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Edgar Allan Poe: Analysis and History
Edgar Allan Poe: Life and Death
Edgar Allan Poe was first a poet. To those that claim he was chiefly a story writer, remember that many great poets forsake their passion to pay the bills, but never lose the romanticism and fascination with humanity that made them poets in the first place. Beyond the prose and verse Poe, there are two Poes we must understand to comprehend the enormity of Edgar Allan’s import on modern Literature and Poetry; the factual Poe and the one of legend, of image, of Griswold and lies. The dates and names we can agree on. Born in Boston in 1811, troubled life after dead parents, taken in by the Allan family, schooled and put in the army and the rest. Unfortunately it is much harder to agree upon the man.
Edgar Allan Poe Timeline
1809-Born to David Poe Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins in Boston. Both die in 1811.
1811- Taken in by John and Frances Allan, who never adopt him formally but baptize him with their name.
1816-Goes to school in England until 1820, wherein he and family return to States and he stays in school until 1825
1826- John Allan’s uncle dies and leaves him a fortune. He gives some money to Poe to attend University of Virginia, but never gives Poe enough o fully support him
1827-After dropping out of school because of lack of money, Poe joins the Army. Tamerlane and Other Poems published, but sells next to none.
1829- Poe applies for Westpoint, where he attends the next year with some financial help from John Allan. Publishes Al Jaraf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems
1840-Publishes Tales of the Grotesque and attempts to start own magazine. Murders in the Rue Morgue becomes first modern detective story the next year.
1843- A Philadelphia newspaper publishes a bio with lots of false info provided by Poe, which builds his image. The gold bug published that year has some moderate success but not enough to arise Poe out of Poverty.
1845- The Raven published and successful, but with the closing of a magazine he had been editor at the next year, his financial woes persist.
1847- Poe’s sickly wife Virginia dies, and he lapses into alcoholism that troubled him throughout life. Failed attempts at other romances and ventures largely because of alcoholism.
1849- Poe dies under mysterious conditions in Baltimore. He leaves his literary future to a rival named Griswold, who publishes that he was an evil man and slanders him in ways that stick to his image today.
Poe did love and lose. His mother at age two, his adopted mother and wife later. The women of Poe’s life were beautiful and delicate, and his obsession with interrupted beauty likely stems from the many deaths he saw. Griswold would say he never loved, but Poe’s poetry testifies to his sincerity. Poe exceeded at everything he did. He got ahead in school, in the army, and was able almost to support himself on sheer talent in the remarkably competitive newspaper man’s industry, publishing poetry and prose among a sea of writers looking to be published. He was remarkable in his ability to overcome. From the stepfather who didn’t fund his endeavors to several failed newspapers that left him to starve, Poe persevered. Griswold would say he failed. Indeed he did, but in such great quantity that the sheer fact of his survival must be called an endearing success.
In the end, determination was not enough to save Edgar Allan Poe. After his wife’s death in 1847, Poe lost the will to live. He lapsed into alcoholism, and could not rebound from the final dismissal of his dream to open a literary magazine, which failed again year after year despite his talent and efforts to create. How he died is not entirely known. His body was found on the streets in the night, and taken to a hospital where he died in an unconscious stupor. It could have been alcohol. The more eccentric theories mention rabies. There is some evidence that he was caught in the underbelly of a political machine and beaten by ballot box stuffers or the like. He could have simply been mugged, or killed for a lost debt. It is unfortunate that his death matches so perfectly to the image Griswold propagated. When Poe left Griswold as his literary heir, he never could have expected the slander his rival would dish out. But in his death he became the mysterious and evil genius of the dark parts of the world, the social outcast whose work, however brilliant, was spawned by a demented mind. In reality he lived honestly, worked hard, suffered much. We cannot make the mistake of confusing Poe with the characters he creates in his poetry. We cannot assume his depression or self hatred. In reality, the mind that could continue when faced with what Poe was faced with is more likely the optimistic than bleak. Poe should be remembered for his work, should be admired for his abilities. His life and death is shrouded with mystery and lies. His work remains poignant and filled with sounding truth.
"The Raven" Analysis
There is no raven. Or at least there doesn’t have to be. Edgar Allan Poe prided himself on being an accomplished cryptologist, and even claims that his knowledge of codes is what made his mystery stories so successful and intriguing to a public largely unaware of the complicated world of cryptography. It is not important that he wrote symbolically for the financial boost it could give him, or because he felt that the common man was foolish enough to be duped into awe by simple ciphers. It is significant that his most famous and iconic poem, and indeed one of the most famous and most influential poems ever written by an American poet or in the English language, is in danger of sinking under the weight of thinly masked but brilliant symbolism. Poe’s Raven looks at first like a poem about lost love, or about the terror of night, but with a bit of deciphering unravels into a dangerous expedition into the darkness of the human psyche; a terrifying reminder that in actuality we do know what is in the beyond, but prefer to pretend we don’t because knowing is harder than uncertainty.
In an ingenious reversal of the form that usually functions in poetry, Poe sets the tone of The Raven within the narrative’s first two stanzas, and the plot that comes after these introductory verses serves the function of explaining the darkness present in the lines immediately following the title. The technique Poe relies most on in the opening stanzas deals with an acute attention to word choice. The poem is set in a “dreary midnight” study, and the speaker himself is immediately identified as being “weak and weary.” December is “bleak,” embers are “dying,” and “ghosts” dance across the floor, portraying a gloomy and uninviting room. The narrator’s reaction to this setting is equally important, as the speaker “eagerly” waits for dawn and a new day. Before we know what will happen, we know everything about the poem’s mood, from the depressed speaker in the dark and ominous room, to the troubling thoughts he holds of the “lost Lenore.” Poe throws us immediately into a world where nothing good will happen, and requires us only to pay attention as unfortunate events unfold themselves around a speaker we can already identify as being in a sorry state of mind.
Before dissecting entirely the symbolism centering around The Raven’s eponymous character, it is important to recognize the effect that said raven had on the poem’s narrator, and to begin to examine how the speaker’s perception of the Raven influences the importance the raven will come to assume. From the moment the Raven enters the speaker’s room in the seventh stanza, it is described as “stately,” hardly a word which fits a little animal known for hopping about and subsisting at times on carrion. The speaker sees something regal in the Raven, something which separates it immediately from the dumb beasts of the world. As the bird enters, it jumps onto a “bust of Pallas,” the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom. This subtle symbolism may be lost on all but the closest readers, but is noteworthy to the speaker retelling the tale, who is a learned man and sees importance in the bird’s choosing wisdom to perch upon. Even when the bird begins to speak, which should be enough to frighten any man reading late into the night, the narrator expresses that he was “marveled,” implying again that the Raven initially is seen by the speaker as an interesting and noteworthy creature, not deserving of a terrified reaction, but “ungainly” and somehow otherworldly. Of course, in keeping with the dark and ominous tone of the poem foreshadowing terrors from the first lines, the speaker’s perceptions will begin to change.
Whether or not a speaking raven actually confronted the troubled man recounting a dismal night, or whether or not there was any raven at all, becomes insignificant as the speaker’s perception of the Raven changes rapidly from confused to terrified. At first the Raven’s never ending chorus of “Never more” strikes the speaker as possessing “little meaning,” but soon he understands that the reply is “aptly spoken.” The narrator becomes enthralled with the eerie bird so often associated with bad omen, and sits in front of it in awe. As the speaker poses questions to the Raven and is continually rebutted by “Nevermore,” he becomes enraged at the wisdom of what should be a mute animal, yet continues to question more. His attacks on the Raven progress into a frenzy, as he hopes to hear the bird answer other than the glum outlook it continually utters. Again and again though, the Raven echoes “Nevermore.”
The speaker poses questions to what he knows to be a witless animal because he believes there may be some other answer to the darkest questions poseable. He screams half to himself and half to the bird to “forget the lost Lenore,” but is answered “Nevermore.” He begs relief, pleading “Is there balm in Gilead?” a reference to the land across the river Jordan, which some is the speculated origin of Eden myths and refers to the afterlife or some divine place of perfection. “Nevermore.” Will the speaker ever again see his lost love? Will he hold the lost Lenore? “Nevermore.” The questions are important, but the speakers asking of them, when he knows the answer he will receive, knows the unkind words the bird will speak as it’s “only stock and store,” highlights the symbolic value of the Raven.
When we are up late into the night trying not to think about the horrors we have seen, there are always questions. Is there an afterlife? What happen when we die, and why must we die, and why does everyone die when they least expect it, when they have nothing but unfinished business and no knowledge that death could be theirs? What lies within the darkness? The raven is the answer. In the back of our minds, we all know. There is no afterlife, nothing, no time when we will hold our families again or be healed by Gilead’s balm. There is nothing in the darkness waiting for us but more darkness, stretching into an eternity of darkness that will never be conquered, never be distilled by our hands or the hands of any. The Raven’s speaker knows every answer before he asks, just as we all do. We ask because we need to pretend that there is uncertainty. We need to hope that maybe there is something waiting, a light at the end of the tunnel. A lost lover’s arms. But the Raven knows no hope, and speaks only truth. “Nevermore.” In the end, the Raven “still is sitting,” still is haunting the poem’s speaker and will not leave and will not stop calling his deathly call. The speaker questioned, but when he found answers wished he could escape.
Poe warns us against ourselves in The Raven. He warns us that we will not like what we find. From the start any reader can see that The Raven will be dark, but the depth of the darkness it assumes spans the depth of our inability to confront death. Poe enters the mind of his speaker, the destroyed psyche of an unfortunate who was visited by questions he could not turn away from and lost part of himself in the asking, lost his spirit with questions that are already answered. Human optimism begs us not to ask. In order to function we have to hope that everything we know deep down, everything we fear and every truth about death that we cannot avoid is somehow still uncharted territory, somehow waters where we will find beauty rather than emptiness. Poe’s nightmare is The Raven which greets us at the end, and tells us the despair that is hiding in the “shadow that lies floating on the floor.” The shadow that is lifted “nevermore.”
"Anabell Lee" Analysis
Love poems are the hardest ones to write right. Everyone has or will know love, be it a mother’s embrace or a mistress’s kiss. But no one ever has or ever will define it, will ever embody any emotion’s entirety in a concrete form. Shakespeare comes close to dispelling the darkness in his 116th sonnet, when he calls love the thing that doesn’t “alter when alteration finds.” Love is acceptance, or the inability to wish better of a person who never could improve. Love is wanting someone for who they are because you cannot imagine them ever being anything else. But for some, Shakespeare falls short. Because the kind of worshipful love deserving of poetry can be manifested in so many ways and laced with so many shades of so many colors, it is not possible to capture, not possibly to recreate with words. As an only alternative, Poets often abandon the concept of addressing what love is directly, and instead focus on an aspect of being infatuated more easily identified. In his lamenting ode to lost things entitled “Anabel Lee,” Poe describes what it means to love and lose, to be robbed by death and not be able to accept that the boundaries of the grave can limit the power of adoration, and further implies that such devoted and limitless love is unrealistic.
"Anabell Lee" Reading
The imagery utilized by Poe is at once ethereal and scornful, and serves the dual functions of illuminating the speaker’s pure angelic love and conveying Poe’s opinion that such love fosters naivety. The speaker’s voice is dripping with the most banal of sentimentalities. As he pronounces that “The moon never beams without bringing me dreams/ of the beautiful Anabell Lee,” a picture is drawn of a completely obsessed youth, of a man totally in the throes of lost love. We can picture a hurt but devoted soul literally lying in bed in devotion, thinking fondly and forlornly of the thing that has left him. But Poe injects imagery that is at once satirical and intentionally laden with bathos in order to demonstrate that his narrator’s feelings about his lost love are immature and naïve. The Poem’s central character, the surviving lover, blames “the winged seraphs of heaven” for separating him from his lover out of jealousy. The imagery Poe includes of clouds blowing wind at angel’s bidding is almost ridiculous, and illustrates the speaker’s inability to come to terms with the very uninteresting and commonplace real reason for his loneliness. It is apparent that the dead girl was likely killed by pneumonia or some other disease brought on by cold and wet, and the narrator’s inability to accept this fact and accept the finality of what his love became speaks towards the poem’s central cynical message.
Poe’s ultimately pessimistic statement is carried through the entirety of the poem through his repetition of several key line, and the metaphor he creates and rejects as the poem changes from a lyrical ballad to an eerie epitaph. Throughout the entirety of the poem, the speaker constantly references his now lost “Anabell Lee.” His language surrounding her name changes drastically as the ballad progresses however; first she is “beautiful” and they experienced “more than love,” and then she was “chilled and killed.” While the speakers condition has changed drastically, and he has gone from being a young man consumed by passion to a mourning one overridden by memories better than his reality, he never changes his opinion of “Anabell Lee,” never treats her with anything less than reverence, even as he saddens and rightfully comes to the point in his mourning where he should move on.
The second refrain the speaker reiterates several times creates a metaphor that serves to describe his love as a foolish one. The “kingdom by the sea” is less a physical setting for the story than a metaphysical backdrop, a perfect world upon which the events of reality are juxtaposed. The “kingdom by the sea” represents the speaker’s conceptualization of happiness, from the first stanza where he is in love to the last where he pathetically lays beside the dead body of the person he cannot let go. The “kingdom by the sea” introduces an element of sad irony into the tale of Anabell Lee and her lover; while Anabell has died and her betrothed should live where she cannot, or at least try for some semblance of happiness, he instead lays down beside her as if he were dead, living forever in the “kingdom by the sea” instead of accepting that his reality is no longer what he wishes it could be.
Of all the men given reason to live in a dream world, Poe ranks among those who could claim the most justification for accepting illusion over the stark disillusionment of reality. And yet he proclaims in “Anabell Lee” that the waking world is always the one we should inhabit, and the world of dreams and memories should never become a place we cannot escape. Anabell’s lover cannot stop loving her, will not accept that death has the power to destroy what we hold dear in the world. He grasps at what he cannot hold, and in the process losses himself to sorrow, and becomes dead in every sense of the word, throwing himself at his dead lover’s tomb instead of becoming a new person without the help of Anabell. Poe portrays a naïve love that abides in an optimistic kingdom where everything is right, but warns that such a love is not possible, and striving for what is lost will only force those left behind into a world where they themselves are incapable of living
"The Bells" Analysis
Words possess meaning because of our ability to perceive meaning in them. Their form, sound, expression; words define themselves in our personal and collective consciousnesses because of what they are. Sense from sound. Poetry is unique in its ability to remind us of the power of a word’s shape. In his highly rhythmic poem The Bells, Edgar Allen Poe exalts the sound and texture of words, admires their ability to make us comprehend and interpret their sounds, and by doing so intentionally forsakes all pretenses of meaning words can assume from an intellectual or logical perspective. Through the employment of overstated repetition, sophisticated and out of place diction coupled with highly textured and musically expressive sound dynamics and pacing, as well as the stressing of exaggerated rhyme and the inclusion of melodically fluctuating metrical patterns, Poe forces us to concentrate on a poem that abandons intellect and constructs sense instead from pure sound.
"The Bells" Musical Reading
Repetition serves Poe in the function of devaluing a words meaning. It is hard to take a statement seriously that occurs literally dozens of times. The word “bells” rings that many in the first stanza alone! Words like “knells” and phrases like “In a sort of Runic Rhyme,” both in the included in the last stanza as well as elsewhere, might assume significance if stated once, but their repetition demands that readers not digest the words for their meaning, but rather for their sound. Repetition often serves to heighten the impact of phrases in conventional poetry, but in Poe’s musical composition, the extremely exaggerated sense of words reoccurring, sometimes every other sentence or more, makes us forget they mean anything at all. The content of The Bells could have fit into one brief and compact stanza, but the musicality Poe achieves through repetition fills nearly three pages. Since the content is over taxed for the expanded product, and is literally stretched so thin that any attempted interpretation based on denotative rationality would be foolish, we must assume that words are included not for their meaning, but rather for the rhythms and pitches they possess and produce.
Poe continues his pursuit of separating words from their meaning by sporadically incorporating words whose definitions beg to be investigated. Some poetry should be read with a dictionary, but The Bells possesses such a driving rhythm that the moment it takes to Google a word’s meaning is a moment that disrupts the flow of euphonic noise enveloping a reader. The word “tintinnabulation,” towards the end of the first stanza, literally means “the ringing or sound of bells.” But Poe probably included the expression less for its reference to the poem’s title, and more because the word itself sounds like a bell ringing. It fits syllabically, and when read aloud sounds right. You don’t need to know what it means to see that it is the right word for its home. Similarly Poe includes the line “What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!” in the middle of the second verse entirely without expecting that readers understand the words meanings entirely. Lines later he makes a biblical allusion to the rapture, but if you didn’t know what the rapture was you wouldn’t be missing any broader statements the poem makes. In fact, even if you do know about the rapture, by the time you stop and think about how it might tie into the words that surround it, you have once again lost the rhythm of the verse. In this manner, Poe asks that you don’t think and absolutely don’t carry a dictionary, but instead presents an exhibition of musicality; a poem which could be written in French or composed of jargon, but would possess significance in the same way it already does in either case. Poe isn’t trying for Shakespeare, but achieves Beethoven.
Sense is made from the sounds of The Bells in a multitude of ways. Poe utilizes an oft diverging and wildly erratic metrical structure to emphasize a sense of melody throughout the piece. The first line is composed of common enough iambs, but in the second line Poe includes a single eccentric amphimacer. At times he switches between meters within lines, as in the iambic to trochaic switch in the fourth line: “How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.” The oft switching meter within The Bells looks random, but through its scattered structurelessness forces readers to pay attention. Poe demands readers listen to the rhythms and their novelty, demands considerations are paid to sound. Aside from attention winning shock value, the rapidly changing meter makes The Bells sound more like a melody than a counter rhythm. Without a steady pulse that carries through from line to line, readers cannot imagine a beating drum, but must instead picture a singing voice. Or a dozen wind chimes, or ringing bells. Meter contributes in part to the musicality of The Bells.
Stories can be told with phrases built from words, but can also be created from phrases of arrangements of sound. John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” weaves tales of romance and passion between new lovers without a lyric, in the same manner that we can guess what songs in other languages are about, in the same manner that The Bells abandons words entirely in its crafting of narrative. The tone in the first stanza is whimsical and light, and oozes innocence. Stars “twinkle” with “delight,” and a ringing sound “musically wells.” The second stanza feels slightly more mature, possibly because of its longer length, but still speaks of a “liquid ditty” floating from chiming sounds, of swelling and dwelling and chiming. A taste of naivety is also conferred, as the future is awaited gloriously. The thirds stanza recollects an awakening of violent disillusionment, as a “terror” is introduced and “danger ebbs and flows.” Less punctuation and shorter lines demands a faster pace, as the bells ring almost desperately and with frantic and angry resentment. The last stanza becomes monotonous and trance like, and is mostly written in an iambic tetrameter that speaks of melancholy and funeral marches. You can imagine a grim resettling of faithlessness in the last verse, a new outlook much more pessimistic than the “silver bells” ringing in the first stanza. Without understanding English or think about the words digested at all, a reader could picture an arching story of youth and old age, of innocence and resentment, or of happiness and sorrow. There is narrative without literal narration.
The Bells is built with a peculiar genius. If every difficult word is looked up, and every allusion unraveled and understood, the tale told is a similar one to the things you could comprehend without comprehending any allusions or definitions at all. The sound of the poem conveys an almost identical meaning as the intellectual interpretation would; every stanza, every line, every word can assume meaning whether or not you interpret literal meaning in them. Poe’s task was a difficult one. In order to be certain that readers will not value words, first they must be systematically devalued and stripped of any meaning they can assume, left bare and bereft of significance, remarkable only for their shapes and the tones they create. Poe wanted to write a poem that could be understood without words. He succeeded in fabricating a musical composition in a few short pages of verse, succeeded in birthing a work of art without profound meaning or moral, but with such revolutionary and ingenious execution that profound meaning and moral comes to life through sound.
“Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems.”3rd edition. Castle Books. New York, New York. 2002.
Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. “Chronology of the Life of Edgar Allan Poe.” 2009. http://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poechron.htm
Giordano, Robert. "A short biography of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)." 2005. http://www.poestories.com/biography.php
Mabbott, T. “Collected Works of Edgar Allan, Volume I, Poems.” Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1969.
Mayes, F. “The Discovery of Poetry.” 1st edition. Harcourt Brace and Company. Orlando, Florida. 2001
Perrine L. and Arp Thomas. “Sound and Sense.” 8th edition. Harcourt Brace and Company. Orlando, Florida. 1992
Wilson, James Southal. “Poe’s Life.” Poemuseum.org. http://www.poemuseum.org/poes_life/index.html#top
What did I miss? What parts of my analysis do you agree or disagree with?
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