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.