Thursday, March 27, 2014

Edgar Allan Poe Stands Alone

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literarture.

No other writer in 19th century America even remotely resembles the death-obsessed, melancholy, despairing, drug-crazed horror of Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe stands alone.  As one might expect from his writings, he had a hard life.  His wives and lovers were constantly dying, he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, and he was a full-blown alcoholic.  He died at age 40 in a park in Baltimore, friendless and penniless.  But he left behind a collection of poetry and short stories that were revolutionary and timeless.

The first sentence of Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” beautifully captures the tone and spirit of the writer: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy house of Usher.”  Melancholy, dreariness, and bleakness define this story, and most of Poe’s stories. 

Unlike many American writers up to this point, who felt the need to have some kind of happy ending to their stories and poetry, Poe felt no such need.  His poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” are about the death of a lover, and they are both utterly hopeless.  “The Raven” ends,  

“And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor
And my soul from out that that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!” 

“Annabel Lee” is similarly hopeless.  The narrator describes how his wife became ill and died, and how this emotionally destroyed him:

"And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulcher by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

For Poe, as for many writers, his art became a way for him to deal with the pain and suffering of his life.   He looked, clear-eyed at the horrors of his life, and sought to capture that truth.  Ironically, even though Poe’s poetry and stories are bleak and hopeless, there is also a beauty to them.  It is the beauty of Greek tragedy.  When reading these awful stories, we experience a kind of catharsis, which (hopefully) allows us to confront, and deal with, the suffering in our own lives.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

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