Few authors have mastered channeling the dark, eerie, macabre, and yet still beautiful, nature of the world like the great poet and author, Edgar Allan Poe. Even in his earliest years, Poe was intimately aware of the frustrations and burdens that can plague a life cursed with misfortune. Nevertheless, he saw immense beauty in even the darkest of places, but he could also imagine chilling horrors erupting out of the sweetest and most docile of scenarios.
Elizabeth Arnold Poe gave birth to Edgar in 1809, in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. Elizabeth was an actress from Britain working in the United States, and her husband, David Poe Jr., also worked in the acting business in Boston. David and Elizabeth Poe, however, did not raise their son for long. Unfortunately, David Poe abandoned the family shortly after the birth of his son, and Elizabeth Poe died in 1811, when Edgar Allan Poe was only three years old. When he grew up he had little, if any, memories of his real parents.
With no immediate family able to take care of him, Edgar Allan Poe was taken in by the Allan family in Richmond Virginia as a foster son. Edgar’s relationship with his new foster father, John Allan, was rarely, if ever, stable or friendly. Mr. Allan wanted his foster son to be a businessman, but Poe stubbornly strived to be a poet and a writer. John Allan never adopted his foster son and would continue to have a tense relationship with Poe for the rest of his life.
When Edgar Allan Poe reached his mid-to-late teens, his life began to look up. Yet, in keeping with his mystique, soon most of his ambitions and ventures came crashing down on top of him. Between 1825 and 1826, he left home to attend the University of Virginia, leaving a fiancé or sweetheart named Sarah Elmira Royster to wait for him as he completed his education. Poe’s foster father, John Allan, however, did not provide his ward with enough money to pay his foster son’s tuition and living expenses. To make up the difference, Poe turned to gambling. Unfortunately, this only made him fall into debt. In less than a year, Poe was dismissed from the University of Virginia for lack of funds. If that was not bad enough, another sad surprise was waiting for Poe back in Richmond. Sarah Royster had become engaged to another man during his absence.
With little family support and no relationship tying him to Richmond, Edgar Allan Poe headed to the city of Boston and eventually joined the United States Army in 1827. He spent the next few years in the military, estranged from his foster-family. Yet, when his foster mother, Frances Allan, fell seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1829, Poe quickly traveled back to Richmond, Virginia. Unfortunately, she died before he arrived home. With the death of Frances, John Allan and Poe tried to mend their broken relationship. That same year, in 1829, Edgar Allan Poe received an honorable discharge from the military at the rank of regimental sergeant major. Soon after, John Allan helped his foster son gain attendance to the prestigious U. S. Military Academy at West Point.
Yet, the weak façade of a good relationship between Allan and Poe quickly shattered with time. Edgar Allan Poe was eventually dismissed from West Point for ignoring his duties. The cause remains unclear, but it resulted either from John Allan ending the funds for his foster son’s education or Poe intentionally seeking dismissal to anger his foster father. Another theory is that the former incident caused the latter.
With no family support and no major income, Edgar Allan Poe wandered the east coast, doing odd jobs and writing poetry to find a way to get by. His life would only begin to turn around when he settled down with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her young daughter, Virginia, from 1831-1835.
While living with his aunt, Poe finally received some literary recognition when his piece, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” won a $50 prize from a contest in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. The prize-winning short story was in no way his first published work—he had already published two books of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) and Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). These books, however, received little recognition at the time, even though modern observers believe the collections to contain masterpieces.
For Edgar Allan Poe, the best accomplishment he achieved during his stay with the Clemm family was the relationship he developed with his cousin, the young Virginia Clemm. When, in 1835, he was offered the position of editor at the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond Virginia, he brought Maria and Virginia Clemm to live with him in his new home. The next year, in 1836, Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia were married. He was in his late twenties, at the time. Virginia, on the other hand, was between 12 and 14 years of age.
The marriage would last for over a decade, but, tragically, Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847. She was still in her early twenties at the time. Edgar Allan Poe grew darker after the death of his wife, and he quickly began a losing battle against depression and his preexisting troubles with alcoholism.
Nevertheless, the late 1830s and the1840s were a golden age for Edgar Allan Poe’s writing career. Despite this, he regretfully made little money for his brilliant work. In 1838, he published “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a memorable, eerie tale about the destruction of a family and the mirrored crumbling of the family home. The same year, he published his only known complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe gave birth to the detective novel genre with the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its 1843 sequel, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” 1843, in general, was a productive year for Poe—during that time he also published “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Black Cat,” and most notably, one of his masterpieces, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Although Poe had been writing poetry throughout his life, some of his most acclaimed poetic works emerged during his final years. “The Raven,” arguably Poe’s most famous piece, was published in 1845, four years before the writer’s death. One of the poet’s most palpably emotional poems, “Annabel Lee,” was released in 1849, on the year of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.
Shortly before the publication of “Annabel Lee,” Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond Virginia, intending to arrive in Philadelphia. Mysteriously, he was found delirious in Baltimore and died of odd circumstances on October 7, 1849. The cause of the great author’s death remains unknown and debated. There are many theories about the cause of death, including being beaten to death, rabies, poisoning, or even a case of fatal kidnapping. Even today, no conclusive consensus has been reached as to why and how Edgar Allan Poe met his end.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Édouard Manet (1832–1883) depicting the fist lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).