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Edgar Allen Poe

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the Bohemian world of literary newspapers and magazines, Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) found his destiny cast. He had been born in Boston, but he never belonged there, though his first volume, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," bore on its title page the words, "By a Bostonian." His father was a Marylander, for whom some biographers have claimed a noble descent, but who was a penniless actor and had married an actress. Early deprived of both parents, Poe was adopted by Mr. Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond, Va. For a time he was at school in England and Afterward was a student at the University of Virginia, where his irregular nature was nurtured in the old cavalier vices of the South. He drank and gambled, ran in debt, indulged in perverse pride, and was finally disowned by his adoptive father, who had tried to make a soldier of him at West Point. Turning to literature for support, Poe won a prize of $100 offered by a weekly paper for a story. His contribution was "The Manuscript Found in a Bottle." Being brought to the notice of John P. Kennedy, he was made editor of "The Southern Literary Messenger" at Richmond. He married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836, and a year later went, first to New York, and then to Philadelphia, where he was editor of the "Gentleman's Magazine." When Graham purchased this periodical and changed its title to "Graham's Magazine," Poe was retained as editor, but fifteen months later he left it abruptly. He had in the meantime published "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque" (1839), which gave him renown as a prose writer. They were soon translated into French, and since that time Poe's popularity in France has exceeded that of any other American writer. After seven years of literary hack-work in Philadelphia, Poe went back to New York and carried on the struggle for existence there. He was associated with Willis and in 1845 became proprietor of "The Broadway Journal," in which he published "The Raven," the poem which established his fame. His wife died of consumption in 1847, and two years later he himself died mysteriously in a Baltimore hospital, while on his way to Richmond to be married a second time. He had developed signs strangely like insanity, and was picked up senseless in the streets of Baltimore.

There was certainly much in Poe's character and life to call for censure. He drifted from one friend or supporter to another, but never attached himself long to any one. His literary distinction was entirely due to his own genius, yet there was enough of charlatanry in his rodomontade to justify Lowell's sharp couplet :

There comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.

In his "Essay on Composition" he declares that he composed "The Raven" on a strange, artificial principle, but this may be only an ironical hoax, somewhat on the order of his Hans Pfaal mystification. His theories on short poems and on the poetic art in general are often insincere, and yet his critical faculty was strong and his criticisms on his contemporaries were valuable, though not free from prejudice. His imagination was so powerful that it dominated his actual life, producing many prevarications and falsehoods, that still perplex his biographers. But in his literary work this active fancy produced most remarkable tales, sometimes introducing curious mathematical problems, as in "The Gold Bug," sometimes super-natural incidents, as in "The Fall of the House of Usher," and sometimes strangely revolting features, as in "The Murder in the Rue Morgue." It is hard to believe that these grotesque and weird stories were the result of deliberate calculation of effects, as the author asserted of some of them. Such combination of mathematical and imaginative powers is unknown elsewhere in all the range of literature. It must be admitted that the stories are deficient in display of character, that the persons who act in them are merely pieces in the game, and not really alive and self-determined. So also it is evident that Poe had no humor, and that his attempts at it are failures. In the preface to his "Poems," Poe declares, "Poetry has besen with me not a purpose, but a passion," and though he else-where offers a mechanical explanation of his "Raven," the poems themselves prove his passion. They spring from persons or incidents connected with his life, but they rise into an ethereal region in which the original persons are idealized and the simple facts are singularly metamorphosed. There is an exquisite fascination and enchanting melody in his verse that seems beyond the reach of calculating art.

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