Today, I mark the two-hundred-fifth birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. As one of the earliest American writers of renown, Poe’s life unfolds a cautionary tale in our general understanding about the struggles and motivation often thought to be required of a writer. In some respects, he epitomized the stereotype of a tortured soul driven to express his passion and loneliness on the printed page.
One might easily understand the angst that seems a significant part of his existence. Born in 1809, his father “disappeared” early (so described in at least one source, while others say the man died … who can say for certain?) and then his mother died, both events occurring before Poe had reached his third birthday.
After Poe became an orphan, he was fortunate to have a well-to-do family (John and Frances Allan) bring him into their home though he was never formally adopted. Like so many relationships in Poe’s life, this one was fraught with grief. Frances Allan died when the lad was barely twenty. Poe’s relationship with John Allan had serious ups and downs. The foster father provided funding for Poe’s top-notch early education, but there were often clashes and estrangement resulted. Gambling debts and instability were major points of contention between the two.
In my reading about the Poe(t), I note an insufficient consensus about many of the facts in his short life. It appears he lived to be forty years old. Some of the confusion related to his age stems from Poe apparently falsifying his age (claiming to be four years older) when he enlisted in the United States Army. Poe’s relationships with friends and family appears to have given rise to broad differences of opinion; was he a rogue or a darling, aristocrat (in upbringing) or common? The answer depends on the resource.
Certainly, enduring the loss of both parents so early in his life, Poe suffered obvious insecurity (resulting in the likely embellishment of his resumé). His adult work experience is characterized by short-term stints at university and in various publishing positions, a brief enrollment at West Point, and ongoing instances of drunkenness, sickness and impoverishment. The one constant in his life seems to have been his passion for writing and given his short career, he was productive.
Poe wrote across the spectrum: poetry, short stories, critical essays and magazine reviews. He also wrote a play. He was not always treated kindly by other poets of the era. American journalist Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) characterized Poe as “the poet of unripe boys and unsound men.” Other men of letters were even more critical. For his part, though, Poe was highly capability of turning on the Simon Cowell “charm” for his literary reviews. However, one compiler of Poe’s work (literary critic Wilbur S. Scott) suggests Poe may have been “the best American literary critic in the 19th century.”
You can certainly read Poe’s work at numerous online sources. Many of us likely were exposed to Poe in high school literature classes. Who can forget The Raven or Annabel Lee or The Bells? All three poems demonstrate Poe’s mastery of language, a keen sense of rhythm, and his appreciation for assonance.
Since these Poe works are usually more familiar, I wanted to mention two others that might be less familiar. The first, a sonnet (surprised?), was written near the end of his life (1849) and is reproduced below. It’s entitled To My Mother.
Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of “Mother,”
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you-
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother-my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
Poe addressed many of his poems “To” someone. This particular one isn’t actually written to his mother, but to his mother-in-law. (Poe’s wife Virginia died in 1847.) In this poem, I read Poe’s ever-present longing (and regret) for his own mother’s lifelong absence. In spite of that longing, Poe also expresses gratefulness for his mother-in-law being “more than mother unto me.” I consider this high tribute to Maria Clemm (who was also Poe’s aunt).
Here’s the first half of another poem written twenty years before To My Mother. In the first eight lines of Alone, Poe seems to set the melancholy standard that would characterize his life’s work. Written in 1829, the man (in this poem, a very young man) expresses his inconsolable longing − something about which C. S. Lewis often spoke.
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
As if Edgar Allan Poe needed an anthem to sum up his life, alone is apt. The strange circumstances contributing to his death have never been fully explained and numerous possibilities have been suggested. However, we know he was found sick and injured on the street and taken to a hospital where he died alone.
In all, the poe(t)’s legacy has proven substantive enough to last more than a century and a half after his young and lonely demise. Personally, when I hear the tintinnabulation of bells, keeping time, time, time, in a sort of Runic rhyme, I’m often prone to listen for music with the rhyming and the chiming of the bells.
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