The Edgar Allan Poe Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle III provides insight into the literary genius of a mad man, Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe was a man, some say, as mad and mysterious as his strange, gothic tales of the macabre. He was one of the country’s earliest architects of the short story, regarded as the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and even credited with adding his name and literary genius to an emerging genre known as science fiction.

Edgar Allan Poe

But his was a painful and miserable life. It is easy to determine why his mind became a web tangled with death and loss and abandonment. When he was a young boy, his mother died, his father ran off and left the family, and he was taken into the home of a couple who never formally adopted him. He had only one semester at the University of Virginia, and then he was back on the streets. No money. No tuition. No formal education. Poe failed miserably as an officer’s cadet at West Point, and his first published book of poetry did not even mention his name. It was anonymous, written only, the title page said, by “A Bostonian.”

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first well-known American writers to try and make a determined effort to earn his living by writing alone, which meant, he was always broke, usually spending too much of the money from his poems and short stories on alcohol. He and demon rum were constant and intimate companions. Even Poe said, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”

He married his thirteen-year-old cousin, but she was dead of tuberculosis within a decade, dying shortly after Poe published his acclaimed poem, The Raven. Within two years, in 1849, Poe would be gone as well. He was found, either on the streets of Baltimore or in a tavern, either suffering from cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, tuberculosis, acute alcoholism, an overdose of opium, epilepsy, or maybe even brain lesions. No one has ever known for sure. He was forty years old.

Painting by David Gough

His death remains as mysterious as his stories: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Cask of Amontillado. Only one thing is certain. He was not wearing his own suit of black wool when he was found dying. He was found dressed, the report said, in “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.” Some believe he was robbed, beaten, and left insensible in the street. Some say he was hauled into the tavern on Election Day, given bottle after bottle of whiskey to drink along with others kept imprisoned in a backroom, then paraded outside in different clothing each time to vote again and again and again until he collapsed. Only Poe knew, and he never had an opportunity say. His final words were: “Lord, help my poor soul.”

The life and works of Edgar Allan Poe were best summed up by those who knew him or who were influenced and inspired by his writings:

George Lippard in the Citizen Journal (1843): “Poe was born a poet, his mind is stamped with the impress of genius. He is, perhaps, the most original writer that ever existed in America. Delighting in the wild and visionary, his mind penetrates the inmost recesses of the human soul, creating vast and magnificent dreams, eloquent, fancies, and terrible mysteries.”

Jules Verne: “You might call him (Poe) ‘The Leader of the Cult of the unusual.’”

Walt Whitman: In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg’d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem’d one of those superb little schooner yachts … now flying uncontroll’d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems – themselves all lurid dreams.”

George Bernard Shaw: Poe constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty … Above all, Poe is great because he is independent of cheap attraction, independent of six, of patriotism, of fighting, of sentimentality, snobbery, gluttony, and all the rest of the vulgar stock-in-trade of his profession.”

Arthur Conan Doyle: “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Alfred Hitchcock: “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

Edgar Allan Poe not only created a whole new genre of suspense and horror, he would become revered because of his language, his style of writing, the way he explained the themes in his poems and stories:

  • Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about he only one fit for man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path.
  • Words have no power to impress the mind without he exquisite horror of their reality.
  • The death of beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.
  • The true genius shoulders at incompleteness – and usually prefers silence to saying something, which is not everything it should be.
  • All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.
  • I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty.
  • With me, poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.
  • The generous critic fanned the Poet’s fire. And taught the world with reason to admire.
  • To be thoroughly conversant with a man’s heart is to take our final lesson in the iron-clasped volume of despair.
  • There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.
  • Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.
  • Convinced myself, I seek not to convince.
  • Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger portion of the truth, arises from the seemingly irrelevant.
  • I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity.
  • I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect – in terror.
  • The boundaries, which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins.
  • Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things, which escape those who dream only by night.
  • To vilify a great man is the readiest way in which a little man himself attains greatness.
  • Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it “the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.” The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of “Artist.’

Maybe it was because Poe had always been a man of mystery, a loner in a literary world, but when he died, he was immediately forgotten. So many were jealous. So many were envious of his talent. So many were glad to see him gone. As H. L. Menken wrote, “It is surely not without significance that it took ten years of effort to raise money enough to put a cheap and hideous tombstone upon the neglected grave (of Poe) in Baltimore, that it was not actually set up until he had been dead twenty-six years, that no contemporary writer took any part in furthering the project, and that the only who attended the final ceremony was (Walt) Whitman.”

And when Alfred Lord Tennyson was asked by the Poe Memorial Committee to supply an epitaph for Poe, limiting him to one line, he wrote: “How can so strange & fine a genius & so sad a life be exprest and comprest in one line – would it not be best to say of Poe in a reverential spirit simply Requiescast in Pace.” Rest in Peace. Either in life or in death, it was never meant to be.

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