Brief Lecture Notes on Poe (plain html version)
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):
II. Major Phases of Poe's Career
1. his mother (when he was about 2 years
2. Jane Stanard (idealized mother of a school
friend), who died insane at age 28 ("To Helen")
3. Frances Allan (his foster mother)
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.
1841-1849: A return to poetry and essays and fiction on theme of psychic
transcendentalism. 1845 was his most successful year. Feb:
appeared in the February American Review after advance publication
in the New York Evening Mirror.
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
III. Types of Works
Through all these phases , Poe wrote
Parodies and burlesques.
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).
III. Themes (from Floyd Stovall)
Arabesques: tales involving the supernatural;
according to Paul Reubens, "symbolic fantasies of the human condition."
Tales of ratiocination ("The Purloined Letter")
that allow rational deduction and logic to counter the irrationality of
grotesques and arabesques.
Stovall called Coleridge the guiding spirit
of Poe's intellectual life
A. Parallels with Coleridge
1. poetry gives pleasure by being indefinite
B. Parallels with Wordsworth
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
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
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
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.
1. That the dead are not entirely dead to
IV. Poe and Plagiarism
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.
V. "The Raven"
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
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."