Poe: Southern Visionary & Macabre Genius

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Edgar A. Poe was simply one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, arguably its greatest author of short stories, and the virtual inventor of the detective tale as we know it today.  That he was an American, and a Southerner to boot, may have been accidents of fate, since he himself disdained the prevailing ideas of creating a “national” literature for the nascent United States.  However, his sense of his own “Southern-ness” had a profound impact on his outlook on the world, as well as his relations to the New England and New York Yankee literati. 

Poe was a literary genius, a magazine hack-writer, a compulsive liar, a perfectionist, a plagiarist, and often a beggar.  He was death-obsessed, a writer of some of the most sensuous poetry ever published, and both the most severe and deeply earnest literary critic America has ever seen. His psychological penetration into the dark side of the human psyche is nearly unparalleled.  He aggressively pursued literary feuds with most of the famous and many of the forgotten authors of his age – ripping his friends and foes to shreds with sarcastic bombast and blistering prose.  At one point or another he publicly attacked most of the people who helped him in his career, but maintained the temerity to simultaneously beg them for money in private! 

His severest and most damning reviews were always reserved for the New England Brahmin – those cultured “Fireside” poets whose ranks included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  He also satirized the New England Transcendentalists made up of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle of admirers and followers.  And Poe’s taste was simply impeccable and unimpeachable.  Indeed, history has borne out his literary judgments to the last.  He despised third rate poetry and the success of those who wrote for the masses, achieving fame himself only upon the publication of “The Raven” – the poem that catapulted him into superstar status but that did little to pay his family’s bills.

Although born in Boston, Poe was raised in Richmond by an adoptive family, and he always considered himself a Southerner.  In point of fact, it is only through the lens of the South that Poe’s prickly and honor-obsessed personality can be truly understood.  All the same, his writing was not bound by any narrow nationalism, and he was by far the most cosmopolitan American author of the early 19th century.  Ridiculing the notion that America should have its own national literature when the pursuit of this elusive goddess was all the rage among nearly all writers from both North and South, Poe instead followed a dream-like vision of artistic perfection, and became a forerunner to what would become known fifty years after his death as “Art for Art’s Sake.”     

Being raised with genteel expectations by a fabulously wealthy and miserly foster “father,” Poe was left without the means to achieve these expectations due to a familial falling out.  Afterwards, his self-destructive nature often took over, though he was quite a complex alcoholic, as he does not fit the stereotype of the constant drinker.  He could go months without touching a drop, but if he had one small taste, he would dwell in his bottle for weeks and sometimes could not even find his way home.  He would sometimes get so violently drunk and debased that he had little control over anything he did or said.  He would also become terrible sick during these episodes, during which he usually found it impossible to write.  He was brought back from the brink of death many times by his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, the person who had the most steadying effect on him over the course of his entire life.

Perhaps emulating the English and Virginia aristocrats with whom he had associated in his youth, Poe married his first cousin Virginia, a young girl he worshipped as his muse and his poetic ideal.  In fact, despite several romantic affairs and marriage proposals after Virginia’s early death, Poe was always drawn to the same type of fragile, beautiful women, and painfully, he witnessed more than one of them die young as Virginia had.  There is even a possibility that Romance was completely a psychological state for Poe, and that he may never have consummated the ethereal bliss he felt in his heart and head for numerous women.  Virginia’s death two years before his own descent into nothingness gave him an intoxicating taste of freedom, but also sent him spiraling soon out of control.

Only twice is he known to have used his full name “Edgar Allan Poe,” the name posterity has assigned to him.   Normally he signed it simply “Edgar A. Poe.”  Regardless of these semantics, however, POE will live as one of the greatest poets and literary geniuses America has ever produced.  And long may his works be read by all citizens of the world!

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that 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.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar A. Poe, Annabel Lee, 1849

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