Edgar Allan Poe
(1809 - 1849)
Personal tragedy was, unfortunately, a recurring theme throughout Edgar Allan Poe's life. Born in Boston in 1809 to actor parents, he never knew his father David Poe, who left his mother and disappeared soon after Edgar was born, then died in Virginia in 1810. His mother, who suffered from tuberculosis (then called consumption), died in Richmond, Virginia in late 1811, orphaning Edgar, his older brother William Henry, and half-sister Rosalie.
Frances Allan of Richmond convinced her wealthy merchant husband John to take the child Edgar into their home. It was here that Edgar was to be raised, with his early influences being the stories of house slaves and the tales told by skippers and sea merchants. The dead and dying would always have a strong hold over Edgar, as demonstrated by the anecdote that a six-year old Edgar was once "seized with terror" as he passed by a local graveyard, convinced that the spirits of the undead would run after him. In 1815, the family moved abroad to Scotland and then England, where they lived for five years. Poe's schoolboy experiences there added further influences to the young writer's life.
“ From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring. ” ~ Poe in 'Alone' ~
Once back in Richmond, Edgar began writing poetry regularly when he was in his early teens. He fell in love with a girl named Elmira, and they eventually pledged themselves to each other. In 1826 he was sent to the University of Virginia to study law. His rich foster father, with whom Edgar had always had a tumultuous relationship, gave him a mere $100 to cover yearly expenses that probably totaled to at least $450. Under these circumstances the young man quickly fell into debt, and began gambling in an attempt to make up his losses. On top of this, Elmira's letters to him had been intercepted by both sets of parents and, having received no encouraging replies from Edgar, she was persuaded to become engaged to another man. After this, Edgar began drinking seriously, he had little resistance to alcohol and easily became violent and irrational when he drank too much.
By the end of the year, Mr. Allan pulled Edgar from the University and after loud and spiteful fights with his foster father, Edgar left home and made his way to Boston. In 1827 he published his first pamphlet of Tamerlane and Other Poems. Out of money, Poe enlisted in the army as Edgar A. Perry at the age of eighteen, stating on the application that he was twenty-two. In 1829, after his beloved foster mother died, and although he was enlisted and over age, he applied to West Point military academy with the support of his commanding officer and foster father.
Once at West Point in 1830, he soon fell into debt again. Poe also seemed the misfit -- he was older, more educated and tended to be physically weak. While at the academy, he studied the Romantic poets such as Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Colderidge, and he allowed the untrue rumor that he was a grandson of Benedict Arnold to circulate (his mother's maiden name had been Arnold). In a prank, he once used a dead and bloody gander to simulate the severed head of one of the academy's officers. Tired of West Point by the beginning of 1831, Edgar's plan to get out was to neglect his duties. In January he was tried at a court-martial for having missed drills, parades, classes and church. After his discharge, he ended up living in Baltimore with his father's sister Maria Clemm (Aunt Muddy) and her daughter, Virginia.
By 1832, Edgar began to write fiction with the idea of entering story contests. He also discovered opium. A commonly used medicine at the time, it was a stimulant that masked hunger and cold and extended sense of time. During the summer he had an amorous affair with a girl named Mary Deveraux which eventually ended, largely because of his frightening behavior when he was under the influences of alcohol or drugs. In 1833 he won a $50 literary prize from a Baltimore newspaper for his story, Ms. Found In A Bottle. This brought him his first major recognition and fame in local literary circles.
“ All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream. ” ~ Poe in 'A Dream within a Dream' ~
John Allan died in March of 1834, leaving nothing of value to his never-adopted foster son Edgar. Poe soon added the taking of laudanum to his opium and drinking habits. In 1835 he returned to Richmond to work as an editor on the Southern Literary Messenger. Here, he also married his thirteen-year old cousin Virginia, first in a secret ceremony, and eventually in a more public one, where it was claimed on the certificate that Virginia was twenty-one years old.
After several moves and several jobs the little family, consisting of Edgar, Virginia and Muddy, ended up in Philadelphia, where Poe worked for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. It was during this time that Poe wrote some of his best-known stories of horror and the supernatural. He also hatched a dream to start his own magazine: The Penn Magazine, later renamed The Stylus.
At a supper party in January of 1842, Virginia was playing the harp and singing when she suddenly caught her breath and coughed violently, then blood spouted from her mouth, staining her white dress. This confirmed what Edgar had long feared: that she was suffering from the mysterious disease of consumption which had already claimed his father and his mother. This drove him to heavy drinking. During the summer of 1842, while Aunt Muddy pawned furnishings and kept the household running on charity, Virginia suffered a relapse. Poe sought out the now married Mary Deveraux's address in New York City. He waited outside her door until she came home, then accused her of not loving her husband when she arrived. A few days later, he was found wandering in the woods, dirty and disheveled.
A plan was soon drawn up to support Poe's magazine project through political contacts. His attempt to gain an appointment at the Philadelphia Custom House didn't succeed, but in 1843 he was invited to give a lecture in Washington D. C. and to be received by the president at the White House. This was perhaps the greatest opportunity of Poe's life to make a good impression and helpful allies. But within a few nights of his arrival in D. C., Poe had been persuaded to have drinks at a dinner party. This led to heavier drinking. His lecture was eventually cancelled, and when he did appear at the White House, he was drunk and made a fool of himself. With his chances for support of his magazine ruined, he returned to Philadelphia.
“ I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched. ” ~ Poe in a letter, 1849 ~
Watching his wife Virginia slowly dying almost certainly stimulated Poe's self-destructiveness. His poem The Conqueror Worm, written during this dark period, projects the image of a destructive worm or maggot, and the decay of humankind:
But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!--it writhes!--with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the angels sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Although Poe had previously earned recognition in literary circles, nothing brought him as much fame as the publication of his poem The Raven in 1845. The poem became a national sensation within a few weeks, and was reprinted in newspapers and periodicals across the country. Unfortunately, because there was no copyright protection at that time, the reprints brought Poe not one cent, he continued to live in the poverty that ever hounded him.
Virginia continued to decline, and in January 1847 at the age of twenty-five she succumbed to her long-suffered disease. In 1848, Edgar became engaged to Sarah Helen Whitman. However, the wedding was called off two days prior because Poe, who had promised to give up alcohol as a condition of marriage, had been spotted drinking. He eventually worked his way back to Richmond where he wooed Mrs. Shelton, the now-widowed Elmira of his youth, who had promised to marry him some twenty-four years earlier. They were soon engaged and the wedding date was set for October 17, 1849.
In September, Poe left to visit friends and relatives and to look after some business, travelling toward New York City via Baltimore and Philadelphia. He never made it past Baltimore. He arrived there drunk and disappeared for a mysterious five days. He was eventually found in a delirium and taken to the hospital where he clung to life for a few more days. Edgar Allan Poe died on Sunday October 7, 1849. His last words were: "Lord help my poor soul."
In an aptly mysterious postscript to Poe's life, an anonymous visitor has brought three red roses and a bottle of cognac to Poe's grave at Westminster Church in Baltimore on the anniversary of the writer's birthday every year since 1949.