The name Edgar Allen Poe has always been shrouded in horror, mystery, and wonderment. He is one of the most celebrated writers in American history, if not in the history of the entire world. Yet, it is not just his works that have captivated the minds and tortured the hearts of readers across the globe. His life of tragedy, ire, loss, and disappointment contributes greatly to his mystique. For most of his life he lived in poverty, with many enemies and only a penniless pen and a bottle of booze to keep him company. This brought further dissent from those who knew him during his life and times. In this day and age, he is probably one of the most well studied alcoholics this world has ever known, yet many readers overlook or are completely oblivious to this fact. Many know that Poe is a master of evoking horror, shock, and sorrow into the reader of his works, yet few readers wonder why someone would write such grotesque stories. Through all of the shades of gray, black, and red in Poe's works, there is a very striking connection between them and him. The works of Edgar Allen Poe are a very striking reflection of important events of his life.
Edgar Poe was born in Boston in the year 1809. Shortly after his birth, his father ran off. Thus, Poe was left with only his loving mother Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins, a very talented actress, to take care of him and his siblings. She traveled around the east coast, earning money where she could in order to take care of her three children. However, she became sick with consumption, which was a diagnosis for diseases ranging from turburculosis to throat cancer, in Richmond, VA and died. Poe was a boy at the age of two when he witnessed his mother dying, completely oblivious to the reasons why. This was the first major tragedy of Poe's life, and he would not be able to fully shake off the effects of losing his mother for the rest of his days.
If losing his mother was the first tragedy in Poe's life, then being taken in by John Allan as a foster child was his second. Allan, who had a few mistresses seven children, did not pay much attention to Poe at first. However, since it was his obligation to raise the orphaned Poe, Allan took Poe with the rest of the Allan family to England so that the orphan could learn how to be a gentleman. Poe would carry this gentlemanly mind set for the rest of his life. Poe and the Allans soon moved back to Richmond, VA. There, at the age of seventeen, Poe met the first love of his life, Jane Stith Stanard, the mother of one of his playmates. Poe's idea of love was not one of lustful sex. Rather, it was much more of an ideological love that lasted for ages, the kind that a mother would give to a child. That is something Poe yearned for, and in an attempt to woo her, he wrote "To Helen."
It was clear that Poe is yearning for the ideal woman in "To Helen," and he saw Stanard as such a lady. This poem was a direct allusion to the Greek character Helen of Troy, whose beauty was so grand divine that it caused the Trojan War. Poe described her outer beauty as "They hyacinth hair, they classic face," and Poe calls himself "The weary, way-worn wanderer" who must have been seeking her for so long. It is also clear that Poe saw her inner beauty as well and yearned for it just the same in the line "Ah, Psyche, from the regions which are Holy-Land!" This poem probably flattered Stanard, but it surely did nothing more but prove Poe as an idealistic young boy.
By the time Poe was 19, his foster father, John Allan, began to become very annoyed with his son. They were two very different people, Poe the young idealist who lived in a world of fantasy, and Allan, a man who knew the realism of the business world as a successful merchant. Therefore, Allan decided to send Poe away to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville so that he might get a taste of the real world. There he left Poe to fend for himself, with a small allowance of money being his only support. Poe repeatedly sent letters to his father, first asking why he hadn't sent any money, then begging for money, then finally expressing his vehement hatred for his foster father. He hated his father so much that for the rest of his life, Poe would sign all of his legal documents under the name Edgar A. Poe. He would hold this hatred towards John Allan, his male father figure for the rest of his days, and it carried over into many of his works.
Poe spent much of his college days doing two things. One of these was gambling, mainly because Poe was in desperate need of money since his father sent him an allowance of around one dollar a week. It was also the gentlemanly thing to do, though it put Poe into serious debt. The other thing Poe did throughout college was drink. It only took about one glass of any alcoholic substance to make Poe a very drunk man. However, Poe did not drink without cause. Up to this point in his life he has experienced very little happiness. He felt detached from everything and almost everyone. He had no memories of his real parents, but only those of a caring but submissive foster mother and those of a tyrant of a foster father. These ill feelings led Poe to become an alcoholic, and alcoholism lead to more horrifying thoughts and feelings within Poe. The demons of his constant drinking would haunt both his life and his works until the day of his death.
After a few terrible years at the University of Virginia, Poe dropped out and almost immediately fell in love with a lady named, Sarah Elmira Royster. Poe was hoping to marry her, but soon learned that Royster had already made plans to marry another man. Heartbroken, Poe returned to Boston, the city of his birth, in 1827 He was still in desperate need of money, so he found a publisher to print some of his poems. This book, called Tamerlane and Other Poems, was a collection of poems he wrote from 1823 to 1827. He published the book under the anonymous name of "a Bostonian" in hopes of the book getting better recognition because it was written by a native Bostonian.
One very interesting poem from Tamerlane and Other Poems was "A Dream Within a Dream." This poem had tragic elements and an obvious tone of loss. Poe wrote this soon after he arrived to Boston, so it can be assumed that he still held some hard feelings about Royster. That was not the only thing Poe has lost though, as he implied with the metaphor of saving many grains of sand from one wave. Poe had lost many other things, such as his father, his mother, two siblings, his dignity, and for the most part, his hope. This sense of hopelessness is metaphorized by the speaker not being able to save a single grain of sand, which represents Poe not being able to hold onto any of the ideals he once held earlier in his life. "A Dream Within a Dream", was a poem with a very disillusioned tone that strongly reflects the struggles of Poe's early life.
The book did not sell and not a single critic noticed it. Thus, Poe was left with no money and no means to make any more money. Impoverished and disheartened, Poe decided to join the army, something he did not want to do. After a short stint in the Army under the name of Edgar A. Perry, and after achieving the rank of Sergeant Major, Poe was honorably discharged because of the death of his foster mother to consumption. Poe was sunk into another state of depression because he had lost another mother figure that he had loved dearly. Shortly afterward, Poe moved in with one of his biological brothers, William Poe, who was staying with Maria Clemm and Poe's future wife Virginia. Shortly after moving in, Poe was struck with another loss as William died of consumption. This led to a short but drudgerous time where Poe returned to Boston once again in 1931. There, he tried to make money by publishing more of his works in a volume called Poems by Edgar A. Poe, Second Edition.
"The City in the Sea," one poem in this selection, greatly reflected the recent turmoil of Poe's life. The city served as an excellent symbol for Poe's plight, the only mention of people were of those that were dead and in their graves, or of demons that arose from Hell. This could easily be linked to Poe's life, which had recently been filled with nothing but deaths of those close to him. If Poe used the city as himself, then the water around served as an effective symbol for his gradual deterioration. At first, "the melancholy waters lie." But after death called the waters forward and they strike the city forcefully until the entire city is swallowed by Hell. It is not surprising that the narrator of this poem would concentrate so much of the hellish qualities of the scene, since Poe's life was beginning to become a personal hell filled with the death of those he loved.
Poe's book received little notice, and only received a few free copies of the book as payment. A few weeks after publication, Poe received a letter in the mail from his foster father John Allan. In the letter, which was written on his death bed, Allan made a final declaration of how he hated his foster child and how Allan wished he never took him in to begin with. Not surprisingly, Allan leaves his foster child no money or property in his will.
After a short period of depression and massive substance abuse, Poe finds some form of happiness when he marries his fourteen year old cousin Virginia in 1836. However, their marriage was never consummated. Poe did not marry for sex, rather, he married for two other things that Virginia had. First, she gave him the kind of unconditional love that Poe had been missing for the vast majority of his life. Also, Virginia's mother, Maria Clemm, continued to live with her daughter and served as a mother figure to Poe, something that he had lacked his entire life.
Virginia, Maria, and Poe all moved to New York City for a short time, then to Philadelphia. In both places he wrote much for a few publications but earned little money. However, Poe was both inspired and cheerful compared to other times of his life. He also wrote some of his most notable works in Philadelphia during this period, including Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
Within this volume of tales was one story that was especially indicative of Poe's problems, "The Cask of Amontillado." This story could be interpreted so that Monresor was Edgar A. Poe, and Amontillado's rival, Fortunado, could be viewed as Poe's foster father, John Allan. In the story, the rich merchant Fortunado was very drunk when he sees the poor Monresor in the market. This was an important fact because this drunkenness reflected how much Poe despised being drunk. For all of his life, Fortunado had physically beaten Monresor when the need fit, but recently hurt him emotionally as well, much like John Allan did to his foster child. Thus, Monresor vowed to get revenge through murder, and Monresor leads the drunk Fortunado into a vault where Monresor keeps his wine. In the end, Monresor is able to trap Fortunado in a wall and leaves Fortunado there to die as Monresor happily goes away. This story confronts two of Poe's primary problems. First, the story reflected Poe's distaste for drunkenness, which was the part he liked least about his alcohol problems. Also, this story made a major point to give the imposing male authority figure, which is how Poe viewed his foster father, an unimaginably horrible death. Thus, this story revealed much about Poe's feelings over two things that plague him during his life.
Poe was not successful in Philadelphia, but he was still happy with his life, and with his beloved wife. However, these feelings of contentment changed quickly when Virginia began to cough up blood after popping a blood vessel in her throat. For a brief period of time, Poe went insane over the thought of losing his beloved wife to consumption, the disease that killed so many other people that were close to him. During these times Poe once again took to the bottle and drank massive quantities of alcohol, which only made his condition worse.
Eventually Virginia recovered well enough for Poe to move the whole family to New York City. Though his young wife had recovered from her illness, Poe was still shaken by the whole crisis. He continued to drink to kill the pain, but the pain would never leave his side. This paranoia of losing his most beloved loved one drove Poe to write his most famous poem.
"The Raven," in essence was a poem about Virginia and other female figures that Poe had lost. Throughout the poem, the speaker contemplated memories of a lost love named Lenore. This distant and deceased female figure could be taken as either Virginia, the love Poe had almost lost, or as Poe's mother or lack of a true maternal figure, since that was something Poe lost in his childhood. The raven entered the speaker's room rather suddenly. It soon sat on a mantle, looming over the speaker, watching him and mocking him with his eternal utterings of "nevermore." The raven could be seen as a symbol of death, and the man who yearns for Lenore as Poe himself. In this case, the thought of Virginia's death, or absence of a maternal figure and female companionship, loomed over Poe's head during these times, and he wrote about them in this poem. Thus, it is clearly evident that Poe was frightened by the possibility of the death of his wife Virginia, and with the loss of any female in his life as well. Poe took these fears and masterfully conveyed and incorporated them into "The Raven."
Though Poe received much critical acclaim for the publishing of The Raven and Other Poems, he received little money and was forced to move his family to a different part of New York. During the very cold winter of 1847, all of Poe's fears were realized. Virginia once again popped a blood vessel in her throat and died of consumption quickly afterwards. Maria Clemm also died during that winter, and Poe was left completely alone. With that, Poe snapped and drank more than he ever had before. He began to wander from bar to bar, lecturing the patrons about his theories of the universe. He was not taken seriously at all and thrown out of almost every establishment he stumbled into.
Almost immediately, Poe departs for Providence, RI, to try to run away from his past and his troubles. He needed female companionship, and the moment he met Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman during one of his lecture tours, he was completely taken by her. However, she eventually refused to marry him because of his drinking problems. After a failed attempt at overdosing on laudanum, Poe moved back to Richmond, Va. There his feelings of rejection when he met one of his childhood loves, the now widowed Sarah Elmira Royster. They both eagerly agreed to marry and to move up to New York City to live the rest of their days together.
All of their plans were dashed when Poe was found drunk and on the streets in Baltimore on October 3rd, 1849. He was taken to a doctor and for a time it appeared as if he might recover. However, four days later early in the morning, Poe broke out of a very tranquil state and screamed "God save my poor soul!" at demons on the wall that only he could see. He fell back to the bed and immediately found peace in death.
Poe's writing became very reflective by the time he was near his death. It was almost as if he knew his end was near. Thus, he began to ponder if everything in his life was worth anything and this reflective attitude upon life is shown greatly in the poems "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells."
In "Annabel Lee" the speaker, who could be Poe himself, is reflecting upon his dearly departed love, Annabel Lee, who may be seen as Poe's one true love, Virginia. The speaker remembered his times with her very fondly. He spoke of his love of her and her love of him as one of much innocence in saying "I was a child and she was a child". In the line "chilling and killing my Annabel Lee," Poe most likely spoke of the cold winter that killed his beloved wife, and of the pain that he suffered afterwards. This poem was a romantic ballad that expresses how Poe misses her, and how his spirit will live with her always. It is not surprising that Poe would want to lie by Virginia's sepulcher every night, especially considering Poe's only true moments of happiness were while he was with her. It was apparent in this poem that Poe was very lonely, and looks forward to his death so that he could be with her again.
"The Bells" may be interpreted as Poe, once again in the role of the speaker, discoursing to the reader the events of his life in four very distinct sections. The first contained silver bells, which usually are a sign of birth and youth. Poe spoke of his childhood, which in his mind was filled with hope and innocence that has not yet been shattered by maturity. The second section was wedding bells, which tells of Poe's happy times with Virginia. Things may look bad, the turtle-dove may be gloating over a full moon, but nothing was truly wrong because marriage was such a happy time. The third bells was the alarm bells, which were a signal for disaster. Poe was most likely speaking of the disaster of losing Virginia to consumption. The fourth and final section contained iron bells, which had a drudgerous and empty clang to their sound. In this section Poe spoke of the final days of his life, which he seemed to know would be ending soon. In this section, life was empty and Poe could do nothing but suffer through times of trouble until death finally came and saved him from "the moaning and the groaning of the bells."
The life of Edgar Allan Poe was filled with fear, tragedy and loss. There were many events in his life that led him to lose his mind and eventually die, especially the loss of his wife Virginia and others that were close to him. These and other events continually appear in Poe's poems and stories, which are also filled with fear, tragedy, and loss. Thus, it is strongly evident that Poe's works were greatly influenced by significant events in his life.