I am in possession of a 1938 Modern Library edition of The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Random House, Inc.). It belonged to my Mother. Along with Charles Dickens, Poe was one of her most favorite authors — 19th century writers being universal favorites of people who grew up and were schooled in the early half of the 20th century. It’s odd, in a way, that she, who was so very optimistic and upbeat and positive about life, would nevertheless love authors who largely concentrated on the bleak and the macabre. But then, she was a true romantic in every sense of the word, including literary genres.
Anyway, because of my Mother, my association with Mr. Poe goes way back, even before I studied his work in English class or spent Saturday afternoons in the movie theatre watching 1960’s Hollywood renditions of his scariest short stories with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Borris Karloff: The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death, and a cinematic version of Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven. I had read many of these tales before, of course, in her Modern Library edition, so was already something of a Poe critic long before I ever got degrees in American literature.
During his unfortunately short life (he died at 40), Poe was prolific. He wrote 73 short stories (not all of them macabre), over 50 poems (not all of them dark and grieving), and several rather acclaimed pieces of literary criticism. But yes, he was a “tortured soul,” and that shows in his work overall. He married his cousin Virginia (who was 13 at the time) and they were together only 11 years before she died.The great love of his life, she is immortalized in his most famous grief poems, “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “The Raven.” They are all mournfully melodic, with interior rhymes and durge-like rhythms, and they are beautiful (and I am not a romantic). I delivered these poems repeatedly in oral interpretation of poetry competitions in my undergrad days, successfully, I might add. (It wasn’t hard if you could ignore the sing-song impulses and emphasize the narrative thread.)
“The Raven” was first published in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror and, though Poe was already a working writer and an editor, this poem brought him instant success among mainstream readers. The story of a profound sorrow that won’t leave struck a popular nerve, and it was subsequently published in slightly different versions in numerous papers around the Country. (Visit the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, http://www.eapoe.org for the various versions of the poem and other author information.) “The Raven” is a long poem, being 18 stanzas of six lines each, which precludes my reprinting it here, but when you read it, you will no doubt recognize several oft-quoted lines and phrases.
Good writing and great literature does endure, even when it is sentimental and clearly a product of its time. “The Raven” is a perfect example. The nevermore refrain has come to represent, at least among modern readers, more than just Poe’s loss of his wife, but the loss of everything that cannot be recaptured: our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost innocence, our lost faith. That, I think, is at the core of its continuing appeal — perhaps especially now. The appearance of a raven was, of course, a sign of death and impending doom since ancient times, which explains the ubiquity of the avian image today at Halloween.
Poe’s short stories also endure, particularly at Halloween, and he is rightfully considered a master of Gothic horror. In reality, though, only about a third of his stories truly fit the horror classification. He is also considered a master of detective fiction, psychological thrillers, and even some science fiction, and he also wrote satire and even humor. Many of his best-known short stories were inspired by sensational accounts of unsolved mysteries and horrific murders that he read about in newspapers. Some even found their inspiration in historic events, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (about torture in the Spanish Inquisition) and Masque of the Red Death (about the cholera epidemic).
In a way, Poe’s life itself became a sad, melancholy tale. Always troubled with psychological problems, with drugs and alcohol and then the loss of his great love, he died of “mysterious circumstances” in October of 1849. He is buried at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. For over fifty years, an unknown visitor came each year and left three roses and a bottle of French cognac at his gravesite. No one is entirely sure of the symbolism of those mementoes, but Poe’s tombstone aptly reads: “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.”
And the Baltimore Ravens bear the name of Poe’s most famous poem.