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 Poe or Mrs. Allan, he looked upon this woman as his idealized mother, both highly intelligent and beautiful, and her untimely death cast the fledgling writer into a deep depression, as he was reported to visit Mrs. Stanard's grave on numerous occasions.
During Poe's adolescence, his father's firm experienced a decline. Eventually it was dissolved and John Allan took increasingly to extramarital affairs and to the bottle. Fortunately, Poe's fortunes underwent an abrupt snap-back when his stepfather inherited a large sum of money, and Poe was able to ready himself for entrance into the University of Virginia. At the same time, he began to call upon his first love, the fifteen-year-old Sarah Elmira Royster. Whether the two were engaged before Edgar left for college is uncertain; that Poe was serious about his courtship of Sarah, however, is by now well-established.2
While at college, Poe began to engage in the self-destructive behavior that would manifest itself in a variety of forms throughout his life, compiling gambling debts of over two thousand dollars, a staggering sum at the time. Poe's drinking and gambling led to estrangement from his stepfather and the end of tuition payments to the university. Worse, when Poe returned to Richmond, he immediately inquired about Sarah Royster. First told by her parents that Sarah was abroad, Poe eventually found that she had become engaged in his absence.
Poe was unable to place his relationship with John Allan on an even keel: the two argued about money, and the drinking and sexual patterns of both Poe and his father were a constant source of dispute. The headstrong Poe left his family home and adopted the first of several pseudonyms, calling himself Henri Le Rennet and taking quarters above a tavern. Poe then enlisted in the army under the fictitious name of Edgar A. Perry. It was while in the army that Poe published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, By a Bostonian. But the exaltation of his literary triumph was quickly diminished, for in February, 1829, Poe's stepmother, Frances Allen, died prematurely, the third "mother figure" in Poe's life to suffer an untimely death.
The death of Frances Allen set the stage for a reconciliation between Poe and his stepfather, and through the intercession of the elder Allan, Poe gained a commission at West Point. But while at the military academy, Poe again ran up gambling debts, and then began to withdraw from social contact altogether, remaining in his room where he engaged in increasingly frequent bouts with the bottle. Poe missed roll calls and refused to attend classes or church, and ultimately, he was court martialed, leaving the Point in March, 1831.
In "The Raven," the indelible mark of its author's own experiences in early life is readily discernible. To begin, Poe's most famous verse piece revolves around a lost love, the scholar's idealized Lenore, whom death has taken and whom he will see "nevermore." When we first "see" the student-narrator of "The Raven," he is engaged in the study of antiquated knowledge as a means of diverting his mind from the memory of the "rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore." Clearly there is a resonance here between Poe's own extensive career as student and the death of Jane Stanard....
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