Edgar Allan Poe24 January 2020
Poe\'s most conspicuous contribution to world literature derives from the analytical method he practiced both as a creative author and as a critic of the works of his contemporaries. His self-declared intention was to formulate strictly artistic ideals in
Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his ingenious and profound short stories, poems, and critical theories, which established a highly influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe was also the principal forerunner of the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement in 19th-century European literature.
Whereas earlier critics predominantly concerned themselves with moral or ideological generalities, Poe focused his criticism on the specifics of style and construction that contributed to a work’s effectiveness or failure. In his own work, he demonstrated a brilliant command of language and technique as well as an inspired and original imagination. Poe’s poetry and short stories greatly influenced the French Symbolists of the late 19th century, who in turn altered the direction of modern literature.
In 1827, Poe left for Boston, where he enlisted in the army and also published his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, and Other Poems. The volume went unnoticed by readers and reviewers, and a second collection, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, received only slightly more attention when it appeared in 1829. He went to New York City, where Poems, his third collection of verse, was published in 1831, and then to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm. Over the next few years Poe's first short stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier and his MS Found in a Bottle won a cash prize for best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor.
His financial problems were temporarily alleviated when he accepted an editorship at The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, bringing with him his aunt and his 12-year-old cousin Virginia, whom he married in 1836. The Southern Literary Messenger was the first of several journals Poe would direct over the next 10 years and through which he rose to prominence as a leading man of letters in America. Poe made himself known not only as a superlative author of poetry and fiction, but also as a literary critic whose level of imagination and insight had hitherto been un-approached in American literature. While Poe’s writings gained attention in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the profits from his work remained meager, and he supported himself by editing Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia and the Broadway Journal in New York City. After his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became involved in a number of romantic affairs. It was while he prepared for his second marriage that Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore in late September of 1849. On October 3, he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; he died four days later without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life.
Poe’s most conspicuous contribution to world literature derives from the analytical method he practiced both as a creative author and as a critic of the works of his contemporaries. His self-declared intention was to formulate strictly artistic ideals in a milieu that he thought overly concerned with the utilitarian value of literature, a tendency he termed the 'heresy of the Didactic. While Poe’s position includes the chief requisites of pure aestheticism, his emphasis on literary formalism was directly linked to his philosophical ideals: through the calculated use of language one may express, though always imperfectly, a vision of truth and the essential condition of human existence. Poe’s theory of literary creation is noted for two central points: first, a work must create a unity of effect on the reader to be considered successful; second, the production of this single effect should not be left to the hazards of accident or inspiration, but should to the minutest detail of style and subject be the result of rational deliberation on the part of the author. In poetry, this single effect must arouse the reader's sense of beauty, an ideal that Poe closely associated with sadness, strangeness, and loss; in prose, the effect should be one revelatory of some truth, as in ‘tales of ratiocination’ or works evoking ‘terror, or passion, or horror.’
Aside from a common theoretical basis, there is a psychological intensity that is characteristic of Poe's writings, especially the tales of horror that comprise his best and best-known works. These stories-which include The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Tell-Tale Heart -are often told by a first-person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a character's psyche. This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the school of psychological realism. In his Gothic tales, Poe also employed an essentially symbolic, almost allegorical method which gives such works as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and Ligeia an enigmatic quality that accounts for their enduring interest and links them with the symbolical works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The influence of Poe's tales may be seen in the work of later writers, including Ambrose Bierce and HP Lovecraft, who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe. In addition to his achievement as creator of the modern horror tale, Poe is also credited with parenting two other popular genres: science fiction and the detective story. In such works as The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaall and Von Kempelen and His Discovery, Poe took advantage of the fascination for Science and Technology that emerged in the early 19th century to produce speculative and fantastic narratives which anticipate a type of literature that did not become widely practiced until the 20th century. Similarly, Poe’s three tales of ratiocination - The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter and The Mystery of Marie Roget - are recognised as the models which established the major characters and literary conventions of detective fiction, specifically the amateur sleuth who solves a crime that has confounded the authorities and whose feats of deductive reasoning are documented by an admiring associate.
Just as Poe influenced many succeeding authors and is regarded as an ancestor of such major literary movements as Symbolism and Surrealism, he was also influenced by earlier literary figures and movements. In his use of the demonic and the grotesque, Poe evidenced the impact of the stories of ETA. Hoffman and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, while the despair and melancholy in much of his writing reflects an affinity with the Romantic movement of the early 19th century. It was Poe’s particular genius that in his work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, at the same time creating new forms which provided a means of expression for future artists.
While Poe is most often remembered for his short fiction, his first love as a writer was poetry, which he began writing during his adolescence. His early verse reflects the influence of such English romantics as Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, yet foreshadows his later poetry which demonstrates a subjective outlook and surreal, mystic vision.
Today, Poe is recognised as one of the foremost progenitors of modern literature, both in its popular forms, such as horror and detective fiction, and in its more complex and self-conscious forms, which represent the essential artistic manner of the 20th century. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed the man and his works as one, criticism of the past 25 years has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his virtuosity than with expressing his soul, and who maintained an ironic rather than an autobiographical relationship to his writings.
While at one time critics such as Yvor Winters wished to remove Poe from literary history, his works remain integral to any conception of modernism in world literature. Herbert Marshall McLuhan wrote in an essay entitled “Edgar Poe’s Tradition”: “While the New England dons primly turned the pages of Plato and Buddha beside a tea-cozy, and while Browning and Tennyson were creating a parochial fog for the English mind to relax in, Poe never lost contact with the terrible pathos of his time. Coevally with Baudelaire, and long before Conrad and Eliot, he explored the heart of darkness.”