1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Poe, Edgar Allan

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

POE, EDGAR ALLAN (1809-1849), American poet, writer of fiction and critic, was born at Boston, Massachusetts, on the 19th of January 1809. The family was of English origin, but was settled in Ireland, whence the poet's great-grandfather emigrated to Maryland. His grandfather, David Poe, served with credit as a soldier in the War of Independence, was known to Washington, and was the friend of Lafayette. His son David Poe was bred as a lawyer, but deeply offended his family by marrying an actress of English birth, Mrs Elizabeth Hopkins, neé Arnold, and by himself going on the stage. In 1811 he and his wife died, leaving three children — William, Edgar, and a daughter Rosalie — wholly destitute. William died young, and Rosalie became mad. Edgar was adopted by John Allan, a tobacco merchant of Scottish extraction, seemingly at the request of his wife, who was childless. The boy was indulged in every way, and encouraged to believe that he would inherit Mr Allan's fortune. Mr Allan, having come to England in 1815, placed Edgar in a school at Stoke Newington, kept by a Dr Bransby. In 1820 Mr Allan returned to Richmond, Virginia, and Edgar was first placed at school in the town and then sent to the university of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1826. Here the effects of a very unwise training on a temperament of inherited neurotic tendency were soon seen. He was fond of athletics, and was a strong and ardent swimmer; but he developed a passion for gambling and drink. His disorders made it necessary to remove him, and he was taken away by Mr Allan, who refused to pay his debts of honour. He enlisted on the 26th of May 1827 at Boston, and served for two years in the United States army. As a soldier his conduct must have been exemplary, for he was promoted sergeant-major on the 1st of January 1829. It is to be noted that throughout his life, when under orders, Poe could be a diligent and capable subordinate. In May 1829 Mr Allan secured his discharge from the army, and in 1830 obtained a nomination for him to the West Point military academy. As a student he showed considerable faculty for mathematics, but his aloofness prevented him from being popular with his comrades, and he neglected his duly. When court-martialled he made no answer to the charges, and was expelled on the 6th of March 1831. Mr Allan's generosity was now exhausted. The death of his first wife in 1829 had doubtless removed an influence favourable to Poe. A second marriage brought him children, and at his death in 1834 he left his adopted son nothing. A last meeting between the two, shortly before Mr Allan's death, led only to a scene of painful violence.

In 1827 Poe had published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and other Poems, at Boston. He did not publish under his name, but as “A Bostonian.” In 1831 he published a volume of Poems under his name at New York. His life immediately after he left West Point is very obscure, but in 1833 he was living at Baltimore with his paternal aunt, Mrs Clemm, who was throughout life his protector, and, in so far as extreme poverty permitted, his support. In 1833 he won a prize of $100 offered for the best story by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. He would have won the prize for the best poem if the judges had not thought it wrong to give both rewards to one competitor. The story, MS. found in a Bottle, is one of the most mediocre of his tales, but his success gave him an introduction to editors and publishers, who were attracted by his striking personal appearance and his fine manners, and were also touched by his manifest poverty. From 1833 till his death he was employed on different magazines at Richmond, New York and Philadelphia. His famous poem “The Raven” was published first in 1845, and soon became extraordinarily popular; but Poe only got £2 for it.

The facts of his life have been the subject of very ill-judged controversy. The acrimonious tone of the biography by Rufus Griswold, prefixed to the first collected edition of his works in 1850, gave natural offence, and attempts have been made to show that the biographer was wrong as to the facts. But it is no real kindness to Poe's memory to deny the sad truth that he was subject to chronic alcoholism. He was not a boon companion, and never became callous to his vice. When it seized him he drank raw spirits, and was disordered by a very little. But when he was free from the maddening influence of alcohol he was gentle, well-bred, and a hard worker on the staff of a magazine, willing and able to write reviews, answer correspondents, propound riddles or invent and solve cryptograms. His value as a contributor and sub-editor secured him successive engagements on the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, on the New York Quarterly Review, and on Graham's Magazine at Philadelphia. It enabled him in 1843 to have a magazine of his own, the Stylus. His mania sooner or later broke off all his engagements and ruined his own venture. In 1835 he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, a beautiful girl of fourteen years of age. A false statement as to her age was made at the time of the marriage. She died after a long decline in 1847. Poe made two attempts to marry women of fortune — Mrs Whitman and Mrs Shelton. The first of these engagements was broken off. The second was terminated by his death in hospital at Baltimore, Md., on the 7th of October 1849.

His life and death had many precedents, and will always recur among Bohemian men of letters and artists. What was individual in Poe, and what alone renders him memorable, was his narrow but profound and original genius (see American Literature). In the midst of much hack-work and not a few failures in his own field he produced a small body of verse, and a handful of short stories of rare and peculiar excellence. The poems express a melancholy sensuous emotion in a penetrating melody all his own. The stories give form to horror and fear with an exquisite exactness of touch, or construct and unravel mysteries with extreme dexterity. He was a conscientious literary artist who revised and perfected his work with care. His criticism, though often commonplace and sometimes ill-natured, as when he attacked Longfellow for plagiarism, was trenchant and sagacious at his best.

Bibliography.The Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, by J. A. Harrison (New York, 1903) and The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, new ed. 1909), by G. E. Woodberry, are the best biographies. The standard edition of his Works is that published in 1894-1895 at Chicago, in ten volumes, by E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry. There have been many partial reprints. For Poe's influence in France, which has been great, see C. Baudelaire, Histoires extraordinaires (Paris, 1856); S. Mallarmé, Poèmes d'Edgar Poe (Brussels, 1888); and Les Névrosés, by Arvède Barine (Paris, 1899).

(D. H.)