Similarities Between Poe’s Life and His Works
In Edgar Allan Poe’s lifetime and today, critics think that there are striking similarities between what Poe lived and what he wrote. His melancholy, often-depressing stories are thought to reflect his feelings. There is truth to this, although his entire life was not miserable. In fact, in some of his poems, the good characters are modeled after him. Edgar Allan Poe’s writing was affected by many things in his life, including his turbulent childhood, his poverty, and his many tragic losses.
In Poe’s childhood, he had five parents. His original mother and father Elizabeth Arnold and David Poe ,Jr.; John Allan and Fanny Allan who took him in after his mother died and his father left him; and Jane Mackenzie whom he thought of as his mother. Elizabeth Arnold was a famous actress who everyone loved. Kenneth Silverman thinks that she initially instilled a love of the arts in Poe.(9) Unfortunately however, she died when he was only two years old. David Poe Jr. was also an actor, but he did not gain nearly as much critical acclaim because of his stage fright and a tendency to mumble. He left soon after Edgar was born and went to Baltimore where he lived for a few years and gained a reputation as a drunk. It is thought that he died at age twenty-seven in either New York or Baltimore.
After his mother’s death, Poe was sent to live with John and Frances Allan who gave him a life radically different from the one he had known. Kenneth Silverman says that in his new life, Poe found material wealth and love instead of poverty and abandonment .(11) At age thirteen, Poe went with John Allan to London where he received a strict boarding school education. He enjoyed the challenges this school brought to him. William Wagenknecht says that in Poe’s later story, William Wilson, about a man who struggles with the concept of good and evil, the good character was based on Edgar’s happy times in England.(15) With Poe’s newfound wealth, he immersed himself in the arts. He would often quote Cervantes or Shakespeare and add that he was envious of their literary genius. At the tender age of fifteen, someone offered to publish a book of his works. Allan would not allow it though, as he was afraid of Poe’s ego swelling. Poe strived to excel in everything he did, swimming, long jump, running, and writing. This will to succeed showed up in his work later in life when he wrote constantly to keep up with the demand for his stories. Poe eventually broke away from Allan as a result of an argument between Allan and his second wife with Poe taking the wife’s side. He did briefly reconnect with Allan to get his recommendation for West Point. Poe eventually purposely failed our of West Point by missing classes and lost touch with his father all together.(18) These tumultuous times had great highs and lows which greatly affected Poe’s later writings.
Another aspect of Poe’s life, which greatly affected his writing, was his poverty. Silverman agrees saying that, poverty was a consistent thread throughout his entire life (except his time with the Allans). In his early years, his mother’s career as an actress often left them with little more than donations from people who pitied the family.(10) Also, later in his life, Poe found himself in debt or poverty. This influenced many of his decisions; including the decision to work for little or nothing in order to get his first book published. This book, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published with no royalties going to Poe. His only consolation was that he got to keep the copyrights.
It was these bittersweet times that allowed him his unique sense of self. He often equated love with pain, melancholy with beauty, and magnificence with death. Ronald Gottesman cites that he called death “…that fitful stain of melancholy, which will ever be found inseparable from the perfection of the beautiful.”(1204) Edward Wagenknecht’s view is that, “Beauty brings melancholy because it is impossible to hold, and it can not be dissociated from death because even while we grasp at it, death snatches it away.” (157) Poe’s oxymoronic views frightened many of the day’s top writers. Gottesman also states that Ralph Waldo Emerson nicknamed Poe the “jingle man,” Henry James called his writing primitive, and T.S. Eliot labeled him as immature.(1206) In comparison, today Poe is regarded highly by critics and readers alike.
In his twenties, Poe’s poverty left him angry at the world. He often transferred anger from his failed careers and lack of money to his writing and other aspects of his life. He often unnecessarily gave scathing reviews to average books or short stories and even accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. This reflected a cause he was deeply involved in, trying to get international copyrights. He was passionate in this pursuit for equality of authors. He saw that American writers were able to simply copy British writers with little or no consequence. All of these factors contributed to a more frequent appearance of madmen during this era of his life. Including Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher; Montressor in The Cask of Amontillado; and the narrator in “The Raven.” His poverty brought him both joy and pain, but most critics are unsure of the total magnitude of the effect it had on his poetry and short stories.
Personal loss also had a considerable effect on Poe’s writing. Silverman articulates that when he was only two years old he had to be given to the Allans because of the tragic and sudden death of his mother. A respected actress, she took ill on a tour and never recovered despite many benefit performances by her acting troupe to raise money for her.(2-8) By all accounts, she would have been a great mother to Poe, despite her constant poverty.
During Poe’s time with the Allans, he met Jane Standard. William Jay Jacobs stated that he “asked to call her ‘Helen’ rather than Jane-for the Greek Helen of Troy.”(25) Through Jane he was able to have a relationship that he never had with his mother. A result of their relationship is Poe’s poem “To Helen”. In 1824 Jane died suddenly of a brain tumor. He and Jane’s son, his friend, Rob sometimes went to her grave at night.
This unfortunately was not Poe’s last or greatest loss. In 1829, his foster mother also fell ill. Her dying wish was that Poe could see her face one last time before she was buried, but he was too late. The buried her in the very same graveyard as Jane Standard, so once again he was there to weep. Jacobs says she “was the third woman to whom he had looked for affection only to have her taken from him by death: first his mother, then Mrs. Standard, and now the woman who had reared and protected him-Frances Allan.”(43) It was at this time that he also reworked some of his older works including “Tamerlane”, and published them in a book called Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. He had rewritten the poems to reflect more of his personal life including his losses.(47)
The loss that affected Poe’s life the most was still yet to come however. He continued life as a cadet at West Point with limited or no contact with John Allan. After he left to pursue other goals he never spoke to Allan again. He was editor of several magazines, but either quit or was fired from all of them. Then he met the love of his life, his fourteen-year-old cousin Virginia. They lived happily for only a short time before Virginia’s health began failing. As Virginia became more and more ill, so did Edgar. It was as if his heart was breaking to see her die. After her death, he often left his house at night, unable to sleep. He would go to her grave and sleep beside her. This period influenced him to write one of his most famous poems, “Annabel Lee”. In this poem Poe writes:
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we–
Of many far wiser than we–
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling–my darling–my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
Her death had started his rapid down fall, which included long periods of drinking and eventually ended his life. Jacobs states that on October 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in a hospital after being found lying in a gutter outside a voting poll where he had reportedly been trying to vote more than once.(124) Poe, although widely respected in his younger years had become thought of as crazy as he got older. The many losses that he suffered greatly contributed to his permanent sadness and gloom.
Poe’s tragic life brought him great fortune, sadly, he was never around to see it. Like most great artists he was misunderstood in his time, and only in death was he able to achieve true fame. From his unstable early years to the death of his wife, Poe let everything around him enter his writing. The fact that people could relate to his characters made him a truly great writer. No matter how strange or crazy the characters were, there was always an undeniable human truth hidden inside. Those who were able to find that truth praised him for his depth. As for those who were not, they passed him off as just another magazine writer, drowning in his own mediocrity. The wide variety of critical evaluation he received is what made him a truly great writer.
Gottesman, Donald (ed.). 1979. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (vol.1). New York: W.W. Norton and Company. p1204-1206.
Jacobs, William Jay. Edgar Allan Poe. McGraw-Hill Books. New York: 1975.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe. Courage Books. New York: 1997.
Porges, Irwin. Edgar Allan Poe. Chilton Books. Boston: 1963.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. Harper Collins Publishing. San Francisco: 1991.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe the Man Behind the Legend. University Press. New York: 1963.