Edgar Allan Poe is a famous poet who is best known for his darker form of writing. It is amazing how many stories and poems he wrote during his short life. “The most prominent features of Poe’s poetry are a pervasive tone of melancholy, a longing for lost love and beauty, and a preoccupation with death” (Poetry). The poems “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and “The Bells” are about love associated with death and misery but there are some that are about a pure type of love which include poems such as “Eulalie,” “For Annie,” and “To Helen.” Most critics did not like Edgar Allan Poe. They had difficulty separating his work from the person causing them to write reviews with disdain. Given that Poe’s life mimics his poetry, one cannot write about his poems without talking about the man himself. An essay to help the reader understand Poe’s methods is his own, “The Philosophy of Composition.”
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809. His parents were actors who died when Poe was young. He was abandoned by his father and his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe died on tour in Richmond in 1811. He was raised by Frances and John Allan in Richmond, Virginia. Poe had alcohol and money problems throughout his life. As a student at the University of Virginia, he ended up leaving during his first year because of money problems. He was kicked out of West Point for the same reason. Poe earned a living as a writer, editor, and critic. He changed jobs often due to financial woes. As stated by Allen Tate in his essay of Edgar Allan Poe, “If history had consciously set about creating the character and circumstances favorable to the appearance of the archetype of the romantic poet, it could not have done better than to select Poe for the role” (220). Poe died in 1849. Like his poems, Poe’s death is somewhat of a mystery.
Poe published his first set of poems in 1827 and a revised version with added poems in 1829. There was little to no reaction to his poetry. Once the critics did decide to take an interest in Poe’s work, they reviewed the author and his work as one. “Critics-historians frequently produced elaborate commentaries and “explanations” of an author more interesting than the works of the author himself” (Tate 214). Emerson called Poe, “The jingle man”; Henry James stated “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection”; and T.S. Eliot while appreciating Poe’s intelligence said, “it seems to be the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.” (Burt) Poe was mainly judged on his darker poetry. “In 1948 T. S. Eliot, in a lecture “From Poe to Valéry”, said in substance to Poe’s work, if it is to be judged fairly, must be seen as a whole, lest as the mere sum of its parts it seems inferior” (Tate 214). “Writers have been drawn to Poe in trying to solve the riddle of his deep personal torments… Poe offers many clues in his stories and poems of a complex artist who drew on his private obsessions as the basis for his art” (Burt).
Poe has many poems that are more on the darker side. As mentioned earlier some such poems are “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells.” “One mark of a great poet is distinctiveness… an identifying characteristic of Poe’s work is a melancholy atmosphere—the sun shines too briefly or more likely, not at all. The sky in “Ulalume” is ashen and sober”; in “The City in the Sea” the “rays from the holy Heaven” never “come down” and the narrator of “Annabel Lee” blames a “chilling” wind for his lover’s fatal illness” (Frye 15). Poe was most known for his poem “The Raven” which is about “the bereaved lover lamenting his dead and beautiful beloved” (Frye 41). “The Raven” “was an immediate success and was reprinted in numerous publications in America and Europe” (Poetry). The despair of the narrator at the thought of never seeing his beloved Lenore is clear in this stanza:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aiden,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quote the Raven, “Nevermore” (Parini 97).
In the poem “Annabel Lee” the angels or “seraphs” took his beloved away from him because they were jealous of their love.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me:—
Yes!—was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my ANNABEL LEE. (Parini 116)
Most critics believe Poe was talking about his wife, Virginia. He repeats the name, Annabel Lee in every stanza in capital letters. The phrase “In the kingdom by the sea”, is mentioned in several stanzas throughout the poem. Although this “probably comes closer to purely phonetic repetition…the contrast between the booming-receding onomatopoeia of the latter line and the serenity of the name re-enforces irony of lying down by the side of Annabel Lee, while she lies by the side of the sea” (Caputi 176). In the poem “The Bells”, the word “bells” is repeated over and over to emphasize the different types of bells that ring through life. “Beginning with the sleigh bells, he qualifies ‘bells’ all down the line: first wedding bells, then alarm bells, and finally funeral bells” (Caputi 177). This poem goes from a good place in one’s life when there is excitement and joy to doom and then eventually death. Poe writes “What a world of merriment their melody foretells!/How they ring out their delight!/How they scream out their affright!/To the moaning and the groaning of the bells” (Parini 120-121)
Throughout Poe’s life, he shifts from lighter to darker poetry. His early work focuses more on love and nature. His first poem, “Tamerlane” talks about “a place out of time where absolute beauty may be experienced directly instead of through earthly things, which are inevitably disappointing” (Parini 15).
O, she was worthy of all love!
Love—as in infancy was mine—
‘Twas such as angel minds above
Might envy; her young heart the shrine (Parini 27).
“Eulalie” (1845) is a love poem most likely about his wife, Virginia. In one line the speaker says “For her soul gives me sigh for sigh” (Parini 99). “For Annie” (1849) is about a man dying but he is happy because he will no longer suffer from his illness and he has his beloved Annie by his side.
She tenderly kissed me,
She fondly caressed me,
And then I fell gently
To sleep on her breast—
Deeply to sleep
From the heaven of her breast (Parini 113).
In the poem “Evening Star”, Poe strays from his usual themes about happiness and love and talks more about the beautiful solitude that nature provides. In “Stanzas”, Poe is not only describing how beautiful nature is, but he is also describing it as the “beauty by our God” (Parini 41). “To Helen” is known to be “Poe’s finest lyric poem (Poetry).
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome
“The last two lines quoted above are, among the most famous that Poe ever wrote” (Parini 18).
Poe has several poems where he talks about love, nature, and the afterlife. “Poe believed that Beauty existed in eternity, that terrestrial life was graced by only the most fugitive reflections of it” (Caputi 177). Many of his critics and others who read his poetry do not pay attention to most of his love poems.
Poe’s essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” is a step-by-step explanation of Poe’s process in writing a poem. In his essay he breaks down his process for “The Raven” and explains that no part of it was an accident; more like a “mathematical problem.” (Poe 116) He starts with three elements: the length, the province, and tone. Poe states “I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem…it is, in fact, a hundred and eight” (Poe 118). For the province, he writes “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” (Poe 118). When he talks about tone, Poe says “…all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. The beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones” (Poe 119). Poe’s use of the refrain is different than most poets as he describes in his essay. He describes the normal use of the refrain as a “burden” and “limited to lyric verse” in “the force of monotone – both in sound and thought” (Poe 120). Poe takes the use of the refrain and elevates it by “adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce a continuously novel effect, by the variation of the application of the refrain” (Poe 120). Poe found it important to keep the refrain to one word at the end of a stanza using a word with a deep sound. As Poe puts it all together for writing “The Raven” he explains he chose “a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” after each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone and length about one hundred lines” (Poe 122). He then concludes that death is the “most melancholy” and the “most melancholy of topics most poetical” is “Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover” (Poe 122).
Edgar Allan Poe’s passion was poetry, but it did not “pay the bills” (Habich). “In the preface of his collection The Raven and Other Poems,” Poe wrote, “With me, poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion” (Habich). Poe wanted the reader to use their imagination; to feel the emotions of his characters. He “believed true poetry elevated the soul and put its readers in touch with the sublime” (Habich). He used the refrain and tone in a way to make his poems memorable. Poe’s poems are often narrated in the first person. There is a sense that Poe is the speaker in a number of his poems (Poetry). His mysterious and dark persona along with his trouble-filled life, allows the reader to believe his writings reflect his life. Poe’s poems allow the reader to experience love, loss, longingness, and torment; the emotion and pleasure one should feel when reading poetry.
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