Few Will Be Grieved

11 Poe pictureLinda Burton posting from Richmond, Virginia – “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved.” Part of a long obituary published in the New York Tribune on October 9, 1849 and signed simply “Ludwig,” this unflattering piece was later published throughout the country. “Ludwig” was revealed as Rufus Griswold, who obviously didn’t like Poe very much; he later wrote a biographical article of Poe and depicted him as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) had his enemies and his critics, to be sure; yet today this American author and poet continues to influence literature around the world; his work appears throughout popular culture. He is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre; every year the Mystery Writers of America presents the Edgar Award to someone for distinguished work in the mystery genre. 11 Poe raven signHe is further credited with contributing to the science fiction genre, and was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through his writing alone. A number of the homes Poe lived in are dedicated museums today; although he never lived in the Old Stone House in Richmond, it houses the Edgar Allen Poe Museum and displays many items Poe used during his time with his foster parents, John and Sarah Allan; it also features several rare first printings of his works. That’s where I went looking, looking, looking for some ghostly lingerings of this brooding man whose life so often focused on death.

Did you have to memorize Annabel Lee when you studied American literature in high school? I did, and still can recite its lines flawlessly; perhaps it’s the rhythm that catches in your memory; perhaps it’s the tragedy that touches your heart.

It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know, by the name of Annabel Lee. And this maiden she lived with no other thought, than to love and be loved by me. I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea; but we loved with a love that was more than love, I and my Annabel Lee. With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven coveted her and me.  And this was the reason that, long ago, in this kingdom by the sea, a wind blew out of a cloud, chilling my beautiful Annabel Lee; so that her highborn kinsman came and bore her away from me, to shut her up in a sepulcher in this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven, went envying her and me- Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know, in this kingdom by the sea) that the wind came out of the cloud by night, chilling and killing my Annabel Lee. But our love it was stronger by far than the love of those who were older than we, of many far wiser than we, and neither the angels in heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea, can ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee. For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee; and the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes of the beautiful Annabel Lee; and so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride, in the sepulcher there by the sea, in her tomb by the sounding sea.

Biographers often suggest that Poe’s frequent theme of the “death of a beautiful woman” stems from the repeated loss of women throughout his life, including his wife. He married Virginia Clemm in Baltimore in 1835; she was his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847. Poe’s mother, actress Elizabeth Poe, died in the same manner in 1811 when he was two. His foster mother Sarah Allan, with whom he was close, died in 1829; his foster father John Allan, with whom Poe had frequent quarrels, failed to notify him that she was ill.

Poe’s life was a series of struggles and failures; he attended the University of Virginia for a semester but left due to lack of money; supposedly John Allen gave him money but he spent it on drinking and gambling; he joined the Army under a different name and falsified his age; after a few years he sought a discharge by revealing his identity and finally found a replacement to finish his term of enlistment. He entered West Point but then purposefully chose to be court-martialed; the charge was gross neglect of duties. During all this time he was writing; but after his elder brother’s death due to alcohol problems, he began to more seriously focus on a writing career.

He spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his style of literary criticism. He moved to several cities – Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York; in 1845 his poem The Raven was published. It was a great success, though he received only $9.00 as payment. He planned to produce his own journal but died before that began. The cause of his death is unknown; the circumstances are as horrific as many of the macabre stories he wrote.

On October 3, 1849, Joseph Walker found him delirious and in great distress on the streets of Baltimore; his uncle Henry Herring took him to Washington Medical College where he died four days later. He was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in such dire condition, wearing clothes that were not his own. It is said he called out the name “Reynolds” repeatedly before his death; some say his final words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All medical records have been lost but newspapers of the time reported “congestion of the brain,” which was a common euphemism for death from a disreputable cause such as alcoholism. Various theories as to the cause of his death have included heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, and rabies.

Perhaps, as Griswold wrote, few grieved Poe’s death; but his name and his work are familiar to us today, which can’t be said of Griswold. Besides the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, you can visit the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore; which is also the home of the Edgar Allen Poe Society. The Spring Garden home in Philadelphia is today preserved by the National Park Service as a Historic Site; the final home Poe lived in is preserved as the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York. In New York’s Upper West Side, a plaque on a building suggests Poe wrote The Raven while he lived there; in Boston, a plaque on Boylston Street commemorates where Poe was born. The dorm room Poe is believed to have used while studying at the University of Virginia in 1826 is preserved and available for visits; its upkeep is now overseen by a group of students and staff known as the Raven Society.

Edgar Allen Poe Museum, Richmond http://www.poemuseum.org/index.php

Tales you may have read by Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat * The Cask of Amontillado * A Descent into the Maelström * The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar * The Fall of the House of Usher * The Gold-Bug * Hop-Frog * The Imp of the Perverse * Ligeia * The Masque of the Red Death * Morella * The Murders in the Rue Morgue * The Oval Portrait * The Pit and the Pendulum * The Premature Burial * The Purloined Letter * The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether * The Tell-Tale Heart