The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Poe, Edgar Allan

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Poe, Edgar Allan
Edition of 1920. See also Edgar Allan Poe on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

POE, Edgar Allan, American poet and prose writer: b. Boston, Mass., 19 Jan. 1809; d. Baltimore, Md., 7 Oct. 1849. His father was of a good Maryland family and his mother was a daughter of the once celebrated English actress Mrs. Arnold. Both parents were actors and were engaged at the Boston Federal Street Theatre at the time of their son's birth. Mrs. Poe, who outlived her husband, died in great poverty, leaving three children, who were adopted by friends. Edgar was taken into the home of his godfather, John Allan of Richmood and was treated in many respects as a child of the family. He was a handsome, precocious boy; the over-indulgence and unwise petting of his foster-parents aided in developing a naturally imperious and self-indulgent nature. When he was six years old the Allans took him to England and placed him in a school at Stoke-Newington, then a suburb of London. He remained at the school for six years and there laid the foundation of his curious classical lore. The autobiographical story of Wiiliam Wilson describes the old Manor House School and its quiet round of duties and pleasures. On his return to Richmond in 1821 he entered the English and Classical School of Joseph H. Clarke where he was prepared for college. He was quick and brilliant, excelling in languages and in athletics. But in spite of his talents Poe was unpopular; his extreme sensitiveness, his moody disposition, his pride of intellect kept his school fellows at a distance. He formed, during this time, a passionate devotion to the mother of one of his schoolmates and after her sudden death spent night after night of a bleak, dreary autumn, by her grave. At 17 he matriculated at the University of Virginia. He devoted himself to Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and took the highest honors in Latin and French. But his gambling debts were heavy and he was not allowed by Mr. Allan to return. After a short enforced stay in Mr. Allan's counting-house he determined to make his own career and ran away to Boston. There he published his first volume, ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’ (1827), verses without any special originality and rough in execution. Poor and friendless he now enlisted in the army. He made an efficient soldier, was promoted to sergeant-major and was so attracted to army life that he again asked Mr. Allan's aid, and, through his influence, was allowed to enter West Point. He disliked the discipline of the school, however, and deliberately gave such grounds for offense that he was dismissed. Just before he entered West Point he had published a second volume of poems containing among others a revision of ‘Tamerlane’ and ‘Al Aaraaf,’ and after his dismissal he determined to make literature his profession. A second edition of his poems (1831), in such verses as ‘Israfel’ and ‘To Helen,’ gave promise of a real poet. In 1833 he competed for the prize offered by the Saturday Visitor for the best short story; and the award was made to ‘A Manuscript Found in a Bottle,’ one of the six stories which he had submitted. Mr. John Kennedy, the novelist, was one of the judges; he became the warm friend of the young writer and rescued him from deepest poverty by obtaining for him magazine hack work. Poe was at this time living with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, and her daughter Virginia, in Baltimore, but soon moved to Richmond to write exclusively for the Southern Literary Messenger. He gained constantly in reputation and his weird tales and biting critiques rapidly raised the subscription list of the magazine from 700 to 5,000. In 1836 he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. Poe's life was restless and stormy; he left one position after another, just as he seemed on the point of a great success; his indulgence in opium and in intoxicants increased and he was often plunged into dire poverty, but his love for his beautiful wife was steadfast. Mrs. Clemm lived with her daughter and took care of the home. His wife was the inspiration of some of his purest poetry, of ‘Eleonora,’ of ‘Annabel Lee,’ of ‘Lenore.’ He uttered his forebodings over her desperate illness in ‘The Raven,’ and his grief for her death in the tender stanzas ‘To One in Paradise,’ and in the hopeless ‘Ulalume.’

The letters he wrote to his mother-in-law are natural, simple and winning, and show Poe in a most attractive light. To her he wrote also the beautiful lines ‘To My Mother.’ In 1838 he moved with his family to New York where he held, for a short time, a position on the New York Quarterly Review, but the magazine was not so successful financially as had been hoped and Poe entered into an engagement with the Gentleman's Magazine and removed to Philadelphia. Mr. William Gowans, a well-known bookseller, who boarded with Mrs. Clemm in New York, gives emphatic testimony to Poe's courtesy and sobriety at this time. In 1839 his best stories were published in two volumes entitled ‘Tales of the Arabesque and Grotesque’ — among them ‘Ligeia,’ Poe's favorite tale, and the masterly ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ A year later he began his work for Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia, and the fame of his poems, stories and critiques, together with Mr. Graham's excellent management, in two years raised the subscription list from 5,000 to 52,000. Much of his best writing was done for this magazine; in it were published among many other stories ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ which was immediately translated into French; ‘The Descent into the Maelstrom’; and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget.’ In 1842, either from native restlessness or because his fits of intoxication were increasing, he resigned the editorship of Graham's and two years later again moved to New York. In 1841 Mrs. Poe ruptured a blood-vessel and the next six years were filled with poverty, illness and agonizing alternations of hope and fear. At one time Poe achieved his desire of having a magazine of his own, as he had sole management of the Broadway Journal, but he had little executive ability and this enterprise failed. In January 1847 his wife died at Fordham, then a suburb of New York, and after this overwhelming sorrow, for two years and a half he struggled feebly against illness, weakness and opium. His most notable works during this period were ‘Eureka,’ ‘The Bells’ and ‘Ulalume.’ In October 1849 he fell ill in Richmond as he was starting for New York and was fonnd delirious in the streets of Baltimore. He died in the City Hospital and was interred in the burial grounds of Westminster Church, near the grave of his grandfather, General David Poe.

Poe's character was complex and difficult; he was self-willed and self-indulgent, too often regardless of the rights of others, intensely proud and reserved, sometimes courteous and kindly, oftener moody and abstracted. He was keenly sensitive to sound and easily excited by stimulants. That he was not the degraded inebriate that Griswold depicted has been abundantly proved, but there is no doubt that his poverty and his frequent change of promising positions were caused in part by vacillating will and by recurring spells of intoxication. He was a dreamer and his imagination dwelt with the mystic and horrible; his mind was brilliant and acute and his sense of form and proportion exquisite.

The themes of Poe's poetry were few — man's loneliness, the hopelessness of struggle' remorse for a wrecked life. His poems bring no breath from the outer world. Theirs is a land of dreams, of tempest, of fantastic terrors, of ashen skies, and through this land glide ghosts, birds of ill omen and crawling shapes. His poetry is not stimulating and has no moral quality; but has frequently an almost faultless literary form, vivid, if distorted imagination, and a haunting melody. His theory was that a poem should have complete unity in itself, and consequently should never be of great length, and that the poet must compose only when in a state of highly excited emotion. Poetry he defines as the “rhythmical creation of beauty.” His fame as a poet rests on a few short poems, ‘The Raven,’ ‘Lenore,’ ‘Ulalume,’ ‘The Bells,’ ‘Annabel Lee,’ ‘The Haunted Palace,’ ‘The Conqueror, Worm’; and these in unity of design, in exquisite choice of melodic words, and in concentrated passion are well nigh faultless.

His stories are weird, filled with horrors and often glow with the putrescence of physical decay. They are carefully wrought and in such masterpieces as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and ‘Ligeia’ every word heightens the desired effect. The disintegrating power of fear on a sensitive and highly organized soul has never been more powerfully portrayed than in the former story. Poe's analysis of morbid and tortured souls is unsurpassed. His acute analytical powers are shown in such stories as ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Gold Bug’; his speculations usually hovered about the improbable and the horrible. His originality, his literary craftsmanship, are unquestioned, but he lacked the will and the moral conviction which would have brought his great gifts to their highest fruition. Editions of Poe are numerous. Griswold's (2d ed., 4 vols., New York 1856) contains a biased biography; the Stoddard edition (6 vols., New York 1895) errs in the same regard. Good editions are those of Gill (Diamond Edition, Boston 1874); of Ingram (2d ed., 4 vols., Edinburgh 1880; New York 1894); Harrison (Virginia Edition, notes by Stewart, 17 vols., Boston 1892); Stedman and Woodberry (10 vols., New York 1898). The ‘Tales’ were translated into French by Baudelaire; and also into German and Spanish. See Fall of the House of Usher, The; Gold-Bug, The; Raven, The.

Bibliography. — Biographies prefixed to the editions above-named. Baudelaire (in his ‘Oeuvres complètes,’ Vols. V and VI); Brownell, W. C., ‘American Prose Masters’ (New York 1909); Gill, W. F., ‘Life of Edgar Allan Poe’ (5th ed., ib. 1880); Ewers, Hans Heinz, ‘Edgar Allan Poe’; Ingram, J. H., ‘Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters and Opinions’ (2d ed., London 1886); Stedman, ‘Poets of America’ (New York 1880); Whitman, S. H., ‘Edgar Allan Poe and His Critics’ (New York 1860); Woodberry, G. E., ‘Selected Correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe’ (in Century Magazine, Vol. XXVI, New York 1894); id., ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ (in American Men of Letters Series,’ Boston 1885) the best critical life of the poet; id., ‘Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Personal and Literary’ (2 vols., Boston 1909); id., ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ (in ‘Great American Authors’ (Boston 1914); Leigh, Oliver, ‘Edgar Allan Poe, the Man, the Master, and the Martyr’ (Chicago 1906); More, P. E., ‘Shelburne Essays’ (1st series, New York 1907).

Emilie Watts McVea,
President Sweet Briar (Va.) College.


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EDGAR ALLAN POE