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[Text: Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck, “Edgar A. Poe,” Cyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Charles Scribner, 1856, vol. II, pp. 536-545.]


[page 536, column 2:]

EDGAR A. POE.

THE family of Edgar A. Poe was of ancient respectability in Maryland. His grandfather, David Poe, served in the Revolution, and was the personal friend of Lafayette. His father, David Poe, Jr., was a law student in Baltimore, when, in his youth, he fell in love with an English actress on the stage, Elizabeth Arnold, married her, and took to the boards himself. Their son Edgar was born in Baltimore in January, 1811. After a career of several years of theatrical life, passed in the chief cities of the Union, the parents both died within a short period at Richmond, leaving three orphan children.

    Edgar was a boy of beauty and vivacity, and attracted the attention of a friend of his parents, John Allan, a wealthy merchant of Virginia, by whom he was adopted, and his  education liberally [page 537:] provided for. In 1816 he was taken by Mr. and Mrs. Allan to England, and  deposited for a stay of four or five years at a school near London; a passage of his youth  which he has recurred to in almost the only instance in his writings in which he has any  personal allusion to his own affairs. It was a trait, too, in his conversation that he seldom spoke of his own history. In his tale of William Wilson he has touched these early school-days with a poetical hand, as he recalls the awe of their formal discipline, and the admiration with which he saw the dingy head-master of the week ascend the village pulpit in clerical silk and dignity on Sunday. He returned home in his eleventh year, passed a short time at a Richmond academy, and entered the University at Charlottesville, where he might have attained the highest honors from the celebrity of his wit as a student, had he not thrown himself upon a reckless course of dissipation which led to his expulsion from the college. His biographer, Griswold, tells us that he was at this time celebrated for his feats of personal hardihood: "On one occasion, in a hot day of June, swimming from Richmond to Warwick, seven miles and a half, against a tide running probably from two to three miles an hour." He left Charlottesville in debt, though he had been generously provided for by his friend Allan, whose benevolence, however, could not sustain the drafts freely drawn upon him for obligations incurred in gambling. Poe quarreled with his benefactor, and abandoned his home with the Byronic motive, it is said, of assisting the Greeks in their struggle for liberty. He went abroad and passed a year in Europe, the history of which would be a matter of singular curiosity, if it could be recovered. It is known that he did not reach Greece, and that he was one day involved in some difficulty at St. Petersburgh, from which he was relieved by the American Minister, Mr. Henry Middleton, who provided him with the means of returning home (1). He was afterwards received into favor by Mr. Allan, who procured him an entrance as a cadet at West Point, an institution with which his wayward and reckless habits, and impracticable mind, were so much at war, that he was compelled to retire from it  within the year. Mr. Allan having lost his first wife, married again, and Poe, still received with  favor at the house, was soon compelled to leave it for ever, doubtless from gross misconduct on his part, for Mr. Allan had proved himself a much-enduring benefactor.

    Poe was now thrown upon his own resources. He had already written a number of verses, said to have been produced between his sixteenth and nineteenth years, which were published in Baltimore in 1829, with the title Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (2). Taking the standards of the country, and the life of the young author in Virginia into consideration, they were singular productions. A certain vague poetic luxury and sensuousness of mere sound, distinct from definite meaning, peculiarities which the author refined upon in his latest and best poems, characterize these juvenile effusions. Al Aaraaf is an oriental poetic mystification, with some fine chanting in [column 2:] it, particularly a melodious dithyrambic on one of the poet's airy maidens, Ligeia.

    A certain longing of passion, without hearty animality, marked thus early the ill-regulated disposition of a man of genius uncontrolled by the restraint of sound principle and profound literary motives. Other young writers have copied this strain, and have written verses quite as nonsensical without any corruption of heart; but with Poe the vein was original. His whole life was cast in that mould; his sensitive, spiritual organizations, deriving no support from healthy moral powers, became ghostly and unreal (3). His rude contact with the world, which might have set up a novelist for life with materials of adventure, seems scarcely to have impinged upon his perceptions. His mind, walking in a vain show, was taught nothing by experience or suffering. Altogether wanting in the higher faculty of humor, he could extract nothing from the rough usages of the world but a cold, frivolous mockery of its plans and pursuits. His intellectual enjoyment was in the power of his mind over literature as an art; his skill, in forcing the mere letters of the alphabet, the dry elements of the dictionary, to take forms of beauty and apparent life which would command the admiration of the world. This may account for his sensitiveness as to the reception [page 538:] of his writings. He could afford to trust nothing to the things themselves, since they had no root in realities. Hence his delight in the exercise of his powers as a destructive critic, and his favorite proposition that literature was all a trick, and that he could construct another Paradise Lost, or something equivalent to it, to order, if desirable.

    With this fine, sensitive organization of the intellect, and a moderate share of scholarship, Poe went forth upon the world as an author. It is a little singular, that, with intellectual powers sometimes reminding us, in a partial degree, of those of Coleridge,--poetic exercises, take Kubla Khan for instance, being after Poe's ideal,--the two should have had a similar adventure in the common ranks of the army. Coleridge, it will be remembered, was for a short time a dragoon in London, under the assumed name of Comber Batch; Poe enlisted in the ranks and deserted (4).

    About this time, in 1833, a sum was offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for a prize poem and tale. Mr. Kennedy, the novelist, was on the committee. Poe sent in several tales which he had composed for a volume, and readily secured the prize for his MS. found in a Bottle,--incidentally assisted , it is said, by the beauty of his handwriting. Mr. Kennedy became acquainted with the author, then, as almost inevitable with a man of genius depending upon such scanty resources as the sale of a few subtle productions, in a state of want and suffering, and introduced him to Mr. T. W. White, the conductor of the Southern Literary Messenger, who gave him employment upon his publication. Poe in 1835 removed to Richmond, and wrote chiefly in the critical department of the magazine. He was rapidly making a high reputation for the work in this particular, by his ingenuity, when the connexion was first interrupted and soon finally severed, in 1837, by his irregularities. At Richmond he married his cousin Virginia Clemm, a delicate and amiable lady, who after a union of some ten years fell a victim of consumption.

    In 1838 a book from Poe's pen, growing out of some sketches which he had commenced in the Messenger, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was published by the Harpers (5). It is a fiction of considerable ingenuity, but the author, who was generally anything but indifferent to the reception of his writings, did not appear in his conversation to pride himself much upon it. This book was written in New York at the close of the year. Poe settled in Philadelphia, and was employed by Burton, the comedian, upon his Gentleman's Magazine, with a salary of ten dollars a week. His Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of his scattered magazine stories, were [column 2:] published in two volumes by Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, in 1840.

    The arrangement with Burton lasted more than a year, when it was broken up, it is said, by Poe's wanton depreciation of the American poets who came under review, and by a final fit of intoxication. He then projected a new magazine, to be called after William Penn, but it was a project only. When Graham established his magazine in 1840 he engaged Poe as its editor, and the weird, spiritual tales, and ingenious, slashing criticisms were again resumed, till the old difficulties led to a termination of the arrangement at the end of a year and a half. Several of his most striking tales, The Gold Bug, The Murder of the Rue Morgue, were written soon after. A development of the plot of Barnaby Rudge, in the Saturday Evening Post, before the completion of that novel in England, secured the admiration of Dickens.

    In 1844 Poe took up his residence in New York, projecting a magazine to be called The Stylus, and anticipating the subscriptions to the work, which never appeared. When Morris and Willis commenced this year the publication of the Evening Mirror, Poe was for a while engaged upon it, though his sympathies with the actual world were far too feeble for a daily journalist.

    The poem of the Raven, the great hit of Poe's literary career, was published in the second number of Colton's Whig Review, in February, 1845. The same year he began to edit the Broadway Journal, in conjunction with Mr. Charles F. Briggs, and had perseverance enough to continue it to its close in a second volume, after it had been abandoned by his associate, in consequence of difficulties growing out of a joint editorship. It was during this period that Poe accepted an invitation to deliver a poem before the Boston Lyceum. When the time for its delivery came Poe was unprepared with anything for the occasion, and read, with more gravity than sobriety in the emergency, his juvenile publication Al Aaraaf. The more gravity than sobriety in the emergency, his juvenile publication Al Aaraaf. The ludicrous affair was severely commented upon by the Bostonians, and Poe made it still more ridiculous by stating in his Broadway Journal that it was an intentional insult to the genius of the Frog Pond! Poe next wrote a series of random sketches of The New York Literati (6) for Godey's Lady's Book. In one of them he chose to caricature an old Philadelphia friend, Dr. Thomas Dunn English, who retaliated in a personal newspaper article. The communication was reprinted in the Evening Mirror in New York, whereupon Poe instituted a libel suit against that journal, and recovered several hundred dollars, with which he refitted a small cottage he now occupied on a hill-side at Fordham, in Westchester county, where he lived with his wife and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm, by whose unwearied guardianship he was protected from his frequently recurring fits of illness, and by whose prudent and skilful management he was provided for at other times. [page 539:]

    In 1848 he delivered a lecture at the Society Library in New York, entitled Eureka, an Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe; the ingenious obscurities of which are hardly worth the trouble of unravelling, if they are at all intelligible.

    His wife was now dead, and he was preparing for marriage with a highly-cultivated lady of New England, when the union was broken off. After this, in 1849, he made a tour of Maryland and Virginia, delivering lectures by the way, and having concluded a new engagement of marriage was on his way to New York to make some arrangements, when he fell into one of his now frequently recurring fits of intoxication at Baltimore, was carried in a fit of insanity from the street to the hospital, and there died on Sunday morning, October 7, 1849, at the age of thirty-eight.

    At the close of this melancholy narrative a feeling of deep sorrow will be entertained by those familiar with the author's undoubted genius. It will be difficult to harmonize this wild and reckless life with the neatness and precision of his writings. The same discrepancy was apparent in his personal conduct. Neat to fastidiousness in his dress, and, as we have noticed, in his handwriting; ingenious in the subtle employment of his faculties, with the nice sense of the gentleman in his conduct and intercourse with others while personally before them--there were influences constantly reversing the pure, healthy life these qualities should have represented. Had he been really in earnest, with what a solid brilliancy his writings might have shone forth to the world. With the moral proportioned to the intellectual faculty he would have been in the first rank of critics. In what large part of the critic's perceptions, a knowledge of the mechanism of composition, he has been unsurpassed by any writer in America; but lacking sincerity, his forced and contradictory opinions are of little value as authorities, though much may be gathered from them by any one willing to study the peculiar mood in which they were written. In ingenuity of invention, musical effects, and artificial terrors for the imagination, his poems as well as his prose sketches are remarkable. His intricate police story, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, secured admiration when it was translated in Paris, where such details are of frequent occurrence. The mesmeric revelation of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, published in the Whig Review, imposed upon some innocent philosophic people in England as a report of actual phenomena. As a good specimen of his peculiar literary logic we may refer to his article The Philosophy of Composition, in which he gives the rationale of his creation of the poem The Raven. Having first determined to write a popular poem, he determines the allowable extent: it must be brief enough to be read at a single sitting, and the brevity "must be in the direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect;" one hundred lines are the maximum, and the poem turns out, "in fact, one hundred and eight." The length being settled, the "effect" was to be universally appreciable, and "beauty" came to be the object of the poem, as he holds it to be the especial object of all true poetry; then the "tone" must be sad, "beauty in [column 2:] its supreme development invariably exciting the sensitive soul to tears." As "an artistic piquancy" he brings in "the refrain" as an old approved resource, and as its most effective form, a single word. The sound of that word was important, and the long o being "the most sonorous vowel," and r "the most producible consonant," nevermore came to hand, "in fact it was the very first which presented itself." To get the word in often enough, stanzas were to be employed, and as a rational creature would be out of his senses uttering the spell, "a non-reasoning creature capable of speech" was called for, hence the Raven. Death is the theme, as universal and the saddest, and most powerful in alliance with beauty: so the death of a beautiful woman is invoked. The rest is accounted for à priori in the same explicit manner in this extraordinary criticism.

    Though in any high sense of the word, as in the development of character, Poe would hardly be said to possess much humor, yet with his skill in language, and knowledge of effects, he was a master of ridicule, and could turn the merest nonsense to a very laughable purpose. Instances of this will occur to the reader of his writings, especially in his criticisms and satiric sketches; but they will hardly bear to be detached for quotation, as they must be approached along his gradual course of rigmarole. With more practical knowledge of the world, and more stamina generally, he might have been a very powerful satirist. As it was, too frequently he wasted his efforts on paltry literary puerilities.

    His inventions, both in prose and verse, take a sombre, morbid hue. They have a moral aspect, though it is not on the surface. Apparently they are but variations of the forms of the terrible, in its quaint, melodramatic character: in reality they are the expressions of the disappointment and despair of the soul, alienated from happy human relations; misused faculties:

Sweet bells jangled, out of tune, and harsh.

    While we admire their powerful eccentricity, and resort to them for a novel sensation to our jaded mental appetites, let us remember at what cost of pain, suffering, and disappointment they were produced; and at what prodigal expense of human nature, of broken hopes, and bitter experiences, the rare exotics of literature are sometimes grown.

[[Following the biographical material are selections from Poe’s works: “The Haunted Palace” (pp. 539-540), “Lenore” (p. 540), “The Raven” (pp. 540-541), and “Descent into the Maelstrom” (pp. 542-545).]]

1. Griswold’s Memoirs, x. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 537, column 1, originally marked by an asterisk.]

2. Baltimore: Hatch & Dunning, 1829. 8vol. pp. 71. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 537, column 1, originally marked by a dagger.]

3. A lady of this city wittily mentioned her first impressions of his unhappy, distant air, in the opening lines of Goldsmith’s Traveller:

    Remote, unfriendly, melancholy. Slow.
    Or by the lazy Scheldt, or wandering Po.

    A gentleman, who was a fellow-cadet with him at West Point, has described to us his utter inefficiency and state of abstractedness at that place. He could not or would not follow its mathematical requirements. His mind was off from the matter-of-fact routine of the drill, which in such a case as his seemed practical joking, on some etherial [sic], visionary expedition. He was marked, says our informant, for an early death, if only from the incompatibility of soul and body. They had not the usual relations to each other, and were on such distant terms of acquaintance that a separation seemed inevitable! [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 537, column 2, originally marked by an asterisk.]

4. Griswold’s Memoirs, xi. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 538, column 1, originally marked by an asterisk.]

5. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, comprising the details of a Mutiny and atrocious Butchery on bard the American bring Grampus, on her way to the South Seas, in the month of June 1827, with an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivors; their Shipwreck and subsequent horrible Sufferings from Famine; their Deliverance by means of the British schooner Jane Gray; the brief Cruise of this latter Vessel in the Antarctic Ocean; her Capture, and the Massacre of her Crew among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-fourth parallel of Southern Latitude: together with the incredible Adventures and Discoveries still farther South to which that distressing Calamity gave rise. Harper & Brothers, 1838. 12mo. pp. 201. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 538, column 1, originally marked by a dagger.]

6. They are now included in a thick volume of the author’s works, published by Redfield, which contains the memoir by Dr. Griswold. It is entitled, The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with occasional Words of Personality; together with Marginalia, Suggestions, and Essays. With here and there a nice observation, the sketches of the Literati are careless papers, sometimes to be taken for nothing more than mere jest. Some of the longer critical papers were admirable. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 538, column 2, originally marked by an asterisk.]


[It must be noted that this article, as many historical articles on Poe, contains some errors. For example, Poe was born in 1809, not 1811. It also relies heavily on Griswold's memoir of Poe (1850), which provides such false statements as the idea that Poe's story "MS. Found in a Bottle" was selected based on the quality of the handwriting. Poe himself is responsible for the myth of his quixotic trip to Europe.]

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[S:0 - CAMB, 1856]