Saturday, 29 October 2011

On the Poe

05:38:00 Posted by Ashley Lister 4 comments

By Ashley Lister

Those who dismiss Edgar Allan Poe as a writer of tawdry horror stories are doing this seldom-celebrated genius a grave disservice. Although he is remembered for his tales of mystery and imagination, and some of the most hauntingly beautiful poetry ever produced in the English language, Poe also left a legacy that continues to influence modern literature.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on 19th January 1809, his parents were itinerant actors. His father left soon after Edgar’s birth. Poe’s young mother, Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis by the time he reached the age of three. Edgar was separated from his siblings when John and Frances Allan fostered him.

John Allan took his wife and fostered son to England as he strove to establish a branch of his business outside America. Poe found himself being educated in private schools that included Stoke Newington in London. His education continued in Richmond, Virginia, when John Allan took the family back across the Atlantic and it was during that period when Poe first began to fall in love.

His personal life is littered with romantic tragedies. His first love, Jane Stanard, was an older woman and dying of tuberculosis when Poe first met her. Elmira Royston received his amorous approaches but their relationship was doomed from the beginning. John Allan sent Edgar to a university in Charlottesville so he wouldn’t be distracted by his growing feelings for Elmira. Elmira’s parents intercepted Edgar’s letters until the girl gave up on him and married another.

During one of the many periods of conflict with his foster-father, Edgar visited Baltimore and sought out his aunt, Maria Clemm. He was later to marry Maria’s daughter, Virginia, but long before their wedding he had become an established part of the Clemm family.

Tragically, Edgar’s happiness with Virginia was to be short lived. She ruptured a blood vessel whilst singing for their visitors one evening. The doctors diagnosed consumption and, for the five years following, Poe could only watch his wife waste away as the disease slowly killed her. Her death affected him profoundly but Mrs Clemm nursed him through the ordeal. Because of her care, and the catharsis of his own writing, Poe eventually came to terms with his profound grief.

In a stroke of coincidence worthy of a romantic novel, Poe was accidentally reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royston, during a visit to Richmond. Since they had last spoken Elmira had become a wealthy widow. She happily agreed to plans that they should now marry. But, in a stroke of misfortune that is more than worthy of Poe’s darkest works, the unfortunate writer died before the wedding could be arranged.

It is no surprise that, from a life filled with so much tragedy, there is a dark theme that runs through Poe’s work. Poems like ‘Annabelle Lee’ and ‘The Sleeper’ mourn lost loves that have been taken by the grave. His most acclaimed poem, ‘The Raven’, follows this same sombre motif but is written with such mastery of syntax, symbolism and meter it takes on a mesmerising refrain that is almost melodic.

His short stories, including ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, are notorious for their macabre content. But his writing is so eloquent he brings a nobility to the simple horror story that is echoed by many modern authors from the genre. Stephen King and Peter Straub make use of Poe’s ‘Raven’ in their collaborative novel Black House. Ruth Rendell’s novel, Demon in My View, takes its title from Poe’s quietly unnerving poem: ‘Alone’.

A great number of Poe’s works have been transferred from the page to the screen. Most people remember the Roger Corman efforts from the sixties: titles that include The Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven. While these films contain elements from Poe’s works, it is generally agreed that they are only broad interpretations of the original stories.

Poe is credited as being the father of the modern detective story, and laid down the template for the police procedural novel with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’. The influence of Monsieur Auguste Dupin, the central character from these stories, can be seen in the construction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and every astute detective from fiction since.

It is also agreed that Poe laid the foundations for the psychological thriller. Stories such as ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ delve into the wickedest minds of literature’s most villainous characters. The first person narratives of these stories take the reader on a credible journey into the thoughts of murderers and madmen.

A prolific literary journalist, and editor of several magazines throughout his life, Poe also wrote many humorous pieces including ‘The Devil in the Belfry’ and ‘The Duc l’Omlette’. ‘The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade’ is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Arabian Nights tales. In this story Poe elegantly replaces established (and remarkable) phenomena for those fictional marvels that are usually encountered by Sinbad et al. This blend of psychology, superstition, science and fiction is cited as a forerunner to the popular science-fiction genre.

Yet, surprisingly, Poe achieved very little success or acclaim during his lifetime. His short story ‘MS Found in a Bottle’ won him a $50 prize. But, although ‘The Raven’ received a great deal of interest, Poe was only paid $8 for its publication.

A lifetime of tragic loves, and an unfortunate penchant for finding solace in alcohol and substance abuse, was followed by virtual anonymity following his death. His works would have been wholly forgotten if not for the efforts of the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Impressed by the images in Poe’s works, Baudelaire translated them into French and brought this unique talent to the attention of Western Europe. Because so much of his writing reflected the aspiring “symbolist” movement in France, Poe was finally recognised as an undiscovered genius and America began to re-examine his achievements.

The composer Achille-Claude Debussy held a life-long ambition to make an opera of ‘Fall of the House of Usher’. Sergei Rachmaninoff penned the music for a choral interpretation of Poe’s beautifully onomatopoeic poem ‘The Bells’. Writers as diverse as Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson and HP Lovecraft have admired Poe, while Victor Hugo was bold enough to name him “The prince of American Literature.”

He is deservedly remembered for his tales of horror as well as the lyricism of his poetry. But he should be equally revered for those flashes of brilliance that have influenced so many and continue to influence so much of what we see and read today.



Lindsay said...

An informative and interesting biography of a great author. Poor unlucky bastard though.

Ashley R Lister said...

Cheers Lindsay,

He's always been one of my literary heroes. And you're right - no one would ever want to use his lottery numbers :-(


Lara Clayton said...

Sorry for my late comment. I've only just managed to read this...

What a fascinating post! I didn't know a lot of the details about Poe's life, so I feel like I've learnt something (a good thing). The trail of tragic love that marred his life was particularly moving.

Great post x

Ashley R Lister said...


Thank you. I always feel a heavy sympathy for Poe. Most contemporaries dismiss him as drunk or substances abuser who had an inappropriate relationship with a young relative.

The truth doesn't seem as straightforward as that.