Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Poets from around the World #1 - Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, US)

Recently the Preston Poets were asked to give a talks on Poets of the World at the Brownedge Festival. This is the first of the poets for you to read about.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) by Gwen Weiss

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Massachusetts USA on 19th January 1809. He was the son of travelling actors David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe. His father, an alcoholic, deserted the family which included a brother and a sister, and his mother died when he was two years old, and Poe was fostered by a prosperous Scottish merchant, John Allan, in Richmond.

Allan always refused to adopt Poe which led to bad feeling between them. The family moved to Scotland for a time and also lived in England returning to America in 1820. He fell in love with Sarah Elmira Royston but lost touch with her when he was at university.

Despite considerable academic success, after one year at the University of Virginia, his gambling debts forced him to leave, and by 1827 Poe with typical restlessness had moved from Boston to Richmond and then back to Boston again. On learning that Sarah had married he joined the army by saying he was twenty two although he was only eighteen and gained a good reputation, which he joined in 1827, but spent a miserable year at the US Military academy at West Point in 1930 before being dishonourably discharged, which he had deliberately engineered and it was at this point John Allan washed his hands of him.

He stayed in Baltimore from 1831 – 35 and began writing more seriously, working as a journalist earning a bare minimum on which to survive and from 1835 he began to edit the Southern Literary Messenger, from which he was sacked for being drunk. He was involved with several magazines thereafter and in 1836 he secretly married his 13 year-old cousin Virginia, her age being recorded on the marriage certificate as twenty -one. He later married her again in a large public ceremony.

Around this time he turned to writing short stories which revealed a fascination with emotional extremes, particularly fear, though his essays show that he was capable of being objective and critical. His early fiction tales, starring the fictitious detective C. Auguste Dupin laid the groundwork for future detectives in literature and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said of his work that ‘ Each (of Poe’s detective stories) is a root from which a whole literature has developed…where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?’ The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards for excellence in the genre as ‘the Edgars.’

He was also admired by Jules Verne and H,G. Wells for his science fiction work.

In 1844 he moved to New York but despite popular acclaim his life was still wretched and remained poor. Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847 and Poe, still poor and an alcoholic died in Baltimore two years later aged just forty.

As well as admirers, it seems that he also made enemies because after his death a long obituary in the New York Tribune, signed by a man using the pen name Ludwig, stated ‘ Edgar Allen Poe is dead…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.’. He was soon identified as a Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor, critic and anthologist who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842, and he set out to destroy Poe’s reputation after his death. He wrote a biographical article ‘Memoir of an Author’ depicting Poe as a depraved , drunk, drug addled, madman and included letters purported to have been written by the author. This biography sold well but was denounced by people who knew the victim well, and was later proved to be made up of lies and the letters were forgeries.

Conversely his work was often criticised by such as Ralph Waldo Emmerson who said of his work ‘The Raven,’ a poem which made him a household name , “ I see nothing in it.”; Aldous Huxley wrote that Poe’s work ‘falls into vulgarity by being too poetical - the equivalent of wearing a diamond ring on every finger.’

Many of his poems are very long and personally I found them flowery and difficult to follow but I enjoyed his rather macabre short stories such as ‘Murder in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ and ‘The Purloined Letter, this last demonstrating his interest in ciphers.’

The Poem read on the evening was "To My Mother" and other poems can be found here along with more information here

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