Edgar Allan Poe lived a life as macabre as one of his tales. As a toddler he watched his actress mother kill herself onstage in the role of Juliet, and then watched her die a lingering death from tuberculosis before he turned three. He was fostered by a stern father who died without leaving Poe a penny. His young wife burst a blood vessel in her throat while singing and playing the piano, blood pouring from her mouth while Poe watched in horror. Finally, widowed, wasted by drink and long suffering, he died at the age of 40 in a hospital far from home, watched over by strangers.
Such a life is sufficient inspiration for his tales of spiritual horror, but in his poetry Poe managed to convert the horrible into the lyrical through the careful use of sound techniques. “Annabel Lee” is unsurpassed in our language for its rhythm of ocean waves surging and ebbing, and the melodramatic sing-song quality of “The Raven” has mesmerized audiences since its first publication in 1845. Poe later wrote that he was inspired by the talking raven in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, but might he also have had in mind the call of the fish crow, whose dreary “UNH-unh” sounds like a repeated negative to whatever question you are pondering? Poe, who lived in coastal cities all his life and was very sensitive to the somber effects of nature, would have noticed this characteristic call.
Though reviled by some critics as a second-rate teller of horror stories, Poe made significant contributions to American literature. He perfected and defined the short story, which he said had more in common with poetry than with the novel. Poe argued that writers should try to achieve a “unified effect,” a technique which he illustrated brilliantly in both his poetry and prose. Whether taking us into the mind of a murderer, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or that of a victim, as in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” he crafted the tale of breathless horror for which he is famous. He also wrote the world’s first detective stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” which are still considered masterpieces among the thousands of imitations they have spawned. As to his poetry, for Poe there was no subject more poignant than the death of a beautiful woman:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.