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Literature is believed to be a wonderful world where phantasy of the writer is mixed with the experience of his life, thoughts and emotions. It is not a secret that human psyche is shaped under the impact of particular events, relationship with other people and health conditions. Psyche, in its turn, greatly impacts artworks of an artist or a writer as their works usually reflect their inner world. Edgar Allan Poe was not an exception. His wonderful poems and horror stories are the result of dramatic events of his life which will be further investigated.
It is important to admit that the relation of Poe’s books to his life was earlier outlined by Walt Whitman in his essay “Edgar Poe’s Significance”:
Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page. … There is an indescribable magnetism about the poet’s life and reminiscences, as well as the poems (p. 255).
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The life of Edgar Allan Poe is characterized by a personal and professional turmoil. American publishers refused to print works of a young poet as the copyright law of those times made reprinting British books more profitable business. However, his soldier spirit was strong enough not to give up.
It is worth mentioning that Poe’s military service also had a great impact on his literature works. His first book of poems “Tamerlane, and Other Poems” revealed years devoted in army. The second volume, “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems”, attracted more attention of the readers in 1829. He could be a good officer, but because his foster father could not provide him with a financial support, Poe began to ignore his duties and violate regulations and later was dismissed from the Academy. His rebellious spirit later helped him to create one’s own rules in literature and establish two new literature genres: horror novel and detective story.
The overwhelming majority of Poe’s writings are recognized as dark and measured in spite of the balanced death and beauty in their plots. People are involved in dramatic events shaped by inner darkness of human souls, their thought and intensions. These features usually make Poe’s stories unusual, where the philosophy of dramatic existence is sublimed into horror scenes of murders, vengeance, and cannibalism.
Indeed, his literature works are psychologically thrilling. His every poem, tale or short story reveals the depth of human psyche and behavior. The magnetism about the poet’s life was, however, a result of his psychological disease that has developed at the early age. Before Poe was three years old, his parents died.
This tragedy has determined the features of his further literature writing full of dark passionate sensibilities. The author has a specific neurotic obsession with violence and death. Moreover, he approves tragic mysteries of life as the only possible and acceptable life scenarios.
These ideas are clearly traced in his short novel “The Cask of Amontillado”. The readers see the act of vengeance which ends in murder, the murderer and his victim. The story is told by the murderer 50 years later after the committed crime. The neurotic obsession with violence and death is clearly traced in the episode when Montresor buries Fortunato in the catacombs.
The accurate details of Fortunato’s agony before death, desperate attempts to ask for mercy, his wild anger and almost animal crying reveal how the author appreciates human sufferings and approves the act of terrible vengeance. Vengeance is a central theme in other Poe’s stories, “Vendetta” and “The Black Cat” where his heroes are obsessed with the idea to kill their enemies. Vengeance becomes a sense of their life, their only purpose.
It is assumed that author’s passionate sensibility to vengeance takes its origin from his life experienced when he lost his beloved women: his mother, Jane Stanard, his childhood friend and Virginia Clem, his cousin who became his wife at the age of 13. He was seeking for vengeance to the life itself as it took the sense of his existence. He was maniacally afraid of tuberculosis as this disease took lives of his mother and his wife. He felt envy to happy people around him and expresses his maniac feelings in his depressive short stories.
It is important to admit that the loss of his beloved women greatly influenced his poetry. Many of his poems are centered on a beautiful woman who embodies features of all three beloved women from author’s life. “Annabel Lee” reveals his mad obsessive love to his wife Virginia Clem. Today’s morality would not accept this marriage as they were cousins and; he was twenty six and she was only thirteen. However, their love was an exception from all rules. “We loved with a love that was more than love,” he stated in “Annabel Lee” (Poetryfoundation.org, 2014).
Still, the tragedy of his mother is recognized the most in such poems as “Ulalume,” “The Raven,” where she called Lenore and even “To Helen”. At the mean time a woman character in these poems also has traits of his fragile and sensitive Virginia. Both of them died on the similar reason. Therefore, a pain of losing a beloved person is the central theme in “The Raven”:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted – nevermore! (tau.ac.il, 2014).
The theme of loss is disclosed in Poe’s short stories. His famous “The Masque of the Red Death” reveals a country that is suddenly attacked by a deadly plague. The Read Death quickly spreads over the country and kills the nation in the shortest time. The interesting fact of the narration is that the symptoms of the horrible disease are similar to tuberculosis symptoms: dizziness, sharp pain and seeping blood. The disease has a symbolic meaning in this story: like Read Death killed all the people and left the country totally empty, so tuberculosis killed Poe’s mother, foster mother and his wife, and made his life totally empty.
Poe’s poems and stories differ from writings of any other writer not because of his life experience, but also because of his personal opinion on nature and purpose of writing. He did not recognize poetry as a superior genre over other genres. Truth was important both in poetry and prose and truth is traced in every line of his writings despite their depressive plots and obscure ideas. He believed that poetry should have shed a light on a beautiful atmosphere. For this reason, his even the most dramatic poems like “To Helen”, “The Raven” convey the fragile beauty of romantic characters with tragic destiny.
The obsession of woman’s death is Poe’s psychological problem and the central theme of his short stories. His life experience has shaped a particular perception of reality, i.e. all young beautiful women have to die even if they are loved and cherished before. “The Black Cat” is a bright example of such belief because a young woman from the story unexpectedly dies as her loving husband turn against her when she tries to protect a cat.
Probably, his sufferings because of Virginia’s death were the most painful as several his works are combined by a common theme of innocent young women dying in horrible ways. For instance, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Oval Portrait,” reveal how beautiful full of life women die under different circumstances. Like the characters of these works, Poe’s young wife was also as beautiful and died in an unusual and unexpected way.
It is worth mentioning that death of three women in Poe’s life greatly influenced his mental health. The consequences of a huge stress revealed soon after Virginia’s death. He suffered from depressions and turned to alcohol.
However, drinking has considerably worsened his health as being drunk he became insane. Alcoholism has impacted his literature work as since then alcoholic characters appeared in his stories. The features of a heavy alcoholism are disclosed in “The Black Cat” written in 1844:
“One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him… The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer… I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!” (Giordano, 2014).
Till this time Edgar Allan Poe was totally overcome by the demon of alcohol. Later on he began to consume opium that led to maniac depression and heavy hallucinations. He was afraid of darkness and loneliness. His psychological condition at that time was similar to a condition depicted in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1840): “…un utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream on the reveler upon opium” (p. 49).
Another episode of alcoholism is depicted in “The Cask of Amontillado” mentioned above. Fortunato is obsessed by the opportunity to get drunk. His alcohol intoxication allows Montresor to take him to catacombs and trap him alive. One can assume that Fortunato embodies Edgar Allan Poe whose life was limited by chains of tuberculosis and finally destroyed by alcohol.
It is obvious that till that time his personality has been totally destroyed by alcohol, drugs and mental diseases. Even his two attempts to get married failed. His first fiancée refused to be his wife after she witnessed his mental problems. The second marriage failed as Poe got heavily drunk and was taken to a hospital being totally insane.
The personal tragedy of being alcoholic Edgar Allan Poe depicted in details not occasionally. Alcoholism destroyed his mental health, spoiled two attempts to get married and build new happy life. Finally, alcoholism killed him like an ordinary beggar and not a famous respected person. Probably, the author foresaw his tragic end and tries to reveal his readers how alcohol and drugs can turn a person into a beast that cannot control one’s thought and deeds and smash one’s life in one moment.
“The Black Cat” themes also included a theme of illogical and irrational behavior and its consequences on human life. Poe revealed what type of thinking can alter human points of view and attitude to other people. Making parallels between Poe’s biography facts and the characters of his stories, one can see that writer is a person who does not divide fantasy from reality. Any his poem or a story is a reflection of one’s thoughts and experience. Writing is Poe’s soul, a mirror that reflected his tragic life.
It is important to admit that the master of horror stories, Edgar Allan Poe also had satirical writings characterized by a balanced understanding of his readers and perception of reality. For instance, “The Balloon Hoax” was written as a newspaper article in order to attract attention to a new hot air balloon technology. Later on, the story was recognized as science-fiction writing.
To crown it all, Edgar Allan Poe had a dramatic and tragic life. Every episode of his life and mental condition has been reflected in his poems and short stories. Tragic love to women, pain of loss, alcoholism, insanity, and desperate existence are a few themes that Poe experienced in his life and later revealed in his works. However, the tragedy of his life led to invention of new literature genres: horror novels and detective stories.
- Giordano, R. (2014). The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe – Poestories.com. Poestories. Retrieved 13 November 2014, from http://poestories.com/read/blackcat
- Master E.L. (1968). Whitman. New York: Biblo & Tannen Publishers.
- Poe, E. A. (1965) Tales of grotesque and arabesque. Gloucester, Mass.: P.Smith
- Poe, E.A. (2014) The raven. Retrieved 13 November 2014, from http://www.tau.ac.il/~itzhakevenor/Poe-The-Raven.pdf
- Poetryfoundation.org. (2014). Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe: The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 13 November 2014, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174151