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Edgar Allan Poe: A Brilliant Mind and a Tragic Life

John is a retired English teacher, world traveler, and sports enthusiast. He has studied the writings of William Faulkner for decades.


Poe's Early Life

Edgar Poe was born to actors David and Elizabeth Poe on January 19, 1809 in Boston. By the time he was about one year old, his father had deserted his family, and by the time he was about two years old, his mother died of tuberculosis which also claimed Poe's foster mother and his wife Virginia later in his life.

After the death of his mother Poe was taken into the home of, but never adopted by, John and Frances Allen who lived in Richmond, Virginia. John was a successful businessman and had possibly been Edgar's godfather. He was successful enough to take the Family to Scotland for five years when Poe was young. Frances was quite motherly toward Edgar and at times seemed to have spoiled him, but much of the time John and Edgar were at odds, sometimes because of such causes as Edgar's gambling debts which accumulated at the University of Virginia and because of unwillingness to follow the strict rules at West Point Military Academy, from which Poe was expelled, or in the army which Allen purchased his release from. This purchase was apparently Allen's last real act of kindness toward Poe, though Poe added the name Allen as his middle name. In Allen's will after his death, he left money to a person not his natural child, but none to Poe.

In 1828 after Poe's release from the army, Poe first published a book of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems as a writer from "Boston". This book was not successful in sales. At that time Poe chose to go into prose writing. mainly as a literary critic to try to make more money than he could with poetry.

Poe's Successes

Nowhere in my research did I find any indication that anyone found Poe not to be a brilliant person, though there was general agreement that Poe had problems in his life that worked at times in very destructive ways to overcome his best intentions. One of the these powers was Poe's use of alcohol. Decades ago, though I do not remember the source of this information, but at the time I trusted it as having integrity, I read a quotation by Poe about what I am going to call "hypersensitivity" to stimulants, specifically alcohol. Poe said that where the average person could consume an average amount of alcohol and suffer no serious effects from it, when he consumed the same amount of alcohol, he would lose control of himself and descend into what he described coma-like stupor. This seemed to me at the time to possibly be true.There were times in my research where I found experts saying that Poe ruined his chances for success because of alcoholism.

Poe was undoubtedly a genius as far as I can tell. Following is a discussion of his accomplishments which set him apart as having a brilliant mind in his day. He was at times a powerful literary critic and successful in this field. He became a famous poet in his day, in "The Raven" writing one of the most famous poems of our culture as well as other important poems. He was at least involved in the creation of science fiction. He is given credit for creating the detective mystery. He, along with Hawthorne, helped to create the short as the first literary genre since the Classical Greeks created the rest of them, except Cervantes' novel. Poe followed the cultural currents of the day in the Romantic Period of the Euro-American literature in doing these literary feats.

Poe had success as a literary critic as he continued to publish various poems and began writing short stories from time to time. He was known as a harsh and strongly opinionated critic, with the nickname of "the man with the."tomahawk." It pains me to have to say that though he was quite successful at the Southern Literary Messenger for a while, he lost his position there because of his alcoholism.

Poe wrote about 1,000 pieces of criticism of various types, including the process he used in writing his own works using his critical theories. Central to Poe's critical evaluations was that the value of a piece of writing came from its artistic worth and had nothing to do with the author's biography or any to happenings in the author's life.

A part of the literary interest of the time was interest in the gothic genre, in such works as ones dealing with Frankenstein and Dracula. In stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" Poe used an unreliable first person narrator of the story to tell his tale of death in which the character can continue to hear the dead man's heart beating. His hearing the beating heart intensifies the man's increasing level of madness. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe uses the destruction of a house to intensify the destruction of a person's psyche and sanity. Poe's use of death and the macabre were meant to create terror in the reader in a powerful way.

His work in helping to establish science fiction was important. He had two balloons in two stories, one in which a voyage was made between the United States and Europe in only three days in a gas balloon. It was published as fact and was so well done that many people believed it was true. In the other story, the balloon went to the moon.

Surely Poe's most important contribution to world literature is his work in the invention of the short as a literary genre, the first invention of of a literary genre since Classical Greek times, except for Cervantes' invention of the novel. The other American involved in this process was Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it was Poe who specified the shorty story should be distinguished from the novel in two important ways: being able to be read in one sitting, and with a single idea in mind for the meaning of the story.

"The Raven"

Poe's Most Well-Known Poem

Poe's poetry is certainly an important facet of his writing. "The Raven" has been called one of the most famous poems in the English language. That may a bit of an overreach, but it is certainly one of the most famous poems in American literature. It begins with a scene of realism. A man has lost his beloved, a woman named Lenore, and believes that happiness in his life is gone forever with her loss. He hears a scratching at his chamber door, opens in it, and in flies a raven able to speak one word, "Nevermore." The man asks the bird a series of questions, the negative answer of which is always "Nevermore." At the end of the poem, the man is completely disconsolate in having been convinced by the raven that he will never find happiness for the rest of his life.

Poe had other famous poems including "Annabelle Lee", "To Helen" which contain, at least to me, something of Poe' soul at times, for the loss of his wife, Virginia' as his stories contain something more of his intellect, and many times the two come in combination. Poe took what he had in intellect, education, and emotion and created a world of his imagination with which he can still touch our imaginations today if we take the time to read him.

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Poe's Tragic Life and Its End

The tragedy of Edgar Allan Poe's life began by the time he was two years old and he had lost both his mother and father. The tragedy continued when he lost his foster mother through death and his foster father because of their inability to get along, with blame on both people's parts it seems to. They simply did not love each other as foster father and son, an their differences led to the destruction of their relationship.

The good relationship in Poe's life was with Poe's aunt, Maria Poe Clemm whose daughter, Virginia, Poe married in 1836 in Baltimore. He was 27 and she was 13, but a false document was presented for the wedding stating that she was 21. Maria Clemm was the closest person to a mother that Poe ever had according to some biographers. Poems and other items between Edgar and Virginia indicate that they loved each other, but there are disagreements among scholars as to the exact kind of relationship that they had. The worst tragedy of their relationship is that Virginia suffered from and died of tuberculosis in 1846, after suffering from the disease for at least four years. Poe's mother, foster, and wife all died of tuberculous .

Poe's death itself might be called "tragic". On October 3, 1849, when he was 40 years old, he was found only semiconscious in a tavern or inside it "in great distress,,, and in need of immediate assistance." He died on October 7 without regaining control of his mind, in and out of consciousness without making any sense of what he was saying. Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law and aunt, Maria Poe Clemm are buried in Baltimore.

It is true that Poe's life was one of tragedy from the time that he was a baby, throughout his life, and at his death. However, he was of towering intellect and used his brilliant mind to help shape modern literature in our English speaking world, and especially in America.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


John Murphree (author) from Tennessee on February 01, 2021:

Thank you.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 01, 2021:

A very good article and tribute to Poe and his life.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 31, 2021:

Poe was unparalleled in many respects. It is bad to think about his bad luck but his writings are still as fresh as they were at that time. His story 'Cask of Amontillado' is still engraved in my mind.

Vanita Thakkar on January 31, 2021:

Nice narrative about the great poet and the tragedies of his life.

Tuberculosis had consumed many an English poets / writers, including John Keats and members of the Bronte family ....

Thanks for sharing.

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