Essays and Criticism
Autobiographical Strands in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," "Ligeia," and "William Wilson"
Given the outlandish disorder that pervaded Edgar Allan Poe's personal life, it is by no means surprising to find that autobiographical elements appear prominently in both his verse and his fiction. At the broadest level, the tragedies that afflicted Poe, his volatile character, and the idiosyncrasies of his life-style plainly left their imprint upon his works in the salience of the macabre, the irrational, and the bizarre. When we come to the task of interpreting Poe's poetry and prose in light of his life, we achieve the greatest point by focusing on a particular period in Poe's career and relating it to a few, representative pieces. In what follows, we shall first recount Poe's childhood and early adulthood to the time of his dismissal from West Point, emphasizing certain formative events in his development. We shall then relate these influences to three of Poe's most noteworthy works, his classic poem "The Raven," and two short stories that he authored in the late 1830s, "Ligeia" and "William Wilson." Early in Poe's life, family instability began to affect both his material and emotional circumstances. Poe was the biological son of Elizabeth Arnold and David Poe, both underemployed actors, and his father's alcoholism apparently contributed to his abandonment of family when the future writer was but four years old. In the company of his mother, Poe moved from the place of his birth, Boston, to Richmond, Virginia, but, shortly thereafter Elizabeth Arnold died. Poe was separated from his brothers and sisters and placed in the care of a childless couple, Frances and John Allan, the latter being a fairly well-to-do businessman.
Although a hard task-master and tight in his control over the family's purse strings, Poe's stepfather recognized the value of education, and after John Allan relocated his family to London in search of commercial opportunities, he financed young Edgar's schooling at a series of prestigious boarding academies. While at school, Poe was an excellent student, but he experienced social ostracism from his peers. As G.R. Thompson observes, "he was not accepted as an equal; he was taunted about being the son of actors and about his unconventional position in the Allan household," as a stepchild.1 Consequently, although he was a gifted student, Poe began to think of himself as an outcast. When Poe was fifteen years old, the mother of a close school friend, Jane Stith Stanard died of a brain tumor. More so than Elizabeth...
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Themes of "The Raven"
First published in 1845, "The Raven" is undoubtedly Poe’s most famous and widely read work. It was received with critical acclaim when published, giving Poe the fame which had mostly eluded him previously.
Whilst the Poem is written in the Gothic horror tradition, one of its central themes is that of beauty. It was Poe’s belief that beauty and grief are only slightly removed from each other, with both having the capacity to move a man to tears. The subject of a beautiful woman meeting an untimely death recurs frequently in Poe’s work. In "The Raven" the narrator is seen trying to find relief – “surcease of sorrow” - from his grief at the death of his love, Lenore. We are reminded several times of her beauty, though we are not told the circumstances of her death.
This theme was particularly close to Poe, being a reflection of his life experience. Poe’s life was shaped by the early death of several women close to him – his mother, Elizabeth died (aged 24) when he was just 3 and his adoptive mother, Frances Allan, when he was twenty, both of tuberculosis. At the time Poe was working on "The Raven," his young wife Virginia was also very ill with the disease.
A second important, and related, theme is that of despair. The despair the narrator feels at the beginning of the poem, where he “vainly” seeks “surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore,” is only magnified by the events of the poem, so that by the...
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Poe: Storyteller and Poet
Edgar Allen Poe was virtually ignored by his contemporaries until the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. The poem enjoyed the status of being an overnight sensation for its popular appeal, while simultaneously stirring the simmering caldron of critical controversy. Interestingly, Poe’s early reputation in America rested on his bitingly aggressive and self-serving critical reviews and his gruesome fictional tales, while his reputation abroad was built almost entirely on his poetry. Although “The Raven” won Poe instant celebrity status from a broad audience, many of Poe’s critical peers did not judge the poem solely on its textual merits. Instead they elected to assess “The Raven” on the basis of Poe’s reputation for public drunkenness and literary feuds, in addition to his contrived craftsmanship and the thematic and structural resemblances in the poem to earlier works, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” Charles Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
“The Raven” combines Poe’s literary talents as both storyteller and poet. The narrator of the poem is a young male student who is grieving over the death of his beloved Lenore but who wrestles with the thought of divesting himself of her precious memory, even at the expense of his own sanity. Thus, immediately, sadness and sorrow emerge as the ruling motifs of the chilling and chaotic...
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Universal and Timeless Appeal of "The Raven"
From the moment of its first publication in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, “The Raven” has been a famous poem. It caused an immediate national sensation and was widely reprinted, discussed, parodied, and performed— catapulting its penurious and dejected thirty-six-year-old author into celebrity. The poem was soon translated into many European languages, most notably by the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, who insisted on using prose because French could not recreate the original’s verbal magic. By 1885 one American critic could plausibly call Poe’s work “the most popular lyric poem in the world.” Even today, “The Raven” still remains one of the few poems millions of Americans can quote from memory. Despite the poem’s enduring fame and extraordinary influence, however, leading critics have rarely found much to say in its favor. They have objected to its gothic atmosphere, ornate musicality, horror-tale narrative, and even its meter. And yet, a century and a half after its first appearance, the poem survives with its popularity undiminished.
What is the secret of “The Raven’s” uniquely powerful appeal? The question may be unanswerable in any final sense, but we can begin to understand the poem’s strange authority by isolating at least four key elements: its compelling narrative structure, darkly evocative atmosphere, hypnotic verbal music, and archetypal symbolism. Although none of these...
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Edgar Allen Poe and the Nightmare Ode
“The Raven,” unequivocally the most famous of Poe’s small body of poetry, may be among our most famous bad poems. Americans are fond of saying we do not read and do not care for poetry. It may be so. Yet Americans commonly recognize Poe’s bird as subject of a poem by a weird guy who drank himself to death. Written and published in 1845, in print steadily for 148 years, the stanzas of ”The Raven” are sonic flashcards. We may not know Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, or Eliot. But we do know Poe. We know “The Raven.”
A poem that might have been designed by Benjamin Franklin “The Raven” purports to be explained by Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” Poe wrote his essay for crowds smitten by his bird. Interestingly, he does not justify poetry with morality, as Emerson and Whitman would. He pretends to expose the poet’s trade. Some recent criticism has seen “The Raven” as a parody of Romantic poems of personal discovery. Perhaps, what Poe leaves unsaid peels, layer by layer, toward two questions answerable only by speculation. The first asks why “The Raven” has for fifteen generations commanded the imaginations of people who have often enough known it to be a bad poem. The second question asks if Poe is a Southern writer. They are related questions.
That “The Raven” is a bad poem is unacceptable to many readers, and Poe people are not swayed much...
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