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Searching For Beauty
Edgar Allan Poe is a man constantly searching for beauty to depart from the mental and moral ugliness in his life. This reflects in his the poetry and short stories. Poe sees evil as a major threat to himself and to man due to the fact that he lives in its presence. It is easy to establish this fact when looking at the tragedies in his own life relating to the deaths of his young mother, wife, and others he loved. It is no wonder that he sees the absence of beauty as evil, because he felt the terror and tragedy of the loss of his own life. In Poe s literature it seems that beauty, or the absence of beauty, determines the true value of life. Did Poe actually experience true beauty and feel the pain of its death, or was it something he never truly found? Never the less, it is obviously a major cause of his pain, and his literature is a reflection of this absence.
Edgar Allan Poe was perhaps one of the most widely read and controversial writers in America s narrative history. He was born in Boston in 1809 to a family of traveling actors. His name at birth was simply Edgar Poe, but after the early death of both of his parents, he was taken in by the Allans. Thus he obtained the adopted name of Allan which he used as a middle name. He met his first and last love, Elmira Royster, while he was studying at the University of Virginia. He asked her to marry him twice, and even though he was accepted both times he never married her. His stay at the University of Virginia was cut short by his wild lifestyle, which involved a great amount of gambling and drinking. He married his 13-year-old cousin just to have her eventually die. He lost many that were close to him, and his personal life was many times a never-ending battle. There are many disputes on what Poe s life was really like. He has been called everything from a perverse neurotic, a drunkard and drug addict who walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses by the Reverend Rufus Griswald to fallen angel who remembered heaven by Baudelaire (Asselineau 11). Asselineau believes:
These divergences are indeed perfectly justified and stem to a large extent from the constant contrast between the real and the Ideal (the capital was his) in Poe s own life and from the consequent duplicity (in the etymological meaning of the word) of his personality (12).
Never the less, despite all the discrepancies, his life was clearly not one of complete happiness. Many would argue that Poe s life of sorrow is what made him the great writer he is considered to be today.
In his stories he illustrates how the absence of beauty is the essence of evil. In The Tell Tale Heart when the old man s eyes is closed he would not be killed because his eye is not considered ugly. That is why each night the man goes into his room to see if the eye is open.
I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights every night just at midnight but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye (Poe 1486).
The eye when open represents the ugliness of the old man. When that ugliness is present, beauty is gone and evil is present. The ugliness of the old man s open eye is the cause for his killer to kill him because evil is present and beauty is nowhere to be found. Poe draws an obvious parallel between ugliness, or absence of beauty, with the presence of evil for the reader in The Tell-Tale Heart.
In The Fall of the House of Usher beauty is the only thing that keeps things alive. Poe begins to describe the environment surrounding the house as very ugly.
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 the view of the melancholy House of Usher (Poe 1461).
The ugliness brings about a very unpleasant feeling to the narrator. The ambiance of the interior of the house and the character, Roderick Usher, creates much of the same impression. Then the sister Madeline comes into the picture. She represents what is beautiful. Once Madeline becomes ill, her brother Roderick also becomes ill. As the health of the Madeline and Roderick begin to deteriorate, so does the physical condition of the entire house. With the deterioration of Madeline there is a fading of beauty, and with this fading everything seems to fall apart. Madeline s beauty had kept the evil down and covered up. As Madeline gets sicker the wickedness grows. When Madeline finally dies, beauty no longer exists. Roderick goes crazy and everything is destroyed. The absence of beauty caused all evil to break free.
Poe s sorrow caused by the absence of beauty is especially evident the short story Ligeia. He describes a lover he once had by the name of Ligeia:
Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these pints to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown (Poe 1450).
He goes on to say
In beauty of face no maiden ever equaled her. It was the radiance of an opium-dream an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine that the fantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos (Poe 1451).
Ligeia was an example of absolute beauty. She was physically and spiritually delightful. Her presence prevailed over any sort of melancholy or emptiness present in the narrator s life. As in much of Poe s other writings; this beauty vanishes with her death. With the loss of Ligeia is a disappearance of all beauty and splendor in the narrator s life. Although he did marry again to Rowena, who was of reasonable attractiveness and character, she did not in his mind equal the beauty of Ligeia. Therefore, he was far from content with his position in life. All he thought about was his lovely Ligeia. Without her beauty the narrator was destined to a life of sheer wretchedness. Here, also, with the deterioration of beauty, there exist a parallel deterioration of the other characters.
This same theme remains evident in Poe s poems. In To Helen the narrator speaks of a beauty that brought me home/To the glory that was Greece,/And the grandeur that was Rome (Poe 8-10). The character, Helen, is the subject of beauty in which the narrator finds himself overwhelm by. Helen, thy beauty is to me/Like those Nicean barks of yore (Poe 1-2). Her beauty is almost intoxicating; it is a means of escapism. A close association between death and loss of beauty also resides in the poem The Sleeper. Poe speaks of the death of a character Irene; All Beauty sleeps! and lo! Where lies/Irene, with her Destinies! (Poe 16-17). The lack of beauty is the lack of life for Poe. Once again, in the poem Annabel Lee there is the theme of loss of beauty. Poe writes A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling/My beautiful ANNABEL LEE[ ]/That wind came out of the cloud by night,/Chilling and killing my ANNABEL LEE (15-16). She is continuously referred to as my beautiful. For Poe to depart from the beauty of ANNABEL LEE would denote loss of life for him. And neither the angels in heaven above,/Nor the demons down under the sea,/Can ever dissever my soul from the soul/Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE (Poe 30-32). Obviously a life without beauty for Poe is not a life worth living.
The parallel between the loss of beauty and the loss of life is even more evident in his most famous poem The Raven. The death of his rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore (Poe 11) has left him weak and weary (Poe 1). The narrator hears the knocking on his door and through desperation for his beautiful Lenore wishes for it to be her. With the very small and disillusioned notion that it could be his beautiful Lenore, his soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer (Poe 19). After asking if he will ever see the beauty of Lenore on earth or in heaven and getting the response Nevermore, the narrator becomes miserable and weary once again. Whether the end is a literal death or a symbolic death, it is death in that it denotes the total loss of beauty from his life.
Edgar Allan Poe obviously had a life that was often times void of happiness. It was a life filled with misfortune and ugliness. By looking closely at Poe s literature, it is nearly impossible to say that a parallel between the loss of beauty and the loss of life did not exist. Yvor Winters believes that
Briefly, Poe implies something like this: the proper subject-matter of poetry is Beauty, but since true Beauty exists only in eternity, the poet cannot experience it and is deprived of his subject-matter; by manipulating the materials of our present life, we may suggest the Beauty exists elsewhere, and this is the best that we can do (Winters 186).
This idea is highly reflected in his the poetry and short stories. Poe sees lack of beauty as evil, and evil is a major threat to himself and to man due to the fact that his life was full of moral and spiritual ugliness. In Poe s literature it seems that beauty, or the absence of beauty, determines the true value of life. Did Poe ever experience the true beauty that he speaks of in his literature and then lose it, or was it merely an idea drove by self-torture to make him mad? Never the less, Poe s life seemed to be dramatically dependent on the idea of beauty.
Asselineau, Roger. Edgar Allan Poe. Seven American Stylists
from Poe to Mailer: An Introduction. Ed. George T. Wright. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.
Poe, Egar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of
Usher, Ligiea, To Helen, The Sleeper, Annabel Lee,
and The Raven. The Health Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol 2. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Winters, Yvor. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Eric
Carlson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1966.
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