« PreviousContinue »
"He was great in his genius, unhappy in his life, wretched in his death. But in his fame he is immortal.”
Such are the words inscribed on the bronze and marble memorial of Edgar Allan Poe, set up in the New York Museum of Art in the spring of 1885, — thirty-six years after the body of him whom it commemorates had found a nameless grave in a Baltimore churchyard. They outline for us the career of a being of strange endowments, whose personality remains lastingly striking, and whose career is profoundly affecting and instructive.
Edgar Poe was born in Boston, Jan. 19, 1809. His father David Poe, was the son of a distinguished officer in the Revolutionary army, and was educated for the bar; but becoming enamored of a beautiful actress lie married her, abandoned his profession, and went himself on the stage. Poe has referred to his mother, Elizabeth Arnold, as "a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and beauty.”
In a few years the youthful couple died of consumption (within a very short time of each other), leaving three young children entirely destitute, Edgar, the second child, was a remarkably bright and beautiful boy, and at the age of six was adopted by Mr. John Allan, a wealthy citizen of Richmond, from whom he
received his middle name, Allan. He was educated with great care, and at the age of seven was taken by Mr. and Mrs. Allan to England, and placed in a school at Stoke-Newington, a suburb of London, where he remained five or six years.
Edgar Allan was then recalled by his adopted father to the Richmond home, where under private tutors he pursued his studies for three or four years.
He was sent (1826) to the University of Virginia, where he passed his eighteenth year. He excelled in his studies, and was always at the head of his class; but he became deeply involved in debt, through his strong passion for gaming, and had to leave the university at the close of the year. .
In 1829 Poe published at Baltimore a volume of poems under the title of Al Aaroof, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. It attracted no attention, and is pronounced by his biographer, the poet Stoddard, “not a remarkable production for a young gentleman of twenty.” Afterwards Poe, who, when it suited his purpose, could play fast and loose with dates, tried to make the public believe that the poems were written when he was only fifteen.
Soon after this first poetical venture, Poe, through the influence of Mr. Allan, was admitted to a cadetship at West Point. But he neglected his studies, - having probably tired of the prospect of the military career, — and indulged in such excesses that (March, 1831) he was cashiered.
Returning then to Mr. Allan's home at Richmond, he soon behaved in such a manner that that gentle
man closed his doors against him. And so at the age of twenty-two the friendless poet was fain to turn for a livelihood to the common but too often sterile resource of literature.
In his first venture, however, Poe was fortunate. In 1833, the publisher of a literary journal at Baltimore having offered a prize of a hundred dollars for a tale in prose, and the same for a poem, Poe became a competitor, and won both prizes. This opened to him an engagement as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger at Richmond. In his editorial duties he labored for some time with industry, writing many tales and reviews, marked by genius and critical skill; but at length his old habits returned, and after a debauch he quarreled with the proprietor, and had to seek employment elsewhere. While in Richmond Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clem," a beautiful and saintly creature,” who was as destitute as himself, and who died of consumption the year before Poe's own sad end.
Removing to New York in 1837, Poe lived precariously by writing for the periodicals. Two years later he went to Philadelphia, where he edited, first the Gentleman's Magazine, and afterwards Graham's Magazine. While in Philadelphia he published a collection of his best stories, with the title Tales of the Arabesque and Grotesque (1840), which increased his now high reputation.
Poe's next move was a return to New York, where he contributed to the periodicals. In the American Review, published in that city, there appeared (February, 1845) a poem named “The Raven,” and signed Quarles.
It paid Poe, who proved to be its author, the sum of ten dollars; but it carried his name to the four corners of the earth, and made him a great celebrity in New York society, where he was often seen.
Though Poe was now famous, and though he was by habit industrious, the rewards of literature were at this time so meager that he was wretchedly poor; and after the failure of the Broadway Journal, a literary magazine in which he embarked (1846), he was reduced to such straits that public appeals for pecuniary aid were made in his behalf by the newspapers.
At this time Poe was living in a small cottage at Fordham, a suburb of New York, where it was his melancholy office to watch over his dying wife. He was in extreme poverty, and the state of his household is thus described by a friend: “ There was no clothing on the bed — which was only straw - but a snow-white spread and sheets. Virginia [his wife] lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her arms. These were her only means of warmth, except that Poe held her hands, and her mother her feet."
After his wife's death, Poe seems to have become reckless. His heart was broken. While in Baltimore (on his way from Richmond, where he had gone on a visit, to New York) he died, Oct. 7, 1849, in his fortyfirst year.
The circumstances of his “taking-off” were very, very sad.
Like all strong personalities, Poe has been the subject of much discussion. His first biographer, Griswold, turned the attention of the world towards his
faults and failings. These were many: however, it is now recognized that they have been greatly exaggerated. With the fatal gift of genius, Poe had a temperament of varied moods, and in his fits of melancholy – which at times bordered on madness — he sought the delusive “nepenthe ” of opium and alcohol. It seems that his nature, sensitive as it was to æsthetic beauty in all its forms, lacked somewhat of moral sensibility. It is the old story - illustrated before by Coleridge, and Lamb, and many others — of great powers allied to a weak will. He could not free himself from inherited qualities, and went down,-a great though broken life. Yet it would be a cold heart that could read without sympathy the story of this noble, misguided man,-himself the "unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster," till the melancholy end of his earthly career.
Leaving his moral character to be judged by those fitted to judge, we are free to consider, without prejudice or prepossession, his place in literature. This is unique. Poe's fame undoubtedly rests on fewer works than that of any other writer of equal renown. Though his writing is considerable in amount, it is most uneven in value. His philosophy — a sphere in which he thought to take high flights — may best be described as bosh. His literary criticism is so colored by personal prejudice as to be valueless save for the bright occasional utterances of his rare ästhetic instinct. But his stories and poems belong to a class apart, and these are his titles to enduring fame.
As a writer of tales, Poe was a great and original