The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's poetry. See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.
Poe's output of some fifty poems has been widely read but often critically reviled, at least in America. His international reputation as a poet, both in his own time and for the century and a half since, is far more impressive. Together with his theoretical essays on poetry, his verses strongly influenced the French Symbolist Movement, and many critics believe his work anticipated and influenced Modernism. Criticism of Poe's work has often focused on elements of his tragic life and early death: his drinking and drug use, and the deaths of virtually all the important women in his life, including his mother, his foster mother, and his wife.
Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, to a pair of impoverished actors. Abandoned by his father in infancy, he went on tour with his mother until she died the following year. Poe was raised by Frances and John Allan, a wealthy couple from Richmond; he attended schools in Richmond and London and enrolled in the University of Virginia, but was removed the first year by his foster father for having incurred a sizeable gambling debt and for drunkenness. He later entered West Point where he again fell into debt and was dismissed.
Poe lived in New York for a time and then in Baltimore, working as a reporter and copyeditor and selling an occasional story. He continued writing poetry and short stories and in 1835 began writing for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. That same year, at the age of twenty-six, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia. For the next twelve years Poe supported his family by contributing reviews, stories, essays, and poetry to a wide variety of magazines and annuals, and by serving as editor on a succession of periodicals, among them Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine. In 1847 after a long illness, Virginia died, and three years later Poe died at the age of forty under mysterious circumstances.
Poe published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827 at the age of eighteen, claiming that most of its contents had been composed much earlier. More than half of this volume consisted of the title poem, a dramatic monologue reminiscent of Lord Byron's Manfred. In late 1829, Poe offered a revised version of “Tamerlane” in his second volume, entitled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, which included one of his best poems, “Sonnet—To Science,” lamenting the primacy of a science-based reality over the imagination. Two years later, just after his dismissal from West Point, Poe issued Poems, which included “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” and nine new poems as well as a preface that stands as his first critical essay, the themes of which are partially indebted to the poetic philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The volume also contains what many critics believe to be Poe's finest lyric poem, “To Helen,” which features the famous lines: “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.”
Poe's best known work is “The Raven,” extensively anthologized and committed to memory by countless schoolchildren in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Originally published in 1844, it also appears in his 1845 collection The Raven, and Other Poems and was explicated in an essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” published the following year. “The Raven” was an immediate success and was reprinted in numerous publications in America and Europe.
In 1848, Poe delivered a lecture before the New York Historical Society entitled “The Universe,” which became the basis for his extended prose poem Eureka (1848), exploring a number of philosophical and scientific issues such as the nature of man, God, and the universe. Although Poe insisted that the work be judged as poetry, many scholars classify it as a scientific essay. Shortly after his death in 1849, two of Poe's most famous poems were published: “Annabel Lee” a mournful lament on the death of a young bride, and “The Bells,” which associates the stages of life from childhood to death with various types of bells.
The most prominent features of Poe's poetry are a pervasive tone of melancholy, a longing for lost love and beauty, and a preoccupation with death, particularly the deaths of beautiful women. Most of Poe's works, both poetry and prose, feature a first-person narrator, often ascribed by critics as Poe himself. Numerous scholars, both contemporary and modern, have suggested that the experiences of Poe's life provide the basis for much of his poetry, particularly the early death of his mother, a trauma that was repeated in the later deaths of two mother-surrogates to whom the poet was devoted. Poe's status as an outsider and an outcast—he was orphaned at an early age; taken in but never adopted by the Allans; raised as a gentleman but penniless after his estrangement from his foster father; removed from the university and expelled from West Point—is believed to account for the extreme loneliness, even despair, that runs through most of his poetry. Yet alongside the Byronic lamentation for lost beauty and idealism exists, according to many scholars, an ironic send-up of those very sentiments. Much of Poe's poetry is described as satiric or even as a deliberate hoax upon his readers.
There is widespread disagreement on the merits of Poe's poetry. He was labeled “the jingle man” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many of his verses, particularly his later incantatory poems like “The Raven,” and “The Bells,” were disparaged by his contemporaries. This view is shared by such modern critics as Dave Smith (1995) who claims that “The Raven,” although Poe's best-known individual poetic work, “may be among our most famous bad poems.” Daniel Hoffman (1972) includes other verses along with “The Raven” in this category, some of which “transcend their time without being good poems; they may be terrible poems, but they are, undeniably, unforgettable.” Alice Moser Claudel (1970) would agree, claiming that Poe's poems draw in the reader, sometimes unwillingly, on a subconscious level. “Although I resist ‘The Raven’ as though it were a plague,” Claudel states by way of example, “a good reader can make me its victim.” Still, many critics would concur with Hoffman's assessment that much of Poe's verse consists of “pounding rhythms and changing rhymes,” whose regularity can be likened to a Chinese water torture.
Many critics connect the tragic elements of Poe's life with events described in his poetry. Georges Zayed (1985), for example, insists that the poems, unlike his prose writings, are drawn from personal experience. Zayed and other scholars attempt to account for each of the real-life women who inspired individual poems, although there is some disagreement on the results—with the exception of “Annabel Lee,” which is universally acknowledged as a tribute to Poe's child-bride, Virginia. Poe's preoccupation with death in his poetry is related to the deaths of so many of the important women in his life and the resulting sense of abandonment. According to Edward H. Davidson (1957): “In Poe the child became the man; and the mother who never came in the dark of the night grew into the demon lover, the poltergeist, who was to haunt him in all his poetry.” But Shoshana Felman (1980) cautions against considering the poetry as a symptom of the poet—and in the case of Poe, a symptom of a poet who is both sick and abnormal. Such reliance on the psychoanalytical approach accounts, in part, for contradictions in the critical reception of Poe's work; thus Felman describes Poe as “being at once the most admired and the most decried of American poets.”
The most widely documented critical contradiction regarding Poe's poetry is international in scope. Disparaged in his own country, Poe was considered a genius and a hero by the French Symbolists. James Lawler (1987) examines the relationship between Poe and the Symbolists Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry, for whom Poe served as inspiration and “catalyst” in moving away from the conventions of Romanticism.
Although scholars, both in America and abroad, continue to debate Poe's critical reputation, he is more often described as a genius than a “jingle man” and is now considered a major figure in American literary history. As the heir to English Romanticism who in turn influenced both Modernism and the French Symbolist Movement, Poe is considered the first American poet to reverse the direction of influence between America and Europe—at a time when the United States was struggling to establish its own national literature independent of European domination.
Tamerlane and Other Poems (poetry) 1827
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (poetry) 1829
Poems (poetry) 1831
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude (novel) 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories) 1840
The Raven, and Other Poems (poetry) 1845
Tales by Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1845
Eureka: A Prose Poem (poetry) 1848
The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Words of Personality (criticism) 1850
SOURCE: Allen, James Lane. “Night Shadows in Poe's Poetry.” The Continent 5, no. 4 (23 January 1884): 102-04.
[In the following essay, Allen examines the preponderance of night imagery in Poe's poetry.]
The appearance of an important biography of Poe in France and the preparation of still another in America, the publication of his most widely-read poem with illustrations by Doré, and the prospective unveiling of a memorial tablet to his honor, seem to furnish a fit occasion for inviting attention to a striking but hitherto unnoted characteristic of his poetry. In fact, with the exception of a comparatively few closeted minds, the attention of the world has thus...
(The entire section is 2484 words.)
SOURCE: Murry, John Middleton. “Poe's Poetry.” In Discoveries: Essays in Literary Criticism, pp. 191-99. London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1924.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1922, Murry explores the extent to which Poe is less an American poet than an English one in the tradition of English Romanticism.]
It has long since been admitted that the two greatest poets of America are Poe and Whitman. The poetry of both belongs to the literature of the world. But there is an essential difference between their positions. Whitman is almost “a hundred per cent. American”; Poe is not. Whitman is clean outside the English tradition; Poe belongs to it....
(The entire section is 2188 words.)
SOURCE: Davidson, Edward H. “Aspects of a Philosophy of Poetry.” In Poe: A Critical Study, pp. 43-75. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1957.
[In the following excerpt, Davidson discusses Poe as one of the major philosophic voices of nineteenth-century America.]
Poetry is a form of philosophy. It distills the major philosophic precepts of its time. One poet is not expressing his whole age and time: not even Shakespeare was the total record of the Elizabethan age; yet we rightly consider Shakespeare as the distinctly summarizing and even philosophic voice of his age.
Some poets are apparently aware that they are the “voices” of their age, and, like...
(The entire section is 10863 words.)
SOURCE: Claudel, Alice Moser. “Poe as Voyager in ‘To Helen.’” In New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, edited by Richard P. Benton, pp. 33-37. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1970.
[In the following essay, Claudel suggests that Poe's “To Helen” is a more complex poem than is generally acknowledged.]
Unless one looks into literary histories of the United States which include poetry, one finds few of Edgar Allan Poe's poems in recent publications. The editors either do not find his work complex enough, or else, fascinated by the new instant poetry, they do not find it attractive. It may be that, hoping to engage the young with “relevant works,” they exclude...
(The entire section is 3673 words.)
SOURCE: Hogue, L. Lynn. “Eroticism in Poe's ‘For Annie’.” In New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, edited by Richard P. Benton, pp. 85-87. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1970.
[In the following essay, Hogue studies the erotic elements in Poe's poem “For Annie” while avoiding the conventional Freudian commentary on Poe's sexuality.]
Poe rarely used eroticism in his poetry—images and language which convey or reinforce impressions of sexual desire or activity. In fact, of all Poe's poems only “For Annie” reflect a conscious use of it, which deserves more than passing notice. Until now the sexual interpretation of Poe's poetry has been the domain of the...
(The entire section is 1841 words.)
SOURCE: Lerner, Arthur. “Edgar Allan Poe.” In Psychoanalytically Oriented Criticism of Three American Poets: Poe, Whitman, and Aiken, pp. 43-62. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, Lerner examines psychoanalytical criticism of Poe's poetry, suggesting that the scope of such criticism should be broadened to cover not just the tragic elements of the poet's life but also to include his personal philosophy of poetry.]
ATTEMPTS TO STUDY POE PSYCHOANALYTICALLY
Edgar Allan Poe's life (1809-1849) was so psychologically complicated that psychoanalytically oriented writers can easily find in it gold mines...
(The entire section is 6940 words.)
SOURCE: Hoffman, Daniel. “‘O! Nothing Earthly …’/ The Poems.” In Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, pp. 18-80. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
[In the following essay, Hoffman discusses Poe's reputation as a poet, both in France and in America, claiming that many of Poe's rhymes, apparently drawn from his own experiences, are banal and are possibly deliberate hoaxes on his reading public.]
November 1956. I am brooding on the poems of Edgar Poe in Dijon, living with my wife and two babies in the only maison bourgeoise in a farm village three kilometres beyond the end of the bus line. All the other houses in Saint Apollinaire are attached to barns...
(The entire section is 20160 words.)
SOURCE: Fletcher, Richard M. “The Later Poems.” In The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 47-62. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
[In the following essay, Fletcher discusses Poe's limitations as a poet, suggesting that Poe's own awareness of those limitations caused him to revise his poetry extensively.]
Our findings from previous chapters [of The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe] include the following. Poe's creative development in poetry, far from being the spontaneous development he so fondly would have us believe it was, resulted only after arduous effort over a period of approximately fifteen years. Nor can we truthfully say that he ever...
(The entire section is 6393 words.)
SOURCE: Felman, Shoshana. “On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches.” In Edgar Allan Poe: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 119-39. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1980, Felman examines the limitations of psychoanalytic criticism that links Poe's life to his poetry and thus concludes that the poetry is symptomatic of sickness or abnormality.]
To account for poetry in psychoanalytical terms has traditionally meant to analyze poetry as a symptom of a particular poet. I would here like to reverse this approach, and to analyze a particular poet as a...
(The entire section is 9049 words.)
SOURCE: St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe's Unnecessary Angel: ‘Israfel’ Reconsidered.” In Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, pp. 283-302. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, St. Armand compares Poe's “Israfel” with Ralph Waldo Emerson's “Uriel.”]
Poe's poem “Israfel” has traditionally been seen as an idealized portrait of the artist, as a bold aesthetic manifesto, or as a failed exercise in romantic agony. T. O. Mabbott states that “It has been customary to identify Poe with his angel,”1 Edward Davidson calls “Israfel” “a poem on the theory and practice of...
(The entire section is 6627 words.)
SOURCE: Ljungquist, Kent. “From Sublimity to Pictorialism: ‘Tamerlane,’ ‘Al Aaraaf,’ and Some Revisions in the Later Poetry.” In The Grand and the Fair: Poe's Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques, pp. 141-84. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1984.
[In the following essay, Ljungquist explores the aesthetic shift that Poe's poetry undergoes over the course of his writing career.]
In detailing thus far Poe's transition from the sublime to the picturesque mode, our sharp focus on the tales and criticism has scanted attention to the poetry, despite occasional allusions to “Dream Land,” “Fairy-Land,” or “The Coliseum.” The poetry, like the...
(The entire section is 14044 words.)
SOURCE: Zayed, Georges. “The Symbolism of the Poems.” In The Genius of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 127-36. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Zayed discusses the pervasive presence of death in Poe's poetry.]
In fact, Poe's poems translate an internal reality, felt by him with intensity and pain, without however becoming confessions. If certain pieces obviously refer to events in his emotional or intellectual life, he does not strike a heroic pose in them, as do the Romantics, nor does he exalt his own ego. On the contrary, he conferred enough universality to his poems so that they find an echo in all hearts. That is also the main...
(The entire section is 4618 words.)
SOURCE: Lawler, James. “Daemons of the Intellect: The Symbolists and Poe.” Critical Inquiry 14, no. 1 (autumn 1987): 95-110.
[In the following essay, Lawler examines the critical assessment of Poe by the French symbolists Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry.]
For Baudelaire he was “one of the greatest of literary heroes,” for Mallarmé “the spiritual Prince of this age,” for Valéry an “achieved mind”: the Symbolists that stand at the beginning, middle, and end of a lineage were constant in their fidelity to Poe.1 They encountered half-secretly, each in turn, a stranger to the canon and found in him the key to their own works, for he served...
(The entire section is 7544 words.)
SOURCE: Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Horrors of Translation: The Death of a Beautiful Woman.” In Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing, pp. 60-88. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Kennedy explores Poe's poetry involving the death of beautiful women, suggesting that death involves a translation of the woman as object of desire into an object of horror.]
Poe's 1842 tale “The Oval Portrait” tells of a “desperately wounded” traveler who chances to pass a night in a Gothic chateau. Suffering from “incipient delirium,” the narrator decides to peruse a volume of art criticism found lying on his pillow; he gives himself over to the...
(The entire section is 11045 words.)
SOURCE: Dayan, Joan. “From Romance to Modernity: Poe and the Work of Poetry.” Studies in Romanticism 29, no. 3 (fall 1990): 413-37.
[In the following essay, Dayan situates Poe's poetry at the crossroads between Romanticism and Modernity. The critic then suggests that Poe's own sense of failure as a writer of valuable poetry stems from the difficulties associated with negotiating that stylistic transition.]
What is Poetry?—Poetry! that Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations as the nine-titled Cocyra!
—Poe, “Letter to B——”
Poe began his writing career as a poet, and throughout his life he questioned the idea of...
(The entire section is 10606 words.)
SOURCE: Postema, James. “Edgar Allan Poe's Control of Readers: Formal Pressures in Poe's Dream Poems.” Essays in Literature 18, no. 1 (spring 1991): 68-75.
[In the following essay, Postema studies Poe's attempt to control reader response to his works through the deliberate withholding of information that would allow readers to arrive at alternative interpretations.]
In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe is clearly concerned with how the word-choices, sounds, and rhythms of “The Raven” might control the way readers respond to that poem. Many writers have either supported or denied Poe's claims that he wrote “The Raven” with the reader in...
(The entire section is 3791 words.)
SOURCE: Hume, Beverly A. “Poe's Mad Narrator in Eureka.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 22 (October 1993): 51-65.
[In the following essay, Hume refutes criticism that assumes that Poe himself is the narrator of Eureka, and suggests rather that the narrator is a madman created by Poe.]
Edgar Allan Poe's critics generally regard Eureka as seminal to a proper understanding not only of the anomalies in Poe's poetic and prose fictions, but also of the metaphysics or philosophy which informs them. Here, however, agreement ends. Some argue that Eureka reveals a concern for moral or theological issues; others that it offers a romantic nihilism or...
(The entire section is 5448 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode.” Southern Humanities Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1995): 1-10.
[In the following essay, Smith examines “The Raven” as an expression of Poe's despair as an orphan and an outcast.]
When I left home for college at the University of Virginia, I must have imagined history was something confined to textbooks and roadside commemorative markers, which occur in Virginia nearly as often as azaleas and daffodils. Among the splendid benefits of college nothing outweighs awakening to the presence of the past as it shapes and changes one's life. In 1963, for example, I lived in a cottage next door to James Southall...
(The entire section is 4417 words.)
SOURCE: Richards, Eliza. ‘“The Poetess' and Poe's Performance of the Feminine.” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 2 (summer 1999): 1-29.
[In the following essay, Richards discusses Poe's strategies for coping with the encroachment by women poets in the nineteenth-century poetic arena formerly reserved for men.]
… forms that no man can discover For the tears that drip all over …
Poe's aesthetic discourse registers a crisis of masculine literary sentiment sparked by the influx of women poets to the American marketplace in the 1830s and '40s. At this time, white, middle-class women, supposed embodiments of the...
(The entire section is 11073 words.)