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Dark, obscure, psycho, loner, scintillating, emotional, mysterious. Those are all words that describe Edgar Allan Poe. To truly understand this prolific poet, one must start from the very beginning of his life. We must look deeply and take into account the things that influenced his life, such as the many women that were close to his life who passed away, his alcoholism, and his psychology. His tragic experiences with women and his substance abuse contributed to the darkness of his work.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809. At just two years of age, Poe lost his mother, Eliza, due to tuberculosis; Poe resembled his mother a lot, with his diminutive figure, dark hair, and large dark eyes. He was also very close to her. At the same time, his father abandoned the whole family because he wasn’t fit to parent and had some issues of his own, including his struggles with alcohol.
In his work and in his personal life, Poe devoted a lot of his time wrestling with the concept of love and trying to find love with the women in his life.
What is love? ‘Love is an unconditional feeling that you feel towards a person or subject.’ (Merriam Webster). With such an audacious definition, once understands the reason why Poe was the way he was, and why he looked for that love when he lost so many women in his life. The abandonment of this father would affect him for the rest of his life. Poe lost the two most important people in his life; At that time, tuberculosis, a bacterial disease, was very common.
People often died from tuberculosis then and Poe lost many of the women who were close to him to that disease. (‘The Tales and Their Author). Other women that Poe was very close to included his adopted mother, Fanny, Jane Stanard, and his wife, Virginia who was only twenty years of age when she passed. She also died from tuberculosis.
When his mother, Eliza died, two very good friends of Poe’s parents, John and Fanny Allan, took him in. Poe later went on to adopt their last name. Now, John and Fanny were very opposite people. John wasn’t too thrilled he had to take in Poe. But, Fanny on the other hand, was more than willing to take Poe in. She loved him like he was her own son
When he was 12 years old, Poe became captivated by a classmate’s mother. Her name was Jane Stanard. She would gradually go mentally insane and eventually die. One reason Poe became infatuated with her was because she resembled both his mother Eliza and Fanny. She had a soft spot and was very compassionate, as well as sensitive like Poe. He took gratitude in that he could confide in her. Jane left such a big imprint on Poe’s life that he called her, ‘The first, purely ideal love of my soul.’ (The Lost Youth of Edgar Allan Poe).
With this, came one of the most exquisite poems that was ever written; To Helen. The beginning of the poem starts out with narrator expressing the way he feels about Helen. ‘Helen, they beauty is to me like those Nicean bark of yore…’. Then continues to claim that even though he has been out in the sea, her beauty gives him comfort which makes him want to return home back to her.
This poem was obviously written in remembrance of Mrs. Jane Stanard. Even though the poem does not use Jane’s name as the subject, it is believed that Poe wanted there to be a similarity between Jane and Helen from Troy who created the Trojan War because her beauty was unlike any other. This poem also showed the way Poe viewed the female figure: that they are nurturing beings and are capable of loving someone.
The Black Cat was written in 1842. The story goes as follows: The narrator married at an early age. His wife acquired birds, goldfish, and a cat. At this point of time, his addiction with alcohol took complete control of everything in his life. The disease dominated him. His thoughts started to be altered in a way that he could not control them. ‘I knew myself no longer, for more than that fiendish malevolence gin nurtured thrilled every fiber of my frame.’ (The Black Cat Rd).
The story continues with the narrator grabbing the black cat, knowingly, stabbing one of its eyes out and proceeding to take a noose and hanging the cat on the limb of a tree. Later that night, the house caught on fire, completely diminishing the building except a silhouette of a cat with a rope around its neck. This haunted the narrator for months. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he had done to the cat, as well as the silhouette he had seen. It was eating at his soul. On a specific night, the narrator was lingering in a den. He was once again drawn to a black object, another black cat. They went back to the rundown building where he lived there with his wife. She, once again, admired this cat. He too, felt the same way towards this cat like he did with the one he killed. The following morning, the narrator noticed that the cat had one eye missing. This shook him up. The wife pointed out the cat’s white hair which instantly made him think of the noose he had put on the other cat. He became psychotic and started hating everything in the world. The narrator and his wife take a stroll into the cellar. As they walk down the staircase, the black car trips the narrator.
Now, this is where things get very interesting. The narrator wants to kill the cat with the axe in his hands. But, his wife interfered because she cared for the cat. This really set the narrator off the edge. So, what does he do? ‘Into a rage more than demonical, I buried the axe in her brain.’ (The Black Cat). The body was kept in the cellar. There was a trial held for the murderer. The defense argued that the act was solely due to insanity. ‘He is a sick man who deserves the lightest sentence this court can deliver.’ But the prosecutor took him down, reminding everyone of the crimes X (the narrator) had done. Including that the second cat had resembled the first. With the missing eye. Fast forward, X continues saying that he was the one who took the monster (the black cat) and threw him into the tomb. The narrator repeatedly notes that he is not going insane. But it’s the alcohol that creates the destruction in his mind.
John Allan was all about his work ethic and spending your time and money wisely. John fought with Poe due to so many differences. Poe struggled with both of these things that were important to John and it was a source of tension between the two men. He became a person that John loathed. He was emotional, unstable, and unreliable. Poe had also learned that John was cheating on Fanny while she laid there sick on her death bed. This of course really set John off, so he sent Poe to the University of Virginia. Poe would also devote all his time with pursuits that had no material or financial value (POE. P 8).
When Poe got to the University, he would soon learn that it will be a long ride for him. For John only gave him enough money to attend the University. Not enough for things such as food, clothing and anything he would need to talk care of himself (The Literary Traveler). The school had very strict rules, but no one adhered to them. Poe misbehaved in a very disturbing manner. This included being drunk constantly, ‘Poe’s passion for drink was as marked and as peculiar as that for cards…He played in such an impassioned manner as to amount to an actual frenzy.’ (POE p.18) Poe also had gambling problems. It would go to the extent that he became broke. Very strange things started happening there at the university. Examples included one professor observed horsewhipping his wife right there in the street. In front of everyone. They all just stood there. This was considered the norm for them. Another incident included a young man beating his opponent handily and biting him. (POE p.34). Due to his gambling problems, not only was he broke, he also owed some people money, two thousand dollars’ worth. He asked John for help, but John refused. For he had already renounced him. So, he ran away and joined the army. Interestingly, Poe shined. He got the highest ranking (The Vintage News). He stuck the military life out for two years and then tried everything he could to get kicked out.
When Poe as kicked out of the military, to his dismay, he had lost yet another very important women in his life, Franny. Poe wasn’t able to make it back home until after the day of her burial. This was very tragic to him because her last wish was to have him there at her bedside before she passed. This loss was too much for Poe, so he went back to Baltimore, Maryland to live with Virginia Clemm’s family. She was his first cousin. Also, very young, seven years old; Another very important bit of information to add to this part of Poe’s life is that his brother, Henry, lived with Virginia’s family since the day his mother died. While trying to manage his life with the Clemms, Poe was beckoned to the death bed of John Allan in 1834. There, John chose to spend the last minutes of his life threatening him. Even though John had a will, he had no means to have Poe in it. Instead, it was given to his illegitimate children.
Virginia’s mother encouraged her to marry Poe. So, they got married on May 16, 1836. He cared very much for Virginia. Treated her like she was a fragile flower. ‘Poe’s character appeared in its most beautiful light. Playful, affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child- for his young gentle and idolized wife, and for all who came, he had even in the midst of his most harassing literary duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful and courteous attention.’ (POE P.56) Just like Eliza, Fanny, and Jane, Virginia also died from tuberculosis. She would have to battle with this disease for five years. These were the worst five years of Poe’s life because he had to watch his beloved Virginia get better then worse. Over and over. This made his feel guilty because there was nothing he could do for her. She officially died in January 1847 at age twenty-four. Poe took the death of his wife in a very negative way. He started drinking alcohol heavily once again. It is also rumored that he tried to commit suicide.
In an article written by T.J. Matheson, he incorporates a conversation Napier Wilt, the owner of Southern Literary Messenger, had with Poe regarding his job position and his alcohol abuse. He starts out telling Poe that the reason why he was fired was due to his drinking. He also gives him advise to better excel with his career, that he needs to, ‘Separate yourself from the bottle and bottle companions, forever!’ (Napier Wilt. 1927). Poe admits that he was inebriated for the duration of the time that he worked at the Southern Literary Messenger. This disease embodied his life so negatively that it made it hard for him to be able to function in his ‘social and economic’ (T.J. Matheson. 1986) aspects of his life.
Towards the end of his life, he went into hysteria and thought that people were out to get him. This even made him change his whole appearance so that no one noticed him, shaving his mustache off. After which, he disappeared out of the blue. No one knew where he was for several days. Until October 3rd. He was found lying on a street in Baltimore, Maryland. Semi-unconscious and wearing someone else’s clothes.
There are many theories about his death which include the following: The first theory came from a biographer by the name of E. Oaks Smith. She added, ‘Who considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a Ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever followed…’ (Smithsonian). Another theory involves an operation that was conducted by gangsters from that era. This was called ‘cooping.’ Cooping victims would be kidnapped, forced to drink, then robbed and left on the streets. (Atlasobscure). There are many different theories created around Poe’s death, but the speculation that he drank himself to death, made the most sense. Alcoholism consumed his life in every way and likely ultimately ended it. We can gain a more complete understanding of Poe through an analysis of the psychological factors at play that we can infer from his personal story. Poe himself was acutely aware of the interplay between psychology, behavior, and narrative, even if he didn’t have the psychoanalytic vocabulary available at that point in history to speak about the psychology in terms that we use today.
The significant writings of Edgar Allan Poe were greatly influenced by his tortured life. His alcoholism, alienation from a lot of people, depression, and the loss of all those he deeply loved immensely contributed to his work. Within that, Poe opened up a whole different world in literature that people couldn’t have ever imagined. He made his readers keep an open mind. Very few appreciated his work during his time, but now we see that he was a visionary poet that lived a tragic life.
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