Poe was born in Boston from two touring actors, David Poe and Elisabeth Arnold Hopkins. They died very young, about two years after Edgar’s birth and the future writer was divided from his brother Henry and his sister Rosalie and adopted by Mrs. Frances Allan from Richmond.
Edgar Allan (the second name was due to his new family’s surname) was educated in England, where his family moved.
In 1820 the Allans returned to Richmond and Edgar attended the University of Virginia (1826). As a student he was quite successful, but because of his passion for gambling, he got indebted : his step-father refused to support him, and Edward was forced to leave university.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Allan died after she had refused to meet Edgar again, and so the writer joined West Point Academy in the hope to regain his step-father’s love, but there he only succeeded in getting expulsion from the academy.
Back again in Baltimore with his aunt Marie Clemm, he began writing stories and married Virginia Clemm (1836), his fourteen-years-old cousin and created a reputation of his own as a keen critic
He started working for literary magazines in Richmond (1835), in New York (1838) and Philadelphia.
Because of drinking, Poe found himself once more on the edge of poverty together with his wife (1840). Moreover Virginia burst a vessel in her throat and, even though she soon recovered, the writer’s restlessness began to grow. Fortunately, Poe’s former employer recommended him to the publisher and he started publishing his tales for newspapers and magazines again.
His wife Virginia died in 1847. Back in Richmond (1849) he got engaged to Elmira Royster, his first love now a widow, but his drinking was to be fatal to his weak heart and the writer died in Baltimore on October 7th, 1849.
Poe transferred the dualism of his personality into his tales, combining logic and rationality with imagination and fancy.
The Tales of Ratiocination (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841; The Mystery of Marie Roget, 1842; The Golden Bug,1843 and The purloined Letter,1845) are guided by reason. In them a brilliant private detective, Mosieur Dupin, uses a deductive and psychological method to solve a mystery. These tales became a model for the future development of detective fiction.
The Tales of Imagination: or as Poe called them Tales of the Grotesque (comic stories) and Arabesque (horror stories), include some of the best known tales., among them Berenice,1835; Morella,1835 and Ligeia,, 1839.
The tales are usually based on the search of man for his self. His characters are usually closed into a little, sometime undefined, place that represents the mother’s womb and feel terror for what is in themselves and not for the world outside. They have destructive passions for women that are intelligent and beautiful but condemned to fade away.
The themes are mainly based on the relationship between life and death and love and death and always aim at creating fear and anguish in the reader’s mind.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) is the only long story Poe wrote and resumes all the characteristics of the short stories.
Even though Poe’s world-fame is linked to his tales, he was mainly attracted by poetry, assuming that poetry-writing is an almost divine act because the poet creates something.
His poems include:
• The Raven (1845) that sums up his poetic theory and consists of eighteen six-line stanzas written according to Poe’s poetic principles described in the Philosophy of Composition (see essays).
• Group of poems written between 1841-49, the best of which are Ulalume, Annabel Lee and Eureka, a Prose Poem, a treatise on the creation of the universe.
The Critical Writings
The Rationale of Verse (1843), The Philosophy of Composition (1846), The Poetic Principle (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellows’s Ballads, Charles Dickens and Marginalia (a collection of essays).
In these essays Poe condemns long poems or didactic ones because a poet’s mind is more interested in emotions of melancholy and nostalgia. The bulk of his critical essays is about poetic technique and practical criticism of details.
E. A. Poe was almost forgotten during his century till the end when the French symbolists – or Decadents – started re-discovering his own world and to translate his stories into French. In the second half of the Victorian period, in England the writers were attracted by his ideal of beauty, strictly connected with art and with death like many of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites painters and like O,. Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In particular in The Oval Portrait, he examines the strict connection between life and art, art and death, till its extreme. The painter, the protagonist, has not got a name, like many of Poe’s characters: he represents the artist who tries to give life to his work of art, even though this means to take the life out of his own sitter.
As to the author’s personality, people who met him witness the coexistence in himself of two personalities: Poe was kind and devoted to the ones he loved, irritable and humoral to others. He was, for someone, a pleasant friend, amiable and talkative whose musical voice and sense of humour attracted everyone; for others was just a self-centred man, a sharp critic, violent, immoral and drug-addict.
Poe was not understood by his contemporaries who confused the author’s wretched private life with his poetical production.
The critics of 1800 tried to confine him in a definition, limiting his works under different targets.
A. Grimswold spoke about the writer’s style as dry, but even abundant, composing an epitaph full of envy and defamation.
A poet and a critic like T. S. Eliot saw Poe’s faults, and, even if he knew the power of his writings and admitted his influence on the other poets, observed “That Poe a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty” .
The critics who were devoted to POe often lacked penetration and did not succeed in enlarging an understanding of his books as works of art, on the contrary they echoed his immaturity.
Mr. Allen Tate spoke about the American writer’s appeal confessing his involvement in his tales, and D. H. Lawrence prizes Poe’s insight into the love-hate relationship defining him as a master of “self-consciousness”.
Patrick F. Quinn in his The French Face of Poe stresses that France responded more positively than America to Poe showing a deep understanding of the American writer’s “ontological Imagination”: “Poe well knew that the everyday world would call his visions fantastic, and so for most of his readers they seem to be. But so deep was Poe’s apprehension of them they took on for him the character of profound truths, grasped by the intuition rather than the intelligence, “upon the verge of the great secret”. To read Poe properly we should realise that the experience which his stories uniquely offer us is that of participating in the life of a great ontological imagination. It is an experience of exploration and discovery that is offered us, a voyage of the mind.”
Besides the critic points to the French interest in Poe as a symbolic writer.
In fact, Poe’s genius was first recognised abroad by writers like Baudelaire and Mallarmè who were influenced by his way of writing, his use of the language and imagination and shared his theory about pure poetry.
Mallarmè dedicated a poem to him whereas Baudelaire translated the tales of the “fallen angel” , as he used to call him and entitled his journal with a sentence taken from the American writer’s Marginalia: My Heart Laid Bare.
But also the Aesthetes like Pater and Wilde shared his critical theories about art for art’s sake and in particular the latter took inspiration from Poe’s studies on the duplicity of man and psychotic personalities (such as for example William Wilson, the protagonist of the homonymous short story) for his The Picture of Dorian Gray
The same can be said for Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde which were written following Poe’s precious teaching. The English author owes much of his ability in adventure stories to Poe’s the Gold Bug and The Adventures of Gordon Pym.
The psychologically oriented criticism was concerned with Poe’s unconscious advancing views such as his unproved impotence, his fear of castration or the secret hatred for his wife Virginia.
These critics ignored his conscious mind and assumed that the author and the narrator may be identified , considering his art as self-revelation.
Writers such as E. Hemingway or W. Whitman shared the opinion that in Poe’s tales there was absence of humanity, whereas W. H. Auden observes that the author’s detached heroes are not to be considered as characters in life or in fiction: they are part of the effect Poe wants to reach.
Richard Wilburne summed up his point of view with great lucidity and detailed analysis: “By the refusal of human emotion and moral concern, by the obstruction of logical and allegorical meaning, by the symbolic destruction of material fact, by negating all that he could of world and worldly self, Poe strove for a poetry of spiritual effect which should seem “the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God,” and move the reader to a moment of that sort of harmonious intuition which is to be the purifying fire of Earth and the music of the re gathering spheres. There has never been a grander conception of poetry, nor a more impoverished one.”
For this reason probably D. H. Lawrence defined Poe more a scientist than an artist whose main aim is the disruption of knowledge, of the soul, but he did not consider that Poe’s precision concerned more the language he used than the phenomena that he described. The outrages to morality, the breaking of the rules are applied to art and not to life.
Poe as the father of the detective stories
Whatever the angle of approach may be, every critic can’t deny the effect and the influence Poe had on the artists who followed him.
In particular Poe’s most appalling influence can be traced in the building up of detective stories as he is considered the father of this modern genre and his principles are universally accepted.
The importance of Poe’s influence
Poe’s duality and particular way of writing influence the judgement even of his critics who rejected him as a man and as a writer or praised his style considering him as a forerunner in literature, but everyone discussed his works and took in consideration his principles stressing the ability of his genius in attracting the reader’s attention.
In the Tales of Mystery and Terror, Poe, according to his theory, usually sets the action in a circumscribed, confined place, which represents the possibility of a return to the origins, to that constant oscillation between life and death typical of our existence.
A heavy Gothic atmosphere pervades the OVAL PORTRAIT: the oppressive landscape “the walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies” and “its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique” (The Oval Portrait). The descriptions convey an impression of grandeur and decadence, and help create the sensation of gloom and mystery.
Poe was in quest of his double throughout his life . He studied the mind, heart and soul of his characters that are tormented by their wickedness and prohibited desires. His nightmares never show a concrete side but most of the time the reader does not know whether these visions are real or they are the fruit of a sensibility altered by anguish. The characters are alone in front of their anxieties, there are no witnesses and the protagonist is the only link between the concrete world which surrounds him and the unknown world of the after life.
Much of the behaviour of Poe’s characters can be explained in terms of the romantic period in which he and of his private life marked by illnesses and deaths