Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as, among many things, a master of dark fiction. His poems and stories chill the blood, even today. This short essay written on the life of the famous American poet offers great insight into his life and passions.
Edgar Allan Poe’s strong optimism
Edgar Allan Poe may very well be the single greatest author of the Gothic movement; and judging by both his writing and his life, it would be easy to assume he was a deeply troubled man. But the grim visage seen in Poe’s popular portrait and the grisly, gruesome plots of his various tales are not the full length and breadth of the father of the modern mystery. A look into his critical essays and into the behavior of the man himself reveals that Poe had an undying optimism despite the many tragedies and tribulations of his life.
Optimism is hardly the word one would use to describe Edgar Allan Poe after a brief synopsis of his life. History takes particular pleasure in pointing out the dire events and unpleasant trends in Poe’s life which creates a general feeling of negativity when coupled with his obviously bleak writing. It is true that many tragedies befell Poe, particularly with regards to the women he loved. Both his mother and wife died young, leaving gaping wounds in Poe’s heart (Ingram). These particular losses resonate through virtually all of his writing, lending a very personal credibility that casts a shadow over the reader’s perception of the author.
Lifetime struggles of Poe
Poe also struggled extensively with both personal and professional issues. He is famously remembered being financially and personally irresponsible which, as might be expected, interfered with what attempts he made at gainful employment. Early in life his temper got him kicked out of his godfather’s house and his family’s inheritance (Ingram 85). He also struggled with gambling for a time, acquiring considerable debts (Ingram 41).
This set the tone for much of his future financial state. He is also considered one of the first American author to attempt writing as a sole source of income, something which he struggled with woefully because the publishing industry was entirely unsuited to his writing style and literary devices (Ingram). Writing never made him wealthy and these other aspects of his character contributed to lifelong poverty.
But a closer look reveals Poe’s deep and enduring optimism in spite of these unpleasant factors. Those who remembered him, even toward the end of his life when he arguably had the least to be optimistic about, he was regarded fondly by those who knew him.
Describing an author’s personality
His mother-in-law and an acquaintance he made very near the end, a Mrs. Weiss, considered him to be the peak of gentlemanly behavior and a surprisingly cheerful and good-natured fellow, respectively (Ingram 417-418). These positive opinions appear to indicate Poe a pleasant person, in spite of his flaws.
His own academic writing is also a window into the deep-rooted optimism of Edgar Allan Poe. An argument could be made that Poe wrote in the Gothic style because that is what sold at the time. For example, The Fall of the House of Usher had dark, Gothic overtones and could easily be classified as horror fiction today. There can be no misunderstanding about the essays he published, however. He wrote many articles of literary criticism, particularly with regards to poetry which indicate cheerful tastes.
In “The Poetic Principle,” examples of his favorite poetry. Among these examples is “I arise from dreams of thee,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a romantic and surprisingly cheerful poem for a man like Poe to cite as a favorite (“Poetic” 4). This could be seen as both an explanation and a disclaimer of Poe’s favorite poetic topic, heartbreak.
Poe’s endearing passion in the face of darkness
Proof of his passion is evident both in the fury of his own work and in the gentle rationalization behind that fury. Following the success of “The Raven,” Poe wrote his “Philosophy of Composition” which describes the framework and reasoning behind his narrative and structural choices in his most famous poem.
His words are surprisingly beatific considering the poem’s content, “beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem… pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful“ (“Philosophy” 153).
According to his own reasoning, the point of the poem is pleasure through beauty, even if that beauty is dark and tragic. He makes this point despite the earlier mentioned loss of his mother and sister and his frequent difficulties with money.
A final demonstration of Edgar Allan Poe’s optimism is seen in the way he regards his fellow man. It has often been a curse of writers and scholars that they consider their beloved intellects a thing above the common man.
Poe demonstrates a surprising lack of elitism in his essay “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” “abstruseness is a quality appertaining to no subject in itself. All are alike, in facility of comprehension, to him who approaches them by properly graduated steps” (“Eureka” 19).
Not only does he regard academics as a relatively equal regardless of subject, he considers it equally accessible by anyone capable of following the steps of proper learning. He does not even qualify that generalization, leaving the world of proper learning open to any person capable of basic comprehension. For a person who invested so much ink exploring the common darkness and capacity for madness in everyone, this is an undeniably optimistic expression of positive equality.
While there is little to regard as optimistic in Poe’s rendering of society in fictional writing, the man’s life and more straightforward work was quite the opposite. There is no denying he had his demons, many of which were probably responsible for the authentic evil he brought to the page. But it must also be acknowledged that Poe pursued love and joy in his life no matter how many times he lost them. Whatever his other faults or characteristics, it is undeniable that Poe was an optimist to the end.
Ingram, John Henry. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions. London: W. H. Allen, 1886. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Eureka: A Prose Poem.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Eureka: a prose poem. Miscellanies. Chicago: Stone & Kimball, 1896. 5-138. Print.
—. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 6. New York: Williams-Barker Co, 1908. 149-167. Print.
—. “The Poetic Principle.” The works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 3-4. New York: Hearst International Library, 1914. 1-27. Print.
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