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Edgar Allan Poe Essay, Research Paper

For some class on some date with some professor The Influence of Family and

Friends on Poe Over the course of Poe?s forty year stay on Earth, he was

exposed early to several key people who would have a profound impact on his

writings. Though this idea in and of itself is not uncommon in literature, for

Poe it went far beyond being merely influenced. Beginning at age 3 when he lost

his parents, Poe was subjected to a difficult life that would later play heavily

in his works. Between his foster father (John Allan), his first love (Sarah

Elmis Royster) and his young first wife (Virginia Cleem), Poe?s contacts

largely dictated his works. How was it that such an obviously brilliant

individual like Poe allowed himself to be mentally manipulated by these people?

To answer this question, it is necessary to take a step back and first get a

little background. Edgar Allen Poe was born on January 19, 1809 to two

struggling actors, David and Elizabeth Poe. When his father died at the age of

36, Edgar was left alone with his pregnant mother. He traveled with his mother

and sister from theater to theater, often sleeping backstage. When his mother

died of tuberculosis on December 11, 1811 at the young age of 24, Edgar and his

sister, Rosalie, were orphaned. Edgar was only two years old. His sister was

sent to live with a Mrs. Mackenzie when she was one, Edgar went to live with

John and Frances Allen. Edgar’s older brother William, was already living with

their grandfather, David Poe, Sr., because at the time of his birth, David and

Elizabeth could not afford to care for him. Edgar moved to Richmond, Virginia

with the Allan?s, where he had many luxuries that he had never had before. He

had his own bedroom in the apartment above John Allen’s store, Ellis &

Allen, and even servants to help him wash before bed and put away his clothes.

Growing up, Edgar never got along with his foster father, often arguing with

him, and rarely showing any affection. John Allen once even described his son as

"miserable, sulky, and ill-tempered". There was also the matter of

Edgar’s alcoholism, which brought shame upon his foster family and friends. Even

his beloved first fiancee Sarah Elmira Royster, eventually refused to see him,

because of his drinking habits. One night after a particularly bitter argument

with Mr. Allen, he decided to leave his home and go to Boston. Boston was only

the short term answer and soon Poe was disillusioned with the city. After an

unpleasant month in Boston, Edgar was once again on the road. After having a few

poems published and withdrawing from a military academy he eventually wound up

in Baltimore, Maryland, penniless. He soon found that his relatives there were

as poor as he was. Even so, they welcomed him into their homes and hearts. He

stayed for a while in the home of his aunt, Maria Clemm. Also living with Mrs.

Clemm were her two children, Henry, 13, and Virginia; Poe’s cousin and future

wife. In addition, his paralyzed grandmother and his dying brother William, 24

also resided there. He tried unsuccessfully to get a job at several newspapers,

before seeing a contest for the best short story in the local paper. Being

rather poor, Poe proceeded writing short stories in attempt to win the $100

winners? prize. Even though he did not win the $100 for his efforts, Poe did

have some of the stories published in the years to come, but he never had

anything to show for it , because the newspaper did not give him credit for

writing the stories. Poe was offered a job back in Richmond, and he had to leave

Baltimore(and worse, Virginia, with whom he had fallen in love) to take the job.

He rapidly fell into depression while in Richmond over the absence of his

beloved Virginia and was driven once again to drinking. . Poe’s drinking had

gotten out of hand and he was fired. He went back to Baltimore on the spot and

asked for Virginia’s hand in marriage. They got married a year later. Soon after

he was wed, he was re-offered the job in Richmond, but only if he promised to

never drink again. He promised to never let another sip of liquor pass his lips,

and went to Richmond, this time taking Virginia and his aunt Maria. This would

prove to be the high point of Poe?s life. Not due to any success or

recognition, but more importantly he was happy if only for a brief time. In the

years to come there would be both better and worse times in Edgar’s life. After

moving from the city his life totally fell apart, he had to shut down his

newspaper because of bad reviews, his wife was growing increasingly ill, and he

was sick as well. He eventually broke his vow and went back to drinking, which

only caused problems. Several times he was found wandering drunk in the streets

of New York where he had recently relocated with his wife and mother-in-law

after taking an editing job at the Broadway Journal. Virginia did not take to

life in the city, however, and asked Edgar to move to the country. Eager to

please his beloved wife, who was stricken with tuberculosis, he agreed.

Virginia’s long struggle finally ended on January 29, 1847 at the age of 24, the

very age as Edgar’s mother when she died. After her death Poe was inconsolable,

once again thrown into the depths of depression and despair. If there were any

positives about Virginia?s death, it would be that Poe was once again inspired

to write. His post-Virginia material made up in pure genius what it lost in good

mood. These works can be distinguished as dark and morbid, traits not unlike his

earlier work. They did however change subject matter even as they retained mood.

In the ?Oval Portrait? for example, Poe writes of a man obsessed with

creating the ideal portrait of his new wife. The piece is finally created at the

cost of the young models life. The parallels to Poe?s own life are fairly

obvious. He, like the painter, sacrificed everything for his art only to realize

later that the price was too high. The first poem that he wrote after her death

was Ulalume, a poem recalling a lover’s visit to his loved one’s grave. Poe

writes: Then my heart it grew ashen and sober As the leaves that were crisped

and sere- As the leaves that were withering and sere- And I cried- "It was

surely October On this very night of last year That I journeyed- I journeyed

down here- That I brought a dread burden down here- On this night of all nights

in the year, Ah, what demon has tempted me here? Well I know, now, this dim lake

of Auber- This misty mid region of Weir- : Well I know, now, this dank tarn of

Auber, This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir." The tone of this poem

perfectly reflects how forlorn Poe was at this point in his life. His mastery of

setting the mood is unequaled in all literature. Another aspect that puts Poe

above the rest is his technique that compliments his style. A writing style that

was entirely unique. His uniqueness can again be attributed to the people who

passed through his life. All of Poe’s other writings reflect his life, be it sad

or happy. As aforementioned, Poe had problems with his foster dad. As a result,

Poe often portrayed men as bad people in his short stories. In the ?Cask of

Amontillado?, the protagonist is an apparently insane man who walls up his foe

is his underground vaults. ?Hop-Frog? has a sinister king burned alive by

his abused midget. ?The Tell-Tale Heart? is another deranged man who

slaughters an old man in his sleep and the list goes on. The very best example

of this would have to be ?The Black Cat?. The classic tale of man who comes

home in a drunken daze. He is angered by his cat and in attempt to kill the

animal with an ax, the main character buries the axes head into his wife,

killing her. For the remainder of the story he is tormented by his failure to

kill the cat. That, coupled with the loss of his wife, devour his mind until he

is a rambling mess. It is fairly clear where the inspirations come from in that

story, as well as many of his others. The situations change, but the end result

is always the man being portrayed in a poorly in his short stories (This isn?t

necessarily true in Poe?s poetry, which tends to feature more topics on loss

and grief). This portrayals can be largely attributed to the daily struggle Poe

had with John Allan. For Poe to create some mythical land where his

relationships with males are tolerable, would have been untrue to himself as a

writer. He is effective writing about topics he is familiar with. Poe is the

poster child of Ernest Hemmingway?s philosophy: ?Only write about what you

know, and then don?t write too damn much.? Another theme that frequents

Poe?s literature, is the presence of a female. She is generally portrayed

sympathetically and for the most part is dead, or dies in the course of the

story. I?ve already mentioned the ?Black Cat?, which features a young wife

brutally murdered by her husband. ?Murders in the Rue Morge? and ?The

Mystery of Marie Roget? were two detective style stories that featured women

being killed. Yet, there can be no better example of Poe?s women issues as

well as his own mental instability than in a short story published in 1839. In

?Fall of the House of Usher?, Roderick Usher has inadvertantly buried his

sister, Madeline, believing her dead. It eventually comes to light that Madeline

was buried prematurely when she arrives in time to die in her brother?s arms.

Again, this is an example of a women being mistreated, albeit accidentally, by a

man. Though ?Usher? is far more complex and compelling than merely that.

Read as Poe describes the Usher house in the opening paragraph: . I looked upon

the scene before me –upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of

the domain –upon the bleak walls –upon the vacant eye-like windows –upon a

few rank sedges –and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees –…I scanned

more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to

be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great.

Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work

from the eaves….Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have

discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the

building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it

became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. After rereading the paragraph, the

striking part becomes that Poe isn?t merely describing a house, but a mind. It

is clear to see that the bleak walls represent human skin even as the vacant

eye-like windows symbolize human eyes. The white, decaying tree trunks are teeth

and the ?minute fungi? is clearing hair. That leaves only the ?perceptible

fissure? that splits the house in half unexplained. This is finally explained

as the narrator flees the house in horror. The entire house literally cracks in

half, while the families mind metaphorically cracks. This fissure in the human

mind mirrors Poe himself who long struggled with his own sanity. In addition to

the enormous impact John Allan and Virginia had on Poe?s career, there is also

another variable that has gone unmentioned. That would be William Henry, Poe?s

older brother. Like both Virginia and his mother Elizabeth Poe, William died at

age 24 of tuberculosis. Though it is impossible to determine exactly how close

the two ever were, I can speculate that his death had at least some effect on

Edgar. In 1841, nine years after William?s death, Edgar wrote "A Descent

into the Maelstrom." In this tale, an aged Norwegian tells of his

experience three years past, when his fishing boat became trapped in the

Maelstrom, an enormous whirlpool "speeding dizzily round and round with a

swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling

voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara

ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven." Though frightened by the chaos of

the Maelstrom, the fisherman also wants to understand it, and is saddened that

he will not live to tell anyone else the secrets he might discover. Through a

systematic analysis of the events within the Maelstrom, the sailor gradually

realizes that the world of the Maelstrom is not entirely anarchic; he recognizes

certain physical "laws" that hold for the various objects whipping

around the whirlpool, and understands how he might escape. Lashing himself to a

cylindrical water-cask, he throws himself and the cask into the water; though

his boat, carrying his brother, "plunged headlong, at once and forever,

into the chaos of foam below," the cask remained secure until the whirlpool

calmed. The Norwegian was safe, though "my hair, which had been raven black

the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole

expression of my countenance had changed." Though his escape is indeed very

interesting the true focus of the tale is the relationship between the fisherman

and his brother. His older brother at that, who perishes while he lives. The

fact that the fisherman?s entire ?countenance had changed? would lead me

to believe that William?s death drastically changed Edgar?s outlook on life.

Perhaps not to the catastrophic level that Virginia?s did, but nonetheless had

some impact. It should also be noted that though clearly all of these tragedies

had significant impacts on Poe himself, it should also be mentioned that Poe

wasn?t the most stable person to begin with. It seems unfair to Death itself

to blame everything Poe did on tragic events in his life. Variables like

drinking must taken into account when considering his subject matter. No

documents of his pre-drinking era exist, so it is quite impossible to determine

how developed his imagination was before his alcoholic delusions. As mentioned

earlier, he was often found rambling to himself on the streets of Baltimore in

inebriated states. Alcohol is mentioned repeatedly in his works (Black Cat, Cask

of Amontillado…) so the possibility of that also influencing him seems a

realistic option. Another aspect less talked about, but just as significant

would have to be his addiction to opium. Though very taboo to his understudies

and contemporaries, this hallucinogenic drug could easily have swayed his

decision making and therefore his story writing material. Thing like alcohol and

drug abuse can quite easily effect an individual?s performance, but again Poe

is no normal individual. At age seventeen Poe wrote the Spirits of the Dead. Not

a normal topic for any teen, regardless the theme is very different than most

latter Poe works. The final stanza reads: The breeze, the breath of God, is

still, And the mist upon the hill Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken, Is a symbol

and a token. How it hangs upon the trees, A mystery of mysteries! Though this is

one of Poe?s earliest pieces, it can be assumed that this poem doesn?t carry

the same melancholy tone that is typical of Poe. It doesn?t have to be

assumed, because this poem deals more with the curiosity and mystery of

adolescence than anything more serious. One should not think that Poe?s life

was a completely horrific existence. Though he certainly was forced to deal with

his share of controversy and death, he was also influenced in a positive way by

the people he came in touch with. This isn?t particularly obvious in his

prose, but in his poetry it is more blatant. Take for instance his poem, The

Dream. Poe is speaking to the reader, of his mythical playland where everything

is very surreal and very pleasant. There are no foreboding tones of death and

decay. Clearly he has just as much potential to be cheerful and dreamy as he

does morbid and pessimistic. Yet Poe chooses the more unpleasant tone as his

centerpiece, not because it sells better or to please anyone in particular, but

because that is how he stays true to himself as a writer. Not only in The Dream,

but even in some of his short stories does Poe keep an upbeat and fun tone. In

both ?Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether? as well as ?Gold Bug? Poe is so

optimistic of humanity to the point of being really funny. A reader certainty

wouldn?t expect this of a gloomy, dismal author like Poe which is exactly what

makes him so special. He is more famous for his terrifying accounts of death and

revenge, but at the same time he has potential to change gears and write a piece

that is so vastly different and just as appealing. There is no better summary of

his life and work than the quotation from Francis Bacon, inscribed over the Poe

Gate at West Point: "There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness

in the proportions." Poe himself is indeed an exquisite beauty with his

completely unconventional style and unorthodox techniques. This, combined with

his strangeness, has made Poe what he is; the most influential and talented

American author of all time.


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