Edgar Allan Poe was a master of his craft, gifted with the talent of introducing each reader to his or her own fears. As the first writer to compose tales of horror, death, and mystery into literature and poetry, he is blessed, maybe even cursed, with an imagination that set higher standards in the field of writing. However sinister or dark it may be, Poe’s writing continues to have an impact on the world of writing. A look into Poe’s childhood might shed some light on where his fascination with death comes from.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts to drifting actor parents. Denying his parental responsibilities, Edgar’s father abandoned his wife and children, leaving her to support the family as best she could. He died somewhere around 1810. His mother traveled through various cities acting in as many stage performances as she could get, but the struggle eventually took a toll on her health. Towards the end of 1811, shortly after turning 2, while in Richmond, Virginia, she became ill and died. Her three children were put into homes. His brother William died young, his sister Rosalie later became insane, and Edgar was placed into the home of a well-off, yet unsupportive man named John Allan. Allan was emotionally detached from Poe, refusing to even legally adopt the boy. This move would begin a chain of events, eventually triggering a drinking problem, that would cause majority of Poe’s psychological troubles later in life. He was raised in an wealthy home, but lacked the emotional support needed to build determination and confidence in himself.
Edgar would attend the finest boarding schools to train to be a proper gentleman. But, when it came time to go to the University of Virginia in 1826, his foster father barely gave him enough money to survive. In those days, the average college freshman was nineteen years old. Edgar was certainly wise beyond his years, enrolling in college only a month after his seventeenth birthday. This made it harder on Edgar to survive out on his own at such an early age. John Allan had always been strict and harsh, and sometimes even cruel to Edgar, but this was the first time he denied him the means to survive outside of his home. Adding insult to injury, he also forbade Edgar to study what his heart so desired: poetry. Going against Allan’s orders was not an option; what little money he was given to live off of would have been taken away. In an effort to make his money stretch out while in college, Poe turned to gambling, but like so many other gamblers he lost all of his money while developing a terrible addiction. In short, his first term in college was not a success. When the semester was over Allan removed him from the University and forced him to work at his (Allan’s’) firm. When he came home, he was devastated to find out his first love, Elmira Royster, had married someone else. After, he had joined the Army, but then enrolled into West Point Academy.
Before Edgar was forced to leave the University of Virginia, he unfortunately discovered alcohol. Beginning in college and continuing through the rest of his life, Poe would struggle with a drinking problem that earned him a broad reputation for being a crazy drunk. Though he frequently tried to quit drinking, it was never long before he would relapse and drink again. Considering all that is known about the effects of alcohol on the brain, it is possible that he never reached his full capabilities as a writer. Or, it is what made him the writer we know today. One wonders if his topics of writing (i.e., death, horror and fantasy) would have been the same if his youth hadn’t been so traumatic or his drinking so serious.
When Poe was 27-year-old, he married his cousin Virginia Clemm. She was only 13-years-old. It is only natural that he was unfaithful. When his wife died in 1847, the alcohol and drug abuse carried on even further, and he began to deteriorate. He started to use opium, laudanum, and morphine. Opium was prescribed to him, as it was an over-the-counter drug at the time, but Edgar abused his prescription. It was also speculated that Poe had some sexual problems as well. Allegedly, he was impotent, and possibly a necrophilia (a person who has sex, or wishes to have sex, with corpses). His life was just as morbid, twisted, and chaotic as his stories.
Edgar’s main focuses in writing are horror, fantasy, and murder, with the subject of death cited in most of his works. His many writings reflect an imagination that most of his readers will only experience when dreaming at night. Poe takes death a step further than the simple act and explores the processes and avenues of death. Nearly all of his works contained many versions of this single theme. “Berenice,” “Morella,” and Ligeia” all deal with the deaths of beautiful women. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is another tale focusing on death, and is probably his best known. Other stories that ponder the areas of death include “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Assignation,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Premature Burial.” Regardless of the story, though, Edgar had an elaborate voice that made the reader identify with what he was trying to portray.
In his more popular poem “The Raven”, Poe takes his readers through the heart of misery with a dark shadow of terror. The narrator is a man home alone at night mourning the loss of his love Lenore. As he reads and nods in and out of sleep, a “rapping at his chamber door” wakes him, eventually leading him to the infamous Raven. While he at first seeks to understand this black and mysterious bird, momentarily forgetting about the death of Lenore, he is suddenly struck with the idea that this bird is sent from either Heaven or Hell. Does it send word of Lenore? Can it tell him where her soul is? As it sits on the bosom of Pallas, goddess of wisdom, only one word will escape its beak: “Nevermore”. Instead of bringing peace to his broken heart, it only seems to breed more agony. Poe’s description of the pain and terror that this man is experiencing demonstrates his love of words and their power to control the human heart.
Edgar Allan Poe’s death was as mysterious and strange as his life and stories. To this day, the cause of his death is unknown. Some say it was the drugs; some the mental stress and disorder; and some an illness. Whatever the case may be, that fateful day of October 7, 1849, his days of brilliance came to an end.