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Thursday, 2 June 2011

“I Pacified Psyche and Kissed her, and Tempted her out of her Gloom” Or: The Hard and Gloomy Life of Edgar Allan Poe:

The first Victorian that ever fascinated me was Edgar Allan Poe when, in my early twenties, I had a minor obsession with him and his work. I bought a few books and read through them with vigor, gasping in amazement at the detective powers of Dupin, the imagery of his disturbing poetry, the horror of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ and the beauty and melancholia of his sonnets. Perhaps this fascination stemmed from my childhood in which, like most boys, I was fascinated with horror and the macabre, and the work of Poe was a more adult way to feed that fascination.

As some fascinations have a tendency to do, my obsession with Poe wore off, but I have always felt some sort of sympathy with the man and his work, and he is still responsible for my favourite poem, which I shall disclose later, along with a Victorianist Blog first.

Prior to that, let us investigate the life of this interesting man, and, who knows, he may even gain some new fans.

He was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, America, on 19th January 1809 the second child of his traveling actor parents, David Poe Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe. He had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe. His brother William also went on to become a poet before his early death, and his sister Rosalie taught penmanship at a Richmond girls’ school when she grew up. 
John Allan
When Edgar was just over one year old, in 1810, his father abandoned the family, and a year later his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children orphaned. Edgar was taken in, but never officially adopted, by the wealthy Scottish tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Frances in Richmond, Virginia. Edgar’s siblings, William and Rosalie were both being sent to live with other families. The Allan’s, from whom Edgar gets the ‘Allan’ part of his name, dealt not only in tobacco, but also cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves. The Allan’s had Edgar baptized in 1812.
Three years later – with Edgar now aged six – the Allan’s sailed to Britain, with Edgar being sent to John Allan’s birthplace of Irvine, Scotland, whilst he and Frances headed for London. In Irvine, Edgar attended a grammar school for a brief period, before making his way to London to join John and Frances in 1816.
In London, Edgar was enrolled in a boarding school in Chelsea, again only for a year, before being sent to Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School in Stoke Newington, North London. Edgar and the Allans’ remained in England until 1820, when they returned to Virginia.

John had ambitions to raise the boy to be a businessman, but Edgar wished to become a writer like his hero, Byron, and had no interest in the tobacco business. John Allan’s business ledgers bear testament to this, and tell a story of a young boy working in a dusty old office at a boring job with his mind elsewhere, as, in young Edgar’s handwriting, poems and verses can be seen scribbled down on the backs of papers and receipts.
By the time Edgar was thirteen, he had written enough poetry to publish a book. This was discouraged by John.

In 1825, John Allan’s rich uncle died and bequeathed to his nephew several acres of real estate, believed to be worth around $750,000 (close to $30 million in today’s money) John used some of this money to buy Moldavia, a two story house. Later this year, the now sixteen year old Edgar met Sarah Royster, and the two became sweethearts and may have been engaged (although this is unclear.)
Sarah Royser
The following year Edgar moved away from Richmond to attend the University of Virginia to study languages. The University had been founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 on christian principals. The establishment employed strict rules against gambling, horses, guns, tobacco and alcohol, but, despite his new riches, John had sent Edgar to the University with very little money for fees, books or lodgings. The boy soon ran out of funds and desperately resorted to gambling to raise money. By the end of his first term Edgar was in such dire straits that he resorted to burning his furniture to keep warm. Deciding that enough was enough, he quit the University after just one year.
During his torrid time at the University, Edgar had not only fallen out with John over his lack of money, but also lost touch with Sarah. When he arrived back in Richmond, angry with his foster father, he opted not to go home, but to go to Sarah instead. The visit was to leave him heartbroken as, in his absence she had got engaged to another man.

Desperate to leave Richmond, Edgar traveled to Boston in 1827 and took on odd jobs to survive. He worked as a clerk and then as a writer for a newspaper.
This same year, Edgar achieved one of his goals and, at the age of eighteen, he published his first book, ‘Tamerlane and other poems’ although he did not attach his name to the publication, which bore the author name of simply; ‘A Bostonian
Two years later, it became known to him that Frances Allan was dying of tuberculosis and wished to see him one last time before she died. Despite rushing back to Richmond, by the time he arrived she was already dead and buried.
Frances Allan

Following this, he had a brief stint in a United States Military Academy. More difficult times lay ahead, as, in October 1830 John Allan re-married. Barely a year had passed since the death of Frances, and his marriage to Louisa Patterson led to further quarreling with Edgar which ended with John disowning his foster son once and for all.
Edgar decided to leave the Military Academy by purposely getting court-martialed. In February 1831, he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church. He tactically pled not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing he would be found guilty.

Finding himself parentless, homeless and jobless, Edgar made his way to Baltimore, where he had relatives. He stayed with his Aunt, a widow named Maria Clemm and her daughter, Virginia Clemm (Edgar’s first cousin), his brother, William Henry, and their crippled grandmother.
Whilst living in Maria’s home, he began to think of her as a second mother, and also became very close to Virginia, with whom he soon started a relationship. He published his second book, another volume of his poems, entitled ‘Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems’.

Whilst Edgar was living with his aunt, John Allan died. He had left Edgar out of his will entirely, and yet had left money and belongings to an illegitimate child he had never met.

He left for New York in February 1831, and released a third volume of poems, simply titled ‘Poems.’  The book once again reprinted the long poems ‘Tamerlane’ and ‘Al Aaraaf’ but also six previously unpublished poems including early versions of ‘To Helen’, ‘Israfel’, and ‘The City in the Sea’ He returned to Baltimore, to his aunt, brother and cousin, in March 1831. His brother Henry, who had been in ill health in part due to problems with alcoholism, died on August 1st 1831.

Virginia Clemm
By 1833, Edgar had started publishing his short stories, one of which, ‘Ms. Found in a Bottle’ won a contest sponsored by weekly periodical the Saturday Visiter. The story brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a wealthy resident of Baltimore, who helped Edgar establish connections with various editors, one of whom was Thomas W. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, with which magazine Edgar was awarded an editorial position.
Edgar contributed not only sensational stories to the magazine, but also scathing book reviews. He was trying to do something which was, at the time, quite radical in America. He wanted to concentrate on a career as a writer, and, in a difficult time in American publishing history, due to the lack of any international copyright, he became the first popular writer to attempt to earn a living by writing alone. Other writers of the time subsidized their literary careers with second or third jobs.

In 1836, Edgar returned to Richmond, bringing Maria and Virginia with him. Despite his being twenty seven and her only thirteen, Edgar married Virginia. The marriage was a happy one, and the family is said to have enjoyed singing together at night. Virginia expressed her devotion to Edgar in a Valentines poem, and he celebrated the joy and happiness of married life in his poem ‘Eulalie’:

I dwelt alone
In a world of moan,
And my soul was a stagnant tide,
Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride-
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

Ah, less- less bright
The stars of the night
Than the eyes of the radiant girl!
That the vapor can make
With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,
Can vie with the modest Eulalie's most unregarded curl-
Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie's most humble and careless

Now Doubt- now Pain
Come never again,
For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,
And all day long
Shines, bright and strong,
Astarte within the sky,
While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye-

While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye. 

After leaving his job with the Southern Literary Messenger because of apparently low pay and lack of editorial control, Edgar and his new family moved to New York City. This was a difficult time. America had suffered a devastating financial crisis knows as the Panic of 1837. As a result of this, Edgar struggled to find work as a writer for any newspapers or magazines, and so wrote what would turn out to be his one and only novel. ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, published in 1838, is the tale of the young Arthur Gordon Pym, who stows away aboard a whaling ship called the Grampus. The story includes shipwreck, mutiny, and cannibalism, and despite not being that well received at the time, elements of Edgar’s book would later appear in the work of Jules Verne.

After a year in New York, in 1838 Edgar moved to Philadelphia and made money writing for a number of different magazines and working as editor of, first Burton’s and then Graham’s magazines. He also sold articles he had written to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and various other journals. By now he was becoming relatively well known for his articles, but being well known does not necessarily mean being well paid, and he continued to struggle to make a living. His first book of short stories, a compendium named ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’ earned him virtually no money, and he wasn’t even paid in cash by his publisher, but instead was given twenty-five copies of the book for free.

Despite having a wretched time of it financially, Edgar was blissfully happy at home with Virginia and Maria.

In 1842, however, tragedy was to strike, as Virginia showed the first signs of tuberculosis, the condition, (at the time known as consumption) that killed his foster mother Frances Allen, and also his real mother Elizabeth Poe. Edgar began to drink heavily under the stress of Virginia's illness. In January 1845 Edgar published a poem entitled ‘The Raven’ in The Evening Mirror to enormous success. ‘The Raven’ caused a sensation and made him famous enough to draw large crowds to his lectures and command better fees for his work. He even briefly realized one of his life’s ambitions of running his own magazine when he became the sole owner of Broadway Journal after buying out the owners. Under Edgar’s stewardship however, the magazine failed. This, coupled with Virginia’s deteriorating health, and rumors spreading about Poe’s relationship with a married woman, forced him to leave Philadelphia and they moved to a cottage in The Bronx, New York
'Not the Least Obeisance Made He' by Gustave Dore
Virginia never fully recovered from her condition, and like Edgar’s two mothers, died in the cottage on the 30th January 1847 aged just twenty four. Edgar was devastated, and was unable to write for months. His critics assumed he would soon be dead.

They were right.

After Virginia died Edgar became increasingly unstable. He attempted to marry the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, but, supposedly because of his drinking and strange behaviour the engagement lasted only a month. He returned to Richmond to seek out his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Royster, who was, by now, a widow and so, twenty three years after they first became sweethearts, they did so again. It wasn’t to last however, as Edgar returned to Baltimore, and on the 3rd October 1849, was found in a disheveled and gibbering state walking the streets of the city. The man who found him, Joseph Walker, claimed that Edgar was;
"in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance" He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, but, in his delirious state never became coherent enough to explain the circumstances that had led to his state of disarray, or why he was wearing someone else’s clothes.
Newspapers at the time reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation", common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism
Sarah Helen Whitman

At five in the morning on October 7th 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in hospital surrounded by people he did not know. His apparent last words were; “Lord help my poor soul!”
The actual cause of death remains a mystery, with anything from cooping, delirium tremens, (sometimes referred to asThe Horrors’) heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera and rabies all being cited as the possible disorder or disease that killed him.

One of Edgar’s poems is – and has been since the day I first read it in my early twenties – my favourite poem. I’m not that keen on poetry of any era, I must admit, but I never tire of reading his ‘Ulalume’;

The skies they were ashen and sober;
          The leaves they were crisped and sere-
          The leaves they were withering and sere;
      It was night in the lonesome October
          Of my most immemorial year;
      It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
          In the misty mid region of Weir-
      It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
          In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

      Here once, through an alley Titanic,
          Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul-
          Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
      There were days when my heart was volcanic
          As the scoriac rivers that roll-
          As the lavas that restlessly roll
      Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
          In the ultimate climes of the pole-
      That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
          In the realms of the boreal pole.

      Our talk had been serious and sober,
          But our thoughts they were palsied and sere-
          Our memories were treacherous and sere-
      For we knew not the month was October,
          And we marked not the night of the year-
          (Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
      We noted not the dim lake of Auber-
          (Though once we had journeyed down here),
      Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
          Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

      And now, as the night was senescent,
          And star-dials pointed to morn-
          As the star-dials hinted of morn-
      At the end of our path a liquescent
          And nebulous lustre was born,
      Out of which a miraculous crescent
          Arose with a duplicate horn-
      Astarte's bediamonded crescent
          Distinct with its duplicate horn.

      And I said- "She is warmer than Dian:
          She rolls through an ether of sighs-
          She revels in a region of sighs:
      She has seen that the tears are not dry on
          These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
      And has come past the stars of the Lion,
          To point us the path to the skies-
          To the Lethean peace of the skies-
      Come up, in despite of the Lion,
          To shine on us with her bright eyes-
      Come up through the lair of the Lion,
          With love in her luminous eyes."

      But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
          Said- "Sadly this star I mistrust-
          Her pallor I strangely mistrust:-
      Oh, hasten!- oh, let us not linger!
          Oh, fly! - let us fly! - for we must."
      In terror she spoke, letting sink her
          Wings until they trailed in the dust-
      In agony sobbed, letting sink her
          Plumes till they trailed in the dust-
          Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

      I replied- "This is nothing but dreaming:
          Let us on by this tremulous light!
          Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
      Its Sybilic splendor is beaming
          With Hope and in Beauty to-night:-
          See! - it flickers up the sky through the night!
      Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
          And be sure it will lead us aright-
      We safely may trust to a gleaming
          That cannot but guide us aright,
          Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."

      Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
          And tempted her out of her gloom-
          And conquered her scruples and gloom;
      And we passed to the end of the vista,
          But were stopped by the door of a tomb-
          By the door of a legended tomb;
      And I said- "What is written, sweet sister,
          On the door of this legended tomb?"
          She replied- "Ulalume- Ulalume-
          'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"

      Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
          As the leaves that were crisped and sere-
          As the leaves that were withering and sere-
      And I cried- "It was surely October
          On this very night of last year
          That I journeyed- I journeyed down here-
          That I brought a dread burden down here-
          On this night of all nights in the year,
          Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
      Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber-
          This misty mid region of Weir-
      Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
          This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

And for the first time on the Victorianist, a video! This is Jeff Buckley reading ‘Ulalume’ beautifully to music, in a fashion I am sure Edgar would have approved of:

Edgar’s life was an unsettled one, in which, from his earliest memories, upheaval followed disappointment, poverty walked hand in hand with rejection, and misery lurked over the crest of every hill of success.
He led a varied life, travelled to many places and suffered many trials and tribulations. His death, however, in mysterious circumstances, with all his medical records, including his death certificate, having been lost, was a tragically fitting end to the melancholy life this tortured man led, but would his iconic and unique work have been possible without the tribulations he endured? It is the genius of his work which ensures his name is, even 162 years after his death, synonymous with horror and the macabre.

Much like the artist, Richard Dadd, Poe is the kind of tragic figure who sums up the Victorian age. An age of poverty, tragedy and, ultimately, groundbreaking artistic works of art and literature.

For more in-depth information about Edgar Allan Poe and his life and works, please see the blog of an Edgar expert over at World of Poe where you will find everything you'll ever need to know!


  1. That was fascinating (yet again!). I knew nothing about him.

  2. I seem to be doing well with fascinating posts! I'll try to keep it up, thanks for the kind words. I can recommend some sort of Poe collection, its relatively easy to find a collection of all his poems and stories in one book - a good thing to dip in and out of as the stories are fairly short.

  3. "Ulalume" is also my favorite. I love that Buckley interpretation.

    It's a minor point, but that drawing of Sarah Royster was proved to be a forgery back in the 1930s, and the authenticity of the Virginia Poe portrait is highly doubtful. I wrote about them in these two posts from my blog, if you're interested in their history:

  4. That's interesting, thanks for the links to your blog. I try to spread my net quite wide over all things Victorian, which means I do occasionally make the odd mistake, (the phrase 'Jack of all trades, master of none' applies here!)
    but making these mistakes means - quite often - that hawk-eyed experts correct them!
    I'm glad you looked in and took the time to leave your comment, thanks for letting me (and any readers) know.

    I shall Tweet a link to your excellent blog too, and place a link to it beneath this post.

    Thanks again!

  5. Oh I love Mr Poe! Annabel Lee and The Raven are my favourites and I have to be in the right mood but so atmospheric. Thanks for this - fascinating! Suzie @keatsbabe

  6. Thanks for the comment! You're quite right about mood too - this is not particularly literature for reading in the garden on a summer day, rather more suited to winter evenings!

  7. I absolutely adore your blog. All of your posts are incredibly interesting, not to mention well-researched. Which is something very important to me when I'm looking for tidbits of fact when I'm writing.

    I have this blog bookmarked. I have to say that SO many of your blog posts have given rise to inspiration for different stories. Thank you for your wonderful posts.

  8. Thank you for those extremely kind and gratifying words!

    I'm glad you use this blog in that way as essentially, I started it so I could share the research I've done on Victoriana with other people who may find it interesting, and I'm glad its working for you!

    Thanks again!