Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe; drawing by David Levine

When Henry James made his famous remark that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of an extremely primitive stage of reflection,” he meant of course to denigrate. Yet now we might think that James had hit upon Poe’s particular genius, his gift of getting beneath the social surface of things to explore in his writing the primitive apparatus of the unconscious. Like other Europeans, Nietzsche understood Poe better than anyone did on these shores:

Those great poets…men like Byron, Musset, Poe…are and must be men of the moment, sensual, absurd, fivefold, irresponsible, and sudden in mistrust and trust; with souls in which they must usually conceal some fracture; often taking revenge with their works for some inner contamination, often seeking with their high flights to escape into forgetfulness from an all-too-faithful memory; idealists from the vicinity of swamps.

Long before Freud had mapped the “swamps,” Poe roamed there, his tales and fables as odd and troubling as dreams.

It is curious that while most of us can remember vividly our first reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or “The Masque of the Red Death”—can remember the tale’s plot and the fascination, and the frightening effect, we rarely reread these stories, perhaps from a fear that the satisfying terror of first reading would now be stale and flat, or from reluctance to submit to it again, any more than we would willingly reread “The Little March Girl,” or any of the other painful tales of Hans Christian Andersen that stay so powerfully with us. The image of Red Death removing his mask to mock the arrogant revelers is too potent a metaphor to need repeating; we got it the first time and have never forgotten it. Nor can we ever recapture the effect of a first reading of “The Cask of Amontillado,” the horrid understanding dawning on us as we read; once known, the ending to which the whole thing is so cryptically pointed cannot surprise us again. Yet today we return to Poe to admire the brilliance with which he marshals his effects. The stories are shorter than we remembered, and decorated like plumcakes with symbols whose significance has been made familiar since Poe’s time, and whose directness could make the stories seem obvious in retrospect but does not. He continues to trouble us.

You cannot read the collected tales of Poe without being aware that you are in the hands of a most peculiar writer, perhaps a disturbed and clearly obsessed one, who gave us access to his own tormented unconscious with an openness possible only in preFreudian writers. But Poe wormed his way deeper than anyone had into the buried meaning of the sorts of tales and poems people were already familiar with. He touched on an underside of madness and rage that his readers—James included—were squeamish to acknowledge, and this is perhaps why he fixed himself with the reputation of being a monster, an injustice that literary historians have had a hard time repairing. Even his contemporaries confused his mad narrators with the man himself. His fellow American writers could not make sense of him, and they believed wild stories about him—it is said that William Cullen Bryant refused to contribute to his burial (his reburial) on account of what he had heard about Poe’s bad character.

To think of Poe as an English writer of the Romantic period is to make sense of him in a way that trying to place him among the American Transcendentalists does not. He wrote in a particular English literary tradition, in the Gothic mode popular in his day, and he is the greatest of Gothic writers, perhaps the first modern one. He was a hard-working professional very much of his day, using the predominant motifs and genres of Romantic literature, and was intellectually involved with the critical debates of his contemporaries, especially those taking place in England about language, inspiration, and the relation of art and morals. (He was against moralizing: The “sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations,” anticipating fin-de-siècle aestheticism.)

It is perhaps his language that has made English speakers wonder at the immense reverence the French have for Poe; Poe was admired in France even in his day, and he is still regarded by them as one of our greatest writers. He was translated by Baudelaire (by which, remarked the censorious James, Baudelaire compromised himself utterly in the minds of Americans). He influenced Verlaine, Mallarme, Huysmans, Jules Verne, and countless others. The critic Gilles Barbedette has one explanation—that Poe translated by Baudelaire sounds better than Poe in English, and it may be as simple as that; but his reputation in France is also partly an example of the curious tide that washes up quite unexpected writers on foreign shores where they may receive a hero’s welcome as geniuses neglected in their own lands; there is often among England, France, and America a kind of influence gap, where writing is concerned. One also suspects that the somewhat Anglophobic French were more attracted to the Romantic received via America than in its earlier manifestations by Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe. Poe also influenced Dostoevsky, who printed “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” two tales of murder and confession, in his magazine five years before he wrote Crime and Punishment. Altogether his influence on both the French and even the Russians is without equal among American writers.


Our idea of the difficult, tragic Poe is largely owing to a “nasty memoir,” as Richard Wilbur called it,1 by his rival, and original biographer, the malicious Reverend Rufus Griswold, who in Poe’s obituary made him out to be a scoundrel, and continued to make a career of maligning him, even altering Poe’s letters to enhance his presentation of the dead writer as a sex-and-opium-crazed alcoholic liar. Griswold told the fascinated world such things as that Poe was a fortune hunter (no one was ever less successful at fortune hunting) and kept a mistress, and that besides his child-wife, Poe had “criminal relations” with his mother-in-law, and, almost worse, was so hated that “few would grieve for his death.” These calumnies fixed forever the reputation of a man who seems really to have been, though desperate and difficult, sensitive, highly intelligent; an orphan who from the beginning was fated to lose all that he loved; a genius and a monumentally unlucky man, “doomed,” D.H. Lawrence said, to “seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process.” He had one of the most truly sad lives of any artist, a life whose interest for us, like that of the Brontes, rivals the works themselves, and does much to explain them.

In “The Philosophy of Composition” he wrote that the most poignant and melancholy subject for poetry was the death of a beautiful young woman, an idea that must have arisen from his pre-memory, for this subject was given him at the age of two, as he and his infant sister watched beside their deserted, terrified, dying young mother, in rented lodgings in Richmond, Virginia. She was Elizabeth Arnold, a young English actress called Betty, who had come to America with a troupe of minor British players. (The sadness of her life does not bear thinking about.) She was married first at sixteen to another actor, widowed, then married to David Poe, a young American of good family who had studied law but was stage-struck and had joined the company. In 1807 she gave birth to Poe’s older brother, Henry, whom they left with David Poe’s parents, and then on January 19, 1809, to Edgar. David Poe, less accomplished than his wife, was also moody, disappointed, dissolute, and ill, and in the summer of 1810 he disappeared, deserting Betty in Richmond with little Edgar, and four months pregnant with Rosalie. Biographers have suggested that this little sister might not be Poe’s child, and that this explained the breakup of the marriage. In any case, within the year, the readers of the Richmond World would see a notice:

To the humane heart. On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time. The Generosity of the Richmond Audience can need no other appeal.

Betty Poe was dying of tuberculosis. The immediacy of the child’s horror of sickness, decay, and death would never leave him. The father, David Poe, would also die of tuberculosis, whether two days later, as one tradition has it, or earlier, in October 1810, or as late as 1813.

The orphans were adopted, Edgar by a Scots tobacco merchant, John Allen, Rosalie by another family. The childless Mrs. Allen was delighted with the attractive, bright little boy, and his upbringing seems at first to have been a happy and relatively privileged one, with good schools and all the manners and expectations of an upper-middle-class southern family. From 1815 to 1820, the Allens lived in England, where Poe went to a boarding school on Sloane Street, and it was there, one supposes, that he became acquainted with English literature, especially the Gothic tales then current, but also the poetry of the Romantics; Byron (who seems to have been one of his models) and Shelley were then at the height of their celebrity.

The family returned to America. Edgar continued to do well in school and to show some promise at writing, which was by no means John Allen’s hope for him. Like Shelley, Poe was a rebellious adolescent, wild in the fashion of Romantic poets and young southern gentlemen. He had to leave the University of Virginia after his first semester because of gambling debts and drinking. From here his relationship with his foster father would deteriorate in a repetitious cycle of accusations, pleas for money, hard-hearted refusals from John Allen, and increasingly desperate measures by Poe. At the age of eighteen he joined the army, and had to be bought out. It was now that he paid to have his first volume of verses printed: Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a “Bostonian.”


Poe was twenty when he got out of the army. He lived for a while in Baltimore with his grandmother Poe, her widowed daughter Mrs. Clemm, and Mrs. Clemm’s little daughter Virginia, and tried to launch himself into a literary career, attracting attention for his poems and inventing travel tales based on his military service. At twenty-two he obliged Mr. Allen by entering West Point, but he failed at this too, and was court-martialed for neglecting his duties. He left West Point with money collected from his fellow cadets to publish a new volume of poems.

Meantime his beloved foster mother died, Mr. Allen remarried, and the new wife produced a son, so that Allen had no need to repose his hopes in the unruly Edgar, whom he steadfastly refused to help. In Baltimore with Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s brother Henry died, of tuberculosis like their parents, and at the same age as their mother, twenty-four. Poe would marry Virginia Clemm, and she too would die of tuberculosis at twenty-four.

Biographers do not agree about whether this strange marriage, when Virginia was thirteen (he was twenty-seven), was an asset to Poe, providing a measure of stability and affection, for by all accounts she adored him, or whether it set back his literary and social acceptance by seeming to his contemporaries a bit repulsive. In any case, Poe told someone that the marriage was not consummated for two years; he also told many people that he thought of Virginia more as a sister than a wife, causing some commentators to wonder if the marriage was ever consummated. Many literary critics have devoted themselves to analyzing Poe’s sexuality in the light of his stories, where they have found menacing symbols of the Vagina dentata and other expressions of uneasiness toward women. There is little specific evidence about Poe’s sexuality, but as marriages do tend to get consummated, the famous example of Ruskin notwithstanding, the notion of a mariage blanc between Edgar and Virginia Clemm may be just romantic fancy. In any case contemporary accounts paint the Poes as a happy couple, though in harrowing poverty, often unable to afford warm clothing or medicine. It is comforting to think that this lost spirit, rejected by every parent—for death in Poe’s lexicon is rejection—had at least the devotion of a surrogate mother, the affectionate Mrs. Clemm, and of his young wife, for a time.

Poe was devastated by Virginia’s death, but even before her death he struck people as a man in trouble, talented but impossible, given to binge drinking and erratic behavior that caused him to lose every job his undoubted talent could procure for him (as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and Graham’s Magazine, where he was supplanted by the sinister Reverend Griswold). Yet he was also respected and admired. When the argument arose over his character after his death, many people wrote to refute the things Griswold had said about him, and to testify to his genius, intelligence, and good manners, at least when he was sober. He lived two years after Virginia, rampaging, grieving, wildly courting widows, and one day was found unconscious and beaten, lying over some barrels in an alley in a stranger’s shabby clothes. Taken to a charity hospital and kindly tended by a young doctor who had no idea who he was, he lingered, regained consciousness briefly, died, and was sewn into a pauper’s shroud by the doctor’s wife on October 7, 1849, aged forty.

Freudian critics have always fallen with particular relish on the tales of Poe to infer things about Poe himself, his life and character. The most famous study of Poe the man was by Marie Bonaparte, the pupil of Freud, who found in him a perfect illustration of Freud’s theories. Knives, eyes, teeth, black cats, terrifying coffins, caskets, holes—indeed the post-Freudian reader of Poe cannot escape the designated significance of these familiar symbols any more than the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” can escape the staring eye of his victim. Everywhere are wistful expressions of impotency and uncontrolled expressions of primal fears, which are by no means as amusing or revealing to explicate as they once must have been. One cannot escape the sense that Poe’s manipulation of these symbols was an important part of his intention, however much they may also encode his own anxieties. He seems to have had a remarkable access to his own unconscious, and to have assumed that the patterns of his imagination would find a response in his reader—the “primitive” response James complained of, and the response that other Romantic writers were feeling out in very much the same vocabulary.

The erotic did not concern him; women were to remain fragile, frightening, liable to die. Poe’s fears of women have been seen to be illustrated by the cat, in “The Black Cat,” which the narrator in his rage mutilates before he kills his wife, or in the vengeful treatment afforded Madeleine Usher, buried alive, or in Berenice’s little teeth, extracted by the narrator from her living corpse (viz the vagina dentata). There are in fact few women in Poe’s stories, and they are mostly terrible in their power (to desert or disappoint), and must be destroyed as the narrator destroys his wife in “The Black Cat,” or as Roderick Usher destroys by his inaction his sister Madeleine.

But it is possible to think of Poe’s women, say the wife in “The Black Cat,” or Madeleine Usher, not as women but as Doubles, metaphoric projections of the protagonist. As many commentators have observed,2 the Double was a way of dramatizing a new nineteenth-century sense that the human personality contained undercurrents, unexpressed impulses, a dark or evil side. Attempts to express this appeared everywhere in the writing of this period (as since). Specifically, the Double is a second character who can also be read as an aspect of the main character, and whose actions express the “other,” usually “inner” impulses which the superego-ridden hero cannot act upon. Doubles are particularly numerous in Poe: Arthur Gordon Pym and his friend Augustus; William Wilson and Wilson; the narrator and Roderick Usher (or Usher and his sister), Metzengerstein and the demon horse, and so on. The Double usually is a projection of the narrator’s evil side, but often in Poe of his respectable side, with Poe presenting the “bad” side as the principal protagonist, as in the case of Pym, for it is the good Augustus who lived, literally, above board, and the narrator Pym who leads a buried life. The narrator, William Wilson, is the wicked half of the pair, while the projected character, Wilson, is good. And in Poe, these dark halves usually triumph over the better selves. Augustus literally rots away, leaving Pym free; the horse roars off with Metzengerstein; William Wilson kills his conscience.

In allowing evil to be the stronger side of man’s nature, Poe is more like the earlier James Hogg (in the “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”), which he certainly may have read, than like the later Stevenson, who allows the good Dr. Jekyll to defeat the wicked Mr. Hyde. (In Wilde, still later, the dark side gets the upper hand over Dorian Gray.)

Double figures in the work of male writers are not usually female. Jung’s idea of the anima provides a suggestion. In this metaphor, the projected self is of the opposite sex and has a tutelary as well as an expressive function. Madeline Usher and other female characters could be thought of as dramatized anima—whose fragility is Poe’s constant source of dread. They are objects, like his Self, of his mingled love and hostility, and are of course his direct subject in “Philosophy of Composition.” In saying that the most affecting subject of poetry is the death of a beautiful woman, Poe was saying that the most affecting subject for poetic composition is really the death of the poet.

The record shows that he was an excellent editor, with an eye for talent, very good taste, and a rather mean hatchet as a reviewer. His regard for his own talent was enormous, and he was ambitious. He made a name in America but also abroad, most popularly with his poem “The Raven,” and with other stories and poems soon after. His critical interests, his sense of cultural milieu, were European, and he participated in the English literary world as well as he could from his remote American exile, corresponding with Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, reviewing for and contributing to Blackwood’s Magazine, and taking part in the critical debates of his day. His critical voice, in contrast to the voice of his narrators in the Gothic stories, is a sane, sound, and canny one: “Men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary, and reading those of Milton in their natural order, are too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second.” Wordsworth was “to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with the end of poetizing in his manhood.”

It was Poe who first complained of the common critical habit of talking of Shakespeare’s characters as if they actually existed. (Even the grudging James admitted that Poe the critic “had the advantage of being a man of genius, and his intelligence was frequently great.”) Like James, Poe was a severe and exacting judge of literature, and had pet theories, notably against moralizing in poetry, theories we today find defensible and his contemporaries did not:

That [didacticism] will find stern defenders should never excite surprise, so long as the world is full to overflowing with cant and conventicles…. Now with as deep a reverence for “the true” as ever inspired the bosom of mortal man, we would limit, in many respects, its modes of inculcations.

He was himself a voice against bombast and inanity, and he was such a rational, often witty, and discerning critic that we cannot suppose him entirely without art and strategy when it came to writing his own tales, however bombastic they may sometimes seem.

People have always noticed that Poe had several voices, and several types of tale, notably the horror stories and ratiocinative detective stories, of which we have the quintessential “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” said to have fathered the detective story; W.H.Auden refined the distinction by saying that the two groups are those which concern “states of wilfull being,” in which both the detective and horror stories belong, where the protagonists embody some active principle of passion or thought; and the tales where the protagonists are purely passive, experiencing “I”s.

Poe almost3 always uses the first person, though his first-person writings have a variety of voices, funny or fearful, and the most successful is that of the dreamy, aghast narrator of the horror tales, speaking as the “I” or “eye” of a dream and reaching into the unconscious to illumine the true sources of human anxiety, and frame them in the irrational truncated dream sequences we think of as his most typical writing:

I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity and seemed white slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fire in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.

(“The Pit and the Pendulum”)

There is also the brisk, straightforward, scientific tone of a reliable observer in which to recount the fantastic voyages, as in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” or “MS. Found in a Bottle”: “Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak.” He has the witty, sarcastic critical voice we have noted, and a jocular tone that readers have generally found less successful—the tone he uses in such tales as “The Man that was Used Up,” or “The Gold-Bug”—the same faux-naif tone affected by many American humorists then and later, and not unlike that used by Twain, in which the writer tells the reader with a straight face something the reader understands differently. The contrast of these tales with the more famous Gothic tales is such that their charm and sense of fun is often overlooked.

Like his use of the Double, Poe’s subjects were in a sense very main-stream in his day—and thinking of Poe as mainstream does not diminish his genius. He was a hard-working editor and professional writer whose works amount to seventeen volumes, and he was bound to bear in mind the literary interests of his audience, which craved frightening dungeons, crypts, and heroes in the throes of the passions of hate and guilt. We can think of the sea stories “Arthur Gordon Pym” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” as orthodox examples of the travel tale popular at this period, with its conviction that wonderful things could happen in the southern oceans, or polar or arctic regions—Pym roams over icy reaches much as Frankenstein’s monster does. Poe has the passion for science that Dr. Frankenstein had, and the same sense that Nature can be explained. If there are themes of incest in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” incest too was one of the more fashionable crimes, and themes, of the day, almost a staple of the Gothic, and appears in Walpole and Monk Lewis as well as in the literary gossip surrounding Byron.

Poe’s preoccupation with death was itself perfectly orthodox in a period when death was an everyday family event, in a way that is difficult for us, for whom death is a resented intrusion, to remember. The nineteenth century would increasingly celebrate death with embalming, elaborate funerals, mourning jewelry, hearses, and ornate gravestones—elevating and sentimentalizing it in a way the more matter-of-fact eighteenth-century had not done, if only because certain diseases, such as tuberculosis, had worsened after the beginning of the industrial revolution and with urbanization. Even the fear of being buried alive, which recurs obsessively in Poe, was widespread, so that patented tomb alarms and escape devices were sold, by which someone unfortunately immolated might escape or make himself known—Poe has a certain amount of fun with this in “A Premature Burial,” and captures its horror in the struggles of Madeleine Usher or the fate of Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Reading Poe’s tales again has some surprises, one concerning his language, which in memory is florid and horrid, seeping with Gothic excess, but which in fact is spare, rather clinical, and primly Latinate: “Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodise the stores which early study very diligently garnered up.” He has little turn for figurative language—an odd defect for a poet, but by its restraint curiously suited to his lurid stories, its almost clinical detachment enhancing their reality. His interest is not really in language, and his vocabulary is abstract, full of words like “putrefy,” or “horror,” or “dread,” which are in themselves notably unevocative for the stifling rooms, the sensation of being burned alive or smothered, or to describe the intricate mechanism of the pendulum and the moving walls of the pit. A word like “decay,” as unpleasant as it is, cannot compare to the grisly filmic effects that would be available to him today.

Critics have almost inevitably proceeded by using Poe’s tales to reveal Poe the man, but have seldom tried to explain why his stories have endured and in what their greatness lies. The manifest content of Poe’s stories is the deep content, or vice versa: his tales are about fear and anxiety, the very emotions described by the narrator or embodied in superb metaphorical constructions like the pit and the pendulum. His subjects were death, the disappearance or decay of the body, and in the detective or quasi-scientific stories, the life of the mind that can defeat mortality.

To a neglected extent his stories are also about a special aspect of anxiety: hope. They often detail the moment during an unfolding tragedy or danger when the human mind gives in to hope, only to be the more bitterly disappointed. Over and over, a despairing hero is tempted, by a blush on the bosom of the supposedly dead loved one, or by a momentary respite in some torture, to hope—especially that the dead will come back to life, but also that the narrator is not after all guilty of causing death, or will obtain mercy and reprieve. It is a vein to be worked later and more successfully by Kafka, and it explains the quasi-mystical quality of Poe’s stories, and their similarity to, and use as, myths. Like the bard, or the spinner of myths, he employs universal images, and his interest is in his effect on the reader. His imagination is visual and three-dimensional, it invents and inhabits the space of a dungeon or casket, it dreams of curtains (“black velvet tapestries,” “sable draperies,” “dark hangings,” as Bachelard pointed out) and chambers. If Poe had lived today he would probably have been a film maker.

Copyright © Diane Johnson, 1991

This Issue

July 18, 1991