Research Paper: Edgar Allen Poe: Romanticism of the Grave

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Edgar Allen Poe: Romanticism of the Grave

Edgar Allen Poe was born January 19th, 1809, to actors Elizabeth Arnold Poe and David Poe, Jr. While his father abandoned the family before Edgar was a year old, his mother Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and died from the disease when Edgar was three. After his mother's death, Edgar and his two siblings were separated into foster homes; Edgar himself was taken in by Francis Allen -- a dear friend of his mother's -- and her husband, John Allen. John Allen was a wealthy tobacco merchant who, though he provided Edgar with a classical education and all the conveniences wealth could afford, was nonetheless cold in his affections and severely disapproving of Edgar's artistic pursuits.

It is perhaps this disapproval of Edgar's interest in art and writing that led John Allen to refuse him funds to live on while attending the University of Virginia. Having given Edgar just enough money to enroll in the University, it wasn't long before Edgar found himself destitute and reduced to hacking up his own furniture for kindling in the harsh Virginia winter. Desperate, Edgar turned to gambling, only to land himself in debt and risk of imprisonment. Seeking to avoid prison, Edgar joined the U.S. army under the assumed name of E.A. Perry, and later attended West Point. That Edgar had no real interest in a military career, however, led to his eventually expulsion from West Point for absences. Free of the army, Edgar moved into the home of his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia, then eight years old. In 1833, Poe left the Clemm home for Baltimore, where he worked as an editor and critical reviewer for Southern Literary Messenger magazine. It was also in 1833 that he sold his first story, earning $50 for the publication of Ms. Found in a Bottle, and that his adoptive father John Allen fell ill and passed away. It is said that when Edgar when to see Allen, Allen threatened him with a cane from his deathbed. In any case, Allen left nothing to Poe in his will.

As for his adoptive mother, Francis Allen, she too died of tuberculosis in 1829. During Mrs. Allen's illness, Mr. Allen conducted several extramarital affairs in their own home, for which Edgar despised him. To Poe, women were angelic, merciful beings that deserved respect even unto death. Allen's inherent disrespect of his dying wife was therefore monstrous in the eyes of Poe. That men continually play the role of monster in Poe's fiction -- the Tell Tale Heart, the Mask of the Red Death, even the murderous orangutan in the Murders of the Rue Morgue-is perhaps due in part to the physical abandonment of his first father, and what he deemed the moral betrayal of John Allen.

In 1835, Edgar married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, who was only 13 at the time. Despite Virginia's youth and the 13-year age difference between her and Edgar, their marriage is said to have been a happy and passionately devoted one. Edgar's own devotion to Virginia is evidenced in several poems, to include Lenore (1843), the Raven (1845), Annabelle Lee (1849) and to My Mother (1849). Says Poe in to My Mother:

My mother-my own mother, who died early,

Was but the mother of myself; but you

Are the Mother of the one I loved so dearly,

And thus are dearer than the mother I knew

By that infinity with which my wife

Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life. (Poe, 1173)

In 1838, Poe published the Narrative of Gordon Arthur Pym of Nantucket, and wrote William Wilson and the Fall of the House of Usher as acting editor for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. While Poe resigned as editor for a short time, he returned as editor for Burton's predecessor, Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's magazine, where he published the Murders of the Rue Morgue. In 1843, the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper awarded Poe $100 for the Gold-Bug, and in 1845, Poe served as sub-editor for the New York Mirror, where his now infamous poem the Raven first appeared.

While these short stories and the Raven in particular won Poe national recognition as writer of substance, Poe continued to struggle financially, and also with the ailing health of his wife Virginia. Like his mother and his foster mother before her, Virginia contracted tuberculosis in 1842-a disease she would recover from and succumb to repeatedly over the next five years. It has been suggested that Poe's experience of caring for Virginia over these years was the primary inspiration for several poems, to include Lenore (1843) and the Raven (1845). In both poems, Edgar seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable death of his wife. Says Poe in Lenore:

And thou art wild

For the dear child

That should have been they bride-

For her, the fair

And debonair,

That now lowly lies-

The life still there upon her hair,

The death upon her eyes. (Poe, 804-805)

In the Raven, Poe mourns for "Lenore" once again, expressing "sorrow for the lost Lenore- / for the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore- / Nameless here for evermore" (Poe, 1043).

In 1846-fleeing in part from the romantic pursuits of poetess, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood-Edgar and Virginia moved a small farmhouse in Fordham, New York. While Edgar cared for Virginia, he earned a small income writing political caricatures for Godey's Lady's Book-which eventually led to a libel suit -- and in January of 1847, Virginia succumbed a final time to the disease that claimed her life. Edgar was devastated. It is said that he sunk into a depression the depths of which he had never known before, and that he often wept himself to sleep on Virginia's grave. His poem, Annabelle Lee (1849) is considered his final literary tribute to Virginia; however it is the Mask of the Red Death, written in 1842-the year Virginia contracted tuberculosis-in which he hauntingly paints the nature of the disease itself:

No pestilence had been ever so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleedings at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour. (Poe, 739)

Poe thus presents us with the description of a horrifying, undignified, quickly debilitating disease that seizes and subdues its victims within minutes, or-as was often the case in life -- a matter of months. Indeed, the notion of time as fleeting and ever-threatening is symbolized in Red Death by the "clock of ebony," whose "pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang" and whose hourly chimes caused "even the giddiest" to grow pale, "and the more aged and sedate" to pass "their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation" (Poe 741). While Virginia struggled with her own "Red Death" for five years, the threat of her death was a continual source of torture for Poe throughout those years, so that life itself seemed a ticking time clock on the road to death.

This ever-looming threat of death-as much or more than it's grim reality-inspired in Poe an acute desire for a connection with the afterlife. If we consider such stories as the Fall of the House of Usher (1939), Life in Death (1842), and the Premature Burial (1844), we must assume that Poe not only believed in an afterlife, but that he was entranced by it. The Premature Burial, in particular, illustrates the full extent of Poe's fascination with the grave. In this story, the narrator begins by relating several incidents of people who were assumed to be dead being buried alive. In the first instance, the wife of a Congressman is "seized with a sudden and unaccountable disease," resulting in her assuming the likeness of a corpse (Poe, 973). After three days, the woman was buried in the family vault, and the vault left undisturbed for the next three years. At the end of these three years, the Congressman opens the vault only to met by the remains of his wife at the door. "A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment-that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf, to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape" (Poe, 974). In this relation, we can read Poe's desire for death to be something other than the final end -- a desire even better expressed in the second relation of a scorned lover unearthing his buried beloved and finding her alive. "Vitality had not altogether departed; and she was aroused, by… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Edgar Allen Poe: Romanticism of the Grave."  Essaytown.com.  December 13, 2010.  Accessed November 16, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/edgar-allen-poe-romanticism-grave/4698.