from the Allans at such a young age only increased his feelings of loneliness and exile. Writing later in life, Poe claimed that "I have many occasional dealings with Adversity, but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials."
His situation didn't improve when Edgar and the Allans returned to Virginia after five years when John Allan's London branch collapsed. Poe found a kindness and motherly attention in Jane Stanard, the young, widowed mother of one of his schoolmates, but it was poignantly short- lived; Jane Stanard died soon after their friendship began, a victim of severe mental illness and depression.
As he grew into manhood, Poe's relationship with John Allan deteriorated into frustrated pleas for money and affection on Edgar's side and stern accusations of ingratitude on Allan's side. While briefly attending the University of Virginia, Poe complained of not having money enough to provide for his basic necessities. Allan countered that Poe wasted what money he did send, usually on liquor. It became a familiar refrain in their dealings over the next few years. Poe joined the Army and later entered West Point, with Allan's assistance, but no matter how hard he tried to carve out some independence for himself, he often found himself begging Allan for money. After Fanny died and John Allan's new wife bore him a son—a real son—Allan washed his hands of Poe once and for all, making it clear that Poe's presence was no longer welcome in the Allan house. The young man was now orphaned a second time.
A LITERARY LIFE
Poe quickly tired of the military life at West Point and got himself dismissed for a variety of petty offenses ranging from insubordination to skipping class. Poe now saw himself as a poet, not a soldier. But though he published two small volumes of verse in his early twenties, his major contributions to literature were the many short stories he penned for different magazines until his untimely death. A writer's life is always financially uncertain, and Poe understood that if he were to survive as a man of letters he would have to give readers what they wanted. What they wanted, he told the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, was "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought into the strange and mystical." Poe was ready and able to serve their Gothic tastes.
In Poe's fictional world, cats could incite a man to unfathomable loathing and violence ("The Black Cat"), vengeful dwarves could literally make monkeys out of kings ("Hop-Frog"), and the dead rarely if ever stay dead ("The Fall of the House of Usher"). "The Tell- Tale Heart," in which the imagined beating of a murder victim's heart unnerves the murderer enough to make him confess his crime, is perhaps the definitive tale of psychosis and guilty conscience. There is no more memorable study of icy, calculated revenge than "The Cask of Amontillado," in which a character is bricked up alive in a wine cellar. And the eerie, fable-like "The Masque of the Red Death" is probably the quintessential horror story; in it, a rich, haughty prince's masquerade ball in a time of plague is not immune from the menace of the Red Death, for it arrives as the ultimate uninvited guest. No matter your wealth or your powers of denial, Poe is saying, the horror will always come for you.
Interestingly, while he pioneered the depiction of horror and madness, he also originated the detective story, in which heightened powers of reason and deduction solve bewildering mysteries. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" were the first examples of the 'story of ratiocination,' and their influence can be felt even in modern day crime novels and police procedurals.
Reason and logical analysis were key pillars of Poe's literary life. His voluminous essays and book reviews established his name as an astute (and often harsh) critic. He wrote over a dozen articles on cryptography, often challenging readers to send him ciphers which he would then easily crack. In his tale "The Gold Bug," Poe includes a crash-course on code breaking as he describes how the main characters use logic to decipher the directions to a buried pirate treasure. And his celebrated poem, "The Raven," was followed up by his famous essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," in which he claimed that his popular poem was crafted not from emotional inspiration but rather from a series of detached, deliberate, reasoned choices. Its subject of the death of a beautiful woman and the bereavement of her lover was not the product of personal anguish but impersonal selection. The poem progressed "step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."
Why did the author of often gruesome tales of insanity take such pains to convince his readership of his reason and clarity of mind? Because, tragically, Poe's personal life was disintegrating into embarrassing chaos and irrationality.
Despite gaining much critical and popular acclaim, the economic fragility of the magazine business forced Poe to latch onto whatever periodical would have him. He took up residence in first Baltimore, then Philadelphia, then New York, wherever he could find promising work. But his often serious problem with alcohol combined with his innate combativeness as a critic and employee only succeeded in alienating one editor after another. His vicious critical attacks upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent writers of the time outraged the literati. Wherever Poe went, he made enemies and created hard feelings.
The spitefulness of his literary demeanor seems inextricably linked to the increasing desperation of his personal situation. He was always in need of money, not only for his sake but also for the sake of his young wife, Virginia, who was dying of what was most likely tuberculosis.
His first cousin on his father's side, Virginia Clemm married Poe when she was only thirteen. He found her childlike innocence and beauty enchanting, and she in turn was devoted to him; their relationship seemed more like that of brother and sister than husband and wife. As his professional life grew more perilous, Virginia became more and more his only source of joy. In a letter to her, he writes, "You are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life."
On January 30, 1847, that stimulus was removed for good. Virginia was only twenty-five when she died.
Poe had lived with the fact of her inevitable death for years, and it haunts his work. The Red Death is a thinly veiled tuberculosis scourge ("Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood."). In "The Oblong Box," a grieving artist lashes himself to the coffin of his dead wife as the ship carrying them both is wrecked by a storm. And despite his claims to the contrary, "The Raven" can be seen as a rehearsal of his own forthcoming grief.
Though he made erratic, blundering attempts to woo other women after Virginia's death, none came to fruition, and his desire for some sort of idyllic, loving refuge from an increasingly hostile world eluded him permanently. He began drinking more heavily and less than three years after Virginia's passing, Poe too was dead.
Poe's work has earned him an enviable place in American literature. He is not only a pioneer of the short story, he's America's first major horror writer as well as the father of the detective story. His tales contain an almost timeless fairy tale-like quality; filled with grim dungeons, Gothic castles, dwarves and madmen, Poe's fictional universe still exerts a hold on the imagination more than a century after his death. American International Pictures adapted eight of his stories into films beginning in 1960, and writers as disparate as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King have cited Poe as a major influence on their work.
His poetry also exhibits an astounding popularity. "The Raven" is perhaps the most recognizable poem in the English language, its haunting singsong rhythm and unforgettable imagery appealing not only to literary connoisseurs but also to school children and people who rarely read poetry. Everyone, it seems, knows the raven's cry of "Nevermore."
It is finally, then, his command of language that is his greatest bequest to posterity. From the classic opening line of "The Raven" ("Once upon a midnight dreary") to the ornate description of the decaying House of Usher, Poe's diction is often elevated and complex, but it could also be blunt and fragmented ("True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been," declares the unhinged narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart"). Poe was a deliberate, precise wordsmith who labored over the placement of every dash and comma. Like Shakespeare, he could transcend the sordidness of his subject matter by the sheer force of his language.
Poe was not the first Gothic writer but he is undeniably one of the most potent. While other horror writers come and go, his place in horror literature will remain unchanged, for it is his work that has formed a lasting foundation upon which others continue to build.