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Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): Brief Lecture Notes

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I. Biographical Background
    Kenneth Silverman argues that Poe's work is shadowed by the deaths of three women he loved intensely (in addition to Poe's best-known inspiration, his beloved young wife Virginia):
      1. his mother (when he was about 2 years old)
      2. Jane Stanard (idealized mother of a school friend), who died insane at age 28 ("To Helen")
      3. Frances Allan (his foster mother)
II. Major Phases of Poe's Career
    A. 1827-1831. 3 slim volumes of poetry expressed a strong attachment to the romantic myth of a pastoral and poetic ideal, made up of dreams and memories of Eden.

    B. 1831 marked a transition year: moved to Baltimore (1831-1835); wrote "Israfel," "Romance," "To Helen"

    1. His work during this period expressed a new commitment to a poetry of heartfelt conviction in the face of life's burdens and sorrows.

    2. From 1831-41 Poe experienced a radical change; his works involved the theme of death as a finality in a cosmic void of darkness and silence.

    a. "Ligeia" appeared Baltimore American Museum in September 1838
    b. "The Fall of the House of Usher" appeared in September, 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine
    c. December 1839: Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque
        C. 1841-1849: A return to poetry and essays and fiction on theme of psychic transcendentalism. 1845 was his most successful year. Feb: The Raven appeared in the February American Review after advance publication in the New York Evening Mirror.

III. Types of Works
Through all these phases , Poe wrote

    1. Satiric tales.
    2. Parodies and burlesques.
    3. Grotesques: tales where one aspect of the character is heightened for a marked effect (note that this same concept was later used by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio).
  • "Grotesque" in Poe also implies a clash of opposites, a world in which the reader's certainties are undercut. Its fundamental element is disharmony, what Philip Thomson has called "the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response" (27).
  • Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature: "The various forms of the grotesque are the most obvious and pronounced contradictions of any kind of rationalism and any systematic use of thought" (185).
  1. Arabesques: tales involving the supernatural; according to Paul Reubens, "symbolic fantasies of the human condition."
  2. Tales of ratiocination ("The Purloined Letter") that allow rational deduction and logic to counter the irrationality of grotesques and arabesques.
  3. Hoaxes
III. Themes (from Floyd Stovall)
    Stovall called Coleridge the guiding spirit of Poe's intellectual life

    A. Parallels with Coleridge

      1. poetry gives pleasure by being indefinite
      2. music is an essential element in poetry
      3. beauty is the sole province of the poem
      4. poetic beauty has the quality of strangeness
      5. poem must have unity of effect
      6. true poem must be brief
      7. passion and poetry are discordant
      8. tone of the poem must be melancholy
    B. Parallels with Wordsworth
      1. Visionary dreariness (from The Prelude [published in 1850 and unknown to Poe]: Wordsworth writes of "spots of time" that stand as memorials permitting the restoration of our minds when they are "depressed." The power of these moments comes from their revelation that "the mind is lord and master--outward sense/the obedient servant of her will."

      2. "The Fall of the House of Usher" hinges on questions of self-identity and the powers of the mind for restoration" (Cambridge Literary History 659). In German Romantic theory, the sublime derived precisely from the power of the mind over nature; one of its essential qualities is the presence not only of appreciation of nature's beauty but awe in its presence. The true sublime contains an element of fear, of the possibility of danger that resides in nature.

      In "Usher," the narrator's utter depression allows no sense of the "visionary" qualities of dreariness that so powerfully moved Wordsworth . . . In this story the pattern of differentiated repetition shows the power of things, the consciousness of urban fragmentation against which Wordsworth was writing, but from within which Poe writes."

      3. Poe: "As to Wordsworth, I have no faith in him."

    C. Themes
      1. victimization, power and powerlessness
      2. confrontations with mysterious presences
      3. extreme states of being
      4. dehumanization and its cure
      5. relation of body and soul
      6. memory of and mourning for the dead
      7. need for spiritual transcendence and affirmation.
D. Beliefs
    1. That the dead are not entirely dead to consciousness
    2. That it is best to live in hopes that love can transcend death.
    3. That one must apprehend the possibility of beauty beyond the grave.
IV. Poe and Plagiarism
      A. Poe, "Letter to Mr. ---": "A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object and indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception."

      Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817): p. 172. "A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part."

      B. A fierce opponent of literary plagiarism, Poe claims originality for his stanza form in "The Raven": trochaic rhythm; octameter acatalectic alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in refrain of fifth verse.

      This form was used by Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) in "Lady Geraldine's Courtship"; Poe had dedicated "The Raven" to her because he had admired "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" for its "fierce passion" and "delicate imagination."

      Of Poe, Barrett said,"There is poetry in the man, though, now and then seen between the great gaps of bathos. . . the "raven" made me laugh, though with something in it which accounts for the hold it took upon people."

V. "The Raven"
      A. To Poe, Barrett wrote: "Your 'Raven' has produced a sensation, a "fit horror" here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the "Nevermore," and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a "bust of Pallas" can never bear to look at it in the twilight."

      B. Symbolic raven parallels Coleridge's albatross, Shelley's skylark, Keats's nightingale.

    • C. From a spectator's account: Poe wore black, and, adjusting the atmosphere to suit the mood of his work, "would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark. Standing in the center of the apartment he would recite those wonderful lines in the most melodious of voices. So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken." Elmira Royster Shelton: "When Edgar read 'The Raven,' he became so wildly excited that he frightened me, and when I remonstrated with him he replied he could not help it--that it set his brain on fire."

Comments to D. Campbell.