Edgar Allan Poe

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 145,071 words.)