Essays, Literature, Short stories

Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Prophet

There is a story that, while serving as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a military march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves. It appears that this is an urban legend, but there are many aspects of Poe’s life and work which are true, and often surprising. He was a pioneer of the short story form, and wrote short stories in a whole host of new genres. Helped to develop and, in a sense, invent several modern literary genres. He even anticipated an important scientific theory of the twentieth century. And then there were the snails…

Poe1Poe was going to be named Cordelia, if he’d been a girl. His mother, an actress, had portrayed the Shakespeare character in a production of King Lear. But when Poe was born (in 1809), and was most definitely a boy, he was named Edgar instead. (His actor father had portrayed Edmund in King Lear, and the young Poe was named after Edmund’s brother in the play – rather than Edmund himself, for some reason.) The ‘Allan’ comes from his foster parents, John and Frances Allan; it is perhaps the most misspelled author’s middle name of all time (if it can be said to be a middle name).

Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated poem ‘The Raven’ was inspired by the works of two Victorian writers: by the talking raven Grip in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841), and (for its metre) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. It is perhaps his single best-known work, even more famous than his short stories. Even those who have never read Poe know ‘The Raven’, especially if they’ve watched The Simpsons (who have also adapted and drawn upon several other Poe works, such as his short story, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’). There is reason to believe that Poe originally planned to have a parrot, rather than a raven, utter the refrain ‘Nevermore’ in the poem: in his ‘Philosophy of Composition’, he wrote that in his mind there ‘arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’ Whether Poe was merely retrospectively having us on, or whether he was being genuine here, cannot be known for sure; but we have no greater authority in this instance than Poe’s own words, and, as he says, the parrot seems the natural choice for a bird capable of mimicking human speech.

But Poe was an important driving force behind the short story form, adopting it as his preferred literary form long before it had become a powerful publishing phenomenon in the later portion of the nineteenth century. He even used the term ‘short story’ earlier than everyone else: the OED lists 1878 as the earliest instance of the term, but Poe was using it in 1840.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ shows Poe’s links with the earlier Gothic novel of the late eighteenth century, but it shows Poe scaling down the core elements of that form to the demands of the short story: the Gothic novel’s cast of characters is reduced to just a handful of people, the Gothic castle becomes just one room, and the subterranean secret (usually involving a network of catacombs and servants carrying food to hidden wives and secret prisoners) is scaled down to the body of the old man under the floorboards.

Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) often gets the credit for being the first detective story, but in fact this is highly disputed: many believe the honour should go to German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1819 story ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’. (Among other achievements, Hoffmann provided Tchaikovsky with his material for The Nutcracker.) Another detective story written before Poe’s was a short tale by his publisher, William Evans Burton, called ‘The Secret Cell’ (1837), a story in which a London policeman solves the mystery of a kidnapped girl.

Poe also wrote possibly the first story involving code-breaking: ‘The Gold-Bug’ (1843) involves the decoding of a document to reveal the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe was a keen cryptographer who liked to ask readers of Alexander’s Weekly to submit ciphers for him to solve; he was never beaten. For more on Poe’s role in the development of the literature of cryptography, we recommend Shawn Rosenheim’s excellent book, The Cryptographic Imagination.

His 1848 prose-poem Eureka even predicts the Big Bang theory by some eighty years. Poe considered this book his masterpiece, though it is among his least-read prose works today.

Not everyone has been impressed by Poe, though: W. B. Yeats thought his writing ‘vulgar’ and T. S. Eliot bemoaned the fact that, after taking so much care over the ideas and the plots of his stories, he should make the execution of them so careless. This criticism has been levelled at Poe by numerous people over the years.

Although he is now credited with being not only an important originator (or at least early exponent) of key literary genres (detective story, science fiction), Poe struggled financially throughout his life and died penniless shortly after being found on the streets of Baltimore in 1849. He was just 40 years old. The only book by Poe which was successful enough to be republished during his lifetime was a non-fiction work on molluscs (which he didn’t so much write as put together, by editing a much longer work by someone else). Only 12 copies of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1829), are thought to survive; in 2009, one of these copies sold at auction for $662,500. This week, a handwritten copy of a poem by Poe, ‘The Conqueror Worm’, fetched $300,000 at auction in Massachusetts.

If you enjoyed these facts, we have delved further into the life of Edgar Allan Poe here, and offer an analysis of one of his most famous poems here.

94 Comments

  1. The Pit and the Pendulum must be the most vivid example of torture ever written.It has stayed with me all my life.

  2. You do this so well! I find EAP a fascinating character – thank you for adding some excellent details to the portrait I hold of him.

    • Thanks! I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get round to writing about Poe – as you say, he’s fascinating. In fact, if I gather enough material, I can feel a sequel post coming on…

  3. Great information. Thank you.

  4. Great. Imagine what sort of stories he’d have written if they’d stuck with Cordelia. I suspect they went with Edgar because Edmund was, literally, such a bastard.

  5. He was born in Boston which until very recently had no landmark to recognize him. The area around the theater where his father was performing has been redeveloped long since, but there is now talk of a statue and there is a small plaque – if you hunt for it. There was a project a couple of summers ago to get artists to paint those ugly traffic signal boxes and the one now has a tribute to Poe.

    • Another American East coast city lays claim to Poe’s legacy?

      Baltimore and Philadelphia have disputed this title for years. Baltimore claims him as their son because he died in their city and Philadelphia reminds us that he lived in the city of brotherly love when “Tell-tale Heart” and many of his other most famous works were published. Though the Poe house in Baltimore is in the middle of a housing project – neighborhood must not have changed much since Poe lived there – at least Baltimore named their football team after his most famous poem: The Baltimore Annabel Lee’s – I mean, Ravens.

      • I think it is undisputed that he was born in Boston. He also lived in Richmond, VA. Poe moved around a lot looking for opportunities.

        • indeed :) I was just making fun of the silly Baltimore / Philly Poe feud. It gets a little old. Every year around Halloween the newspapers in Philadelphia celebrate Poe’s legacy by writing about the Baltimore rivalry. But that’s a sports town for you…

          It’s good Boston marked a Poe site and there’s new street art in his honor. I couldn’t find much dedicated to him during a visit to Richmond, sadly.

          • I thought there was a site in Richmond when I lived there, but no one much claimed him. I believe when he was adopted, his new parents had some Richmond connection – but I may be totally mis-remembering!

        • Sorry, I missed this comment for some reason.

      • Doesn’t Richmond claim him as well?

        I’ve never visited the Poe house although I’ve been living here in Baltimore for nearly three years.

    • It’s good to hear he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. A statue would be richly deserved…

  6. He had a tragic life and death, and even for the time period he died too young.
    He lived in an unfortunate time for American writers. Intellectual property did not exist, so most publishers simply copied works from British authors and sold them to American audiences. Poe could not make a living as a writer.

  7. Thanks for dedicating an IL post to Poe. I didn’t know OED misspelled ‘Allan.’ He is a true master of mood and meter and the first poet I became addicted to. Whenever I ask people if they read Poe, the typical answer I get is, “I haven’t read any Poe since High School.”

    • That’s a shame – he’s definitely a writer people should revisit. Thanks for the comment – I think this blog was crying out for more Poe (having touched upon him in previous posts) so I’m pleased that I wrote this one.

  8. I guess the reason the would not have been named Edmund is because Edgar is the ‘good’ brother, and Edmund the malevolent illegitimate one!

  9. I always feel bad when I hear such sad ends for such talented and good writers :(. I love his writing

    • I know, it’s one of those untimely pauper’s deaths, surrounded by unhappiness, which plagues many a poet. At least there are many who appreciate his works nearly 200 years on and realise the impact he made…

  10. It was just today I was telling someone right here on WordPress that I wanted to go back at reading Poe. This is really motivating. Oh, and I need to get my hands on Eureka now!

  11. What a wonderful post about one of my most beloved authors. He really doesn’t get the attention he deserves. His short stories were marvelous, much more so in my mind than the poem for which he is so famous. Did you know that he tried his hand at rather macabre humor? If you can get your hands on, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, you will laugh for sure! As a psych nurse, it was most amusing.

  12. Fabulous post! I *love* Poe, and his poetry is excellent too.

  13. Enjoyed this bio of Poe’s literary accomplishments. Nicely done.

  14. Poe is wonderful. So creepy but so charming. And “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are amazing, too. Yeats and TS Eliot are here being merely literary snobs.

    • I think there is a touch of literary snobbery involved – especially as genre fiction is often looked down upon anyway. Eliot also played down Poe’s role in the formation of detective fiction, which is a shame – but quite revealing.

  15. I still get horrible chills reading “Ligeia” and “Fall of the House of Usher.” Those would have to be my two favorite horror (short) stories ever (with due apologies to M.R. James, whose ghost stories I worship).

    • I agree – I think M. R. James is the king of the ghost story, but Poe offers something different – more psychotic, more hallucinatory, and unsettling for very different reasons…

  16. Poe lover here ~ great piece you’ve done!

  17. Interesting, that E.T.A Hoffmann is discussed for writing the first detective story. I did not know that, although I am a great fan of both: Hoffmann and Poe. Thank you for the article.

  18. Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorites. I enjoyed reading the information on his life. I find it very interesting. Also, thank you for visiting and following my blog.

  19. we nominated you for a (drum roll pleaseeeee) The Versatile Blogging Award!
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  20. I’ve always loved Poe. As a kid, I used to read his stories out-loud to myself, especially The Tell-Tale Heart, dramatizing for myself the horror of the narrator. His story is indeed tragic, not just because he was a great writer who was essentially unrecognized and misunderstood. But he was a human being and it seemed that he was too quickly discarded by humanity. He’s a perfect example of our strange economy, where the works of a artist are worth more when they are dead than when they are living. Thanks much for this post on Poe!

    • Thanks for the comment, as always – and I agree. There’s a good quotation (from whom, I forget, though it may have been Dr Johnson … it usually was!), that says something along the lines of: it’s odd that we judge a writer by his worst work while he’s alive, and his best work when he’s dead. It’s a shame Poe never knew how valued and influential he would become while he was still alive.

  21. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Interesting Literature’s interesting discussion on an author who greatly influenced me when I was a very young writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

  22. Oh I do love your post! When I featured Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” on my fiction blog, it got so many hits and more than the other authors featured so again, Poe leads as one of our all time favorite writers. This is not one of his most famous short stories, but Maelstrom is probably one of his most well-constructed pieces. Nobody does horror better so consistently. Thank you for this insightful post today.

    • Thanks, Paula! I remember reading ‘Maelstrom’ a few years ago when I went through all of Poe’s famous stories, and I remember being gripped by it. I’m going to have to reread it now you’ve mentioned it … which I can only be grateful to you for!

  23. Reblogged this on How we operate and commented:
    Interesting piece on #Edgar Allan Poe

  24. Indeed a fascinating writer and man. I received a book of his complete poetic works as a young man and it was the first poetry I ever really liked enough to understand. It made an impression upon me and I immediately started writing poetry of my own–very bad poetry. Anyway, Poe’s poems still sit upon the shelf within my chamber door where I will frequently revisit them evermore.

  25. A timely post, for me at least, since I’m nearing the end of The Poe Shadow, a fun historical mystery by Matthew Pearl. I’m not sure where Pearl draws the line between fact and fiction, but I’m learning a good deal about Poe’s death (and Baltimore). Thanks for providing more context!

    • I’d not heard of Pearl’s book, so it’s one to add to the list! Thanks for the comment, as ever… I’m already considering writing a sequel to this post, as Poe seems to strike a chord with many readers, so I’ll have to seek out The Poe Shadow!

  26. This is a nicely written synopsis. It seems his readers have a wide range of personal favorites, which I think is a credit to his storytelling. There is a nice little museum that my family visited on a trip to Richmond that honors his work. Thanks for sharing. Love the passive aggressive raven. BTG

  27. Nice post! Love the info. I’ve been meaning to get around to read some of Poe’s work… mainly because of how controversial he is. I’d love to read more about him actually… please create a sequel. And I’d love to see your take on the aspect/rumor for which Poe is most popularly known – his interest and liking for death and its apparent beauty.

    • You’ve given me some food for thought there – I think there are a number of controversial aspects of Poe’s life and attitude which could furnish a sequel. Will get thinking on it! Thanks for the comment!

  28. Reblogged this on V. A. Farria Writings and commented:
    Edgar Allan Poe. I always thought of him as a tortured soul. This is a very informative and interesting post.

  29. Thanx a lot for that! This one of the best authors in all times!

  30. A fascinating blog post, thank you. I must get round to reading some Poe at some point.

    • Thanks, Guy! I’d recommend his short stories as a starting-point if it’s your first time reading Poe – ‘The Tell=Tale Heart’ and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ are personal favourites.

  31. Love the cartoon! I pass through Richmond, Virginia twice weekly most weeks, but have never explored the Poe-oriented sights in that setting. I’ll have to make a point to do just that very soon. Thanks for a well-written tribute.

  32. I’d like to add another interesting bit of information concerning Poe’s cryptographic interests, or rather, a spin-off of them: his story, the Gold-bug, inspired a young Leo Marks to take an interest in the breaking of codes, to the point that he would later become a specialist working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), responsible for the encoding of the messages exchanged between their London headquarters and their undercover agents in occupied territories during WWII. All this and much more is explained in Mark’s highly readable autobiography, “Between Silk and Cyanide”.

    • Thanks for this! That’s marvellous. I think I must have encountered the Poe-Marks connection in Rosenheim’s book The Cryptographic Imagination, but without the book to hand, I forgot about it and couldn’t look that up. Super stuff.

      • Great! For my part, I will try to get hold of Rosenheim’s book. The anecdote that Mark recounts about his first steps as a cryptographer inspired by Poe’s story is a great example of fact surpassing fiction: Marks’s father was the co-owner of a famous antique book-shop sited at 84 Charing Cross (itself the subject of a famous book by Helene Hanff). He (Marks senior) had designed a price code for each book, which would be written at the back. It was a secret code that only he and his employees and associate could interpret. Without telling his father, Marks junior cut his cryptographic teeth by breaking the price code, inspired by his reading of the “Golden Bug”. Great, is it not? Cheers, Eduardo.

  33. I forgot to add that Marks did that at the tender age of eight, an age at which I still did not even read Famous Five stories!

  34. I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Should you accept, please follow the link below. I enjoy visiting your blog and reading your work. Thank you!

  35. Pingback: Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Prophet | zimanê kurdî

  36. Wow, this is a great blog. I am learning so much that I thought I already knew about authors and literature. The piece you did on Alladin was very interesting. And Poe. wow! Very enjoyable. Will be back, again and again. And also, thank you for taking the time to stop by my little blog, if you hadn’t I might not have discovered yours :) Peace, Jo

  37. Reblogged this on Book Shares and commented:
    One of my favorite fellow book blogs, Interesting Literature, posted on Edgar Allan Poe when I was reading Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, so I thought a reblog of his would be a helpful way to get into the Poe spirit while you wait for my review of Pearl’s book. Enjoy! (And consider following Interesting Literature: you won’t be disappointed!)

  38. Pingback: Ten Facts about Sherlock Holmes | Interesting Literature

  39. I have heard that Poe based the pit in The Pit and the Pendulum on the dungeon of the Dean Castle in Ayrshire. I know that his foster father was from Ayrshire and that he did spend a short period living there. There is also a plaque to commemorate Poe in the Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock. I’ve always been more drawn to Poe than Burns!

  40. Very interesting article. Shared on my fb group.

  41. Pingback: Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Prophet | Interesting Literature | Phil Slattery's Art of Horror

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  44. I played Edgar in a show that fictionalized his last dying days, and in order to better understand the role, I read a lot of his poems/short stories and did research on his life. His work heavily influenced and changed my writing style, and truly inspired me to continue writing.

  45. Pingback: Let’s Talk Poe(sy) | Wise Blood

  46. Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about Edgar Allan Poe | robertbyron22

  47. Great site – great info – well done.

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