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Influences on Edgar Allan Poe's Writing
Edgar Allan Poe
The Man Who Cast A Shadow On His Work:
Did you ever wonder how someone could possibly conceive of Death putting on a costume and attending a masquerade ball (“The Masque of the Red Death”), or a person who feels compelled to commit murder simply because his neighbor’s eye is disburbing, or a man being driven crazy by a big black bird (“The Raven”)? If you’re one of Edgar Allan Poe’s multitude of fans , there are many times you might have questioned the thin line that separates insanity and brilliant creativity. Often writers are inspried by people, places and events from their own lives. If that is indeed the case, then Poe certainly must have had some wicked skeletons in his closets.
Born in 1809, Edgar Poe went on to live a life with more than his share of tragedy. Each of Poe’s parents, both of whom were actors, had exited his life before Edgar was three years old; his father deserted the family, and his mother died of tuberculosis. Young Edgar was taken into the home of a wealthy, childless couple, Mr. And Mrs. John Allan (hence the middle name, although the Allans never got around to adopting him), who for many years spoiled their foster son. Edgar loved his foster mother, but the relationshp between Edgar and Mr. Allan became strained and contentious. Spending much of his brief time at the University of Virginia drinking and gambling, Edgar was forced to drop out because, for one thing, his disgusted foster father refused to pay off his gambling debts. Edgar then proceeded to lie about his age (18) in order to join the army. Two years later, while attempting release from his five-year enlistment, his foster mother died of tuberculosis, the same affliction that had taken his mother. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Allan stepped in and helped Edgar secure an appointment to West Point. His West Point career was cut short, however, by an expulsion due to his refusal to abide by the strict rules of the Academy. Not long after that, Edgar's on-and-off estrangement from Mr. Allan became permanent.
Poe's Art Reflects His Life And Times
Throughout his life, Edgar Allan Poe forged much stronger relationships with women than he did with men, probably in large part because of the abandonment by his father and subsequent relationship with his foster father. Also, Poe had an ongoing feud with Thomas Dunn English, one of his literary rivals, whom Poe sued for libel after the publication of English”s novel, 1844. With an alcoholic character who wrote the thinly-disguised “The Black Crow, ”1844 clearly mocked Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” going so far as to use actual words from Poe’s masterpiece such as “Lenore” and “nevermore.”
Poe’s relationships (or lack thereof) with the males in his life certainly influenced stories like “The Casque of Amontillado,” whose main character, Montressor, sets out to seek revenge upon Fortunato, whom Montressor perceives as having insulted him. ( The high strung, sensitive Poe was also said to have quite a temper.) The unfortunate Fortunato finds himself walled up inside a vault were wine is kept. (Coincidentally , a vault also played a part in 1844. ) “The Casque of Amontillado” might also reflect the fear of live burial which was prevalent in the 1800’s. In fact, this fear was so haunting that bodies were sometimes buried with bells that ostensibly could signal the reality of a live burial. In Poe’s story, the inebriated Forunato, headed for a carnival, is wearing a jester’s costume complete with bells on the hat. The fact that he ends up buried alive- with bells- certainly would seem to reflect that odd custom, which also comes to mind when one reads Poe’s story “The Premature Burial.”
Alcohol: Clouding Judgment Or Enhancing Creativity?
The inebriated main character in “The Casque of Amontillado” could also be a reflection of Poe’s alcoholic father and/or Edgar's own reckless drinking habits and their negative consequences. (Remember when Poe was forced to drop out of college thanks to his misplaced focus on drinking and gambling? Another time, Poe’s drinking caused him to lose his job as a magazine editor. ) In another of his Gothic horror stories, “The Black Cat,” the narrator is driven by his alcoholic state first to gouge out the eye of Pluto, the family cat, then to hang the poor animal, and finally to murder his wife and literally “wall in” the body. He realizes too late that his replacement black cat, another Pluto (Black= death/evil; Pluto= god of the underworld) is also encased behind the wall. This Pluto, of course, is very much alive and has a fine set of lungs with which to alert the police that a murder has been committed.
The setting and often the atmosphere of many of Poe’s works are Gothic in nature, a feature that often characterized Romantic writings. Poe’s preference for the Gothic undoubtedly was influenced by his five-year stint at a private school called Manor House, located outside of London. (He parents moved to England for a few years for business reasons.) From the time he was six years old until he was eleven, Poe lived in a village filled with old houses and huge, ancient trres at a school rife with Gothic architecture and Gothic ambience: dark, narrow hallways, a cramped bedroom, assorted nooks and crannies, and a classic curriculum. (Manor House most likely was the place where Poe first encountered his fascination with languages, also.) Although he had been born in Boston and lived for some time in Richmond, Virgina, many of the Gothic features in so many of his writings can be traced back to the five years he spent in England. Perhaps none of his works illustrates thiis Gothic influence as much as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The house of the story’s title seems to be Gothic personified; from the beginning of the tale, Poe gives the palatial, ancient structure human qualities which are empasized right up until the end, when the house “dies.” (“Human” inspiration for this story also could be attributed to the fact that a very real couple named Mr. and Mrs. Luke Usher took care of the Poe children while their mother was dying.) The Gothic setting pervades many of Poe’s other works: “The Casque of Amontilldo,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and, of course, “The Raven,” just to name a few.
Poe's Own Explanation?
Throughout his life, Poe often seemed to teeter on the fragile borders of sanity, a situation which he recognized and which he used to his advantage as a teller of terrible tales. (The man credited as being The Father of the Short Story felt that each story should be written to achieve just one effect upon its readers. In his case, the effect usually is one of horror.) More than once he created characters whose sanity comes increasingly into question as the story progrsses. Some of these characters, like the narrator of “The Telltale Heart,” spend far too much time trying to assure us (or themselves, perhaps?) that “....why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses- not destroyed- not dulled them.” (The “disease” to which the narrator refers, hyperesthesia, or overly acute senses, appears in other Poe characters, such as Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the narrator of “The Black Cat.”) Also, the 1840’s saw increasing controversy over the insanity defense as a legal manuever. This, too, probably played into Poe's fascination with that thin line between sanity and its derangedcousin, aka the other side of the coin. As his story lines progress, their narrators/main characters descend into the depths of insanity, just as Poe's life of tragic loss progressed, plunging him into despair and madness. His characters' "hyperesthesia" often ends up reflecting their guilt. In "The Telltale Heart," for example, the narrator is driven to murder just by the sight of an old man's eye. By the end of the story, his sense of hearing is so sharp that he thinks he hears the dead man's heart still beating and is driven to confess to the murder. The reader, however, realizes it's the narrator's guilt that condemns him.
Poe's Fascination With Death
Perhaps Poe’s flair for the dramatic was his inheritance from his actor-parents. At any rate, it is evident in virtually all of his short stories and poems, as is his eerie obsession with death. The fact that he lost so many people he loved- his mother, his foster mother, his brother, and his wife- to tuberculosis speaks volumes. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” written just before his wife’s death from tuberculosis, Poe personifies Death as it enters a costume ball held by a wealthy young man at his palatial quarters and pursues him and his guests. Poe ostensibly might have coupled his personal experiences with death and his pre-estrangement life as a member of a wealthy family to show that no matter who you are, death can not be avoided. Indeed, in “the Mask of the Red Death,” the uninvited guest takes the life of not only the wealthy Prince but the lives of the other revelers as well. The Red Death was a fictionalized plague; one of its symptoms was causing its victims to sweat blood. In reality, the first sign that Poe’s young wife, Virginia, had tuberculosis was when she coughed up blood. Another possible “inspiration” for the story could be the fact that Poe witnessed the vicious cholera epidemic in Baltimore in 1831.
A Master At Work, A Man In Despair
Considering the fact that Death took several of the people whom Edgar Allan Poe loved dearly, three of whom were women, it’s no surprise that many of his works focus on the death of a beautiful woman. (He also most likely was influenced by the writings of the English Romantic poet he most admired, Lord Byron, who wrote about beautiful women, darkness, and death.)The woman Poe seemed to mourn with his entire being was of course, his wife, Virginia Clemm, the “lost Lenore” that the narrator of “The Raven” finally realizes he will see “nevermore.” (Why did he decide to call her “Lenore” in his poem? Try to think of a few poetic words that rhyme with “Virginia.”) Virginia Clemm, whom Poe married when she was thirteen and he was twenty-seven, was not only his wife. She also was the cousin he met when he lived with his aunt, Virgina’s mother, after Mr. Allan had washed his hands of his foster son. (His unconventional marriage, which Poe tended to view as celestial, might have been subconsciously reflected in subtle hints of incest between twins Roderick and Madeline in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”)
When Death "Came Knocking" at Poe's Door
In an eerie scenario, Poe allegedly wrote “The Raven” while sitting on a velvet-covered sofa in a room filled with the shadows cast by a sputtering fire just next to the room where his beloved Virgina was dying a slow, painful death. Indeed, the descent into madness that Poe had feared for much of his life is reflected in the increasingly desperate tone of his poem. At first, the poem’s narrator simply wonders why a raven, of all things, has chosen to knock on his “chamber door” at midnight (or any time, for that matter, but midnight is more sinister). When the narrator asks the raven its name (a clear sign that the narrator’s sanity might be questionable), the bird answers, “Nevermore” and continues to perch on the bust of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom. (This is one of many classical references Poe makes in his works.) The narrator goes on to ask the bird questions and make requests that can be roughly translated: 1) Are you going to leave me, just as everyone I ever loved has done? 2) Please give me relief , and help me forget about the woman I loved and lost! 3) Will I ever feel better? and 4) Will I ever see my lost love again, even in Heaven? When the raven replies, “Nevermore” to all of his queries, the narrator loses his temper as he has lost his hope and orders the raven to leave. The raven’s final reply of “Nevermore” seems to seal the hapless narrator’s fate: the raven will be with him forever, reminding him of his eternal loss, thereby sinking him into the depths of madness and despair.
Poetry As A Mirror of the Master
There is little doubt that every loss suffered by Poe carried him down another rung on the ladder of despair, until the final tragic loss of the woman who had kept him grounded nudged him over the edge of sanity. “The Raven” is particularly haunting since the narrator’s turbulent, terrible journey into the realm of total despair so closely mirrors Poe’s own experience. As is true in so many of his poems, the effect of horror is developed and enhanced by the use of brilliantly crafted rhythm/meter (most lines in “The Raven” are written in octameter, or eight stressed syllables, which helps achieve the haunting effect); repitition (e.g., “Nevermore”) and rhyme, including many examples of internal rhyme; rich figurative language (similes, metaphors, alliteration, personification, hyperbole); and literary allusions ( e.g., the bust of Pallas). Some of these writing skills probably were introduced when Poe studied in England and were honed throughout his career. He used them in virtually all of his poetry, including poems like “The Bells,” which uses personification and particularly onomaopoeia (sound) to achieve the final effect of total despair. The tinkling silver bells in the first stanza are carefree and joyful; by the time the iron bells “clang, and clash, and roar” in the last stanza, a feeling of hopelessness has been gradually and clearly communicated to its readers. A similar effect is created in Poe’s final poem, “Annabel Lee” which actually was published after his death. Like “The Raven,” the narrator of “Anabel Lee” laments his loss of a beautiful, beloved woman until he, essentially, is driven mad by his own demons. Poe's poetry becomes even more poignant for his readers when they realize how clearly the verses reflect their creator.
....And There Was So Much More
Many people are surprised to learn that Edgar Allan Poe also is known as The Father of the Detective Story. His interest in that genre probably developed from his fascination with and love of logic. It might seem like a stretch to think of Poe as a "puzzle person," but some people think that this side of him helped Poe stay in touch with reality. His super sleuth who uses logic and reason (e.g. C. Auguste Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") to solve crimes actually was the prototype for all those famous fictional detectives that followed. Poe's use of logic might also be responsible, at least in part, for the reason he was known as a brilliant critic.
Considering all the heartbreak Edgar Allan Poe suffered, it is amazing that he was able to create so many incredible pieces of prose and poetry before his premature death at the age of forty. Of course, that heartbreak, ironically, provided him with much of the inspiration for those masterpieces. After his wife died, Poe had turned to alcohol and drugs- opium, to be exact. He was found unconscious in Baltimore and died several days later. As was true with much of his life, his death still remains a mystery. Perhaps he wanted it written that way.