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Edgar Allan Poe: Behind The Madness

Works of art or literature profoundly reveal their creator's psychology... Marie Bonaparte

In order to discover the method behind Edgar Allan Poe's "madness," one must analyze his writing in the context of his life--a life fraught with the terrors about which he wrote. Yet most critics of Poe's work analyze it in direct relation to his life experiences in only the most subtle way. Much of his poetry and some of his prose reflect his obsession with the death of a lover. And, indeed, the people in his life most dear to him either abandoned him or died. "Freud, in his The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming has demonstrated the links which bind the daydreams of adolescents or adults--so nearly related to the dreams of the night--to the play-activities of children; both being fictive fulfillments of wishes" (Bonaparte 639). In Poe's case, the dreams were nightmares--nightmares of a mother who died of consumption with her three-year-old son by her side, her cold, lifeless hand resting on his cheek. It was this moment that "was never to fade from his memory" (Bonaparte 7), and would arouse in him the necrophilist phantasies that appear in such works as "Ligeia" and "The Raven." And, in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe exhibits another Freudian characteristic, the Oedipal Complex, resulting from his antagonistic relationship with his foster-father. Edward O'Neill, in his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems, gives perhaps the least biased account of a complex man who was alternately considered a genius or an amateur; a man on whom the fates frowned or one who determined his own dreadful fate through his alcoholism and drug addiction. Poe was born in Boston, January 19, 1809 to an Irish father and English mother, both members of a stock company at the Boston Theater. It was a time when his parent's profession was still looked upon with disapproval by the respectable elements of society. Edgar had a brother, William

Donschikowski Henry, and a sister, Rosalie.


Poe's father disappeared from the scene in 1809 and his mother died in 1811, when Poe was not quite three years old. "Edgar inherited the well known miniature of his mother" (Bonaparte 7) which would serve as the descriptive model for the female characters in his writing, most notably the "raven hair." The children were consequently split up; William went to live with his grandparents in Baltimore and Edgar along with his sister were taken in by two young matrons of Richmond, Mrs. John Allan and Mrs. William McKenzie. Mrs. John Allan adopted Poe and, through her preoccupation with him, was to be an influence on his life. Her husband was to be a source of constant frustration: "Forceful and domineering in everyday matters, John Allan could have no sympathy for the budding poetical genius of his foster-son" (Bonaparte 27) The Allans traveled to England and Edgar Allan, as he was known then, spent several years in school there where he was educated in Latin, French, history and literature and studied Horace, Cicero and Homer. Many of Poe's stories make references that relate back to this classical education (i.e., bust of Pallas, in "The Raven"). His education in England came at a time when that country was in a period of reform, political and religious, cultural and industrial. This, no doubt, enhanced Poe's freedom of imagination. Upon returning to America as a young man with a British education he, no doubt, felt secure about his literary talents, if not the rest of his emotionally troubled life. He briefly attended the University of Virginia. It was at this time that Poe's life began to fall apart. A failed romance, problems with his foster father and gambling debts resulted in Poe running away to Boston, where, in 1827, he published a pamphlet which included "Tamerlane" and other poems which were heavily influenced by Lord Byron (Webster 891). He then went to live with his aunt Clemm, his brother Henry, and his young cousin Virginia, whom he married when she was merely 13. She was to become the embodiment of his mother. "By choosing an obviously consumptive girl for his wife, the dreamer-necrophilist Poe found means to stage the sadistic drama, for himself, of an agonising [sic] death like that he

Donschikowski had watched so breathlessly as a child" (Bonaparte 667).


Poe's ambition was to become a poet. But his failure in that dream was perhaps to America's benefit for he began to write short stories in an effort to garner a meager income. As a poet, Poe was not of great literary stature. In fact, Harold Bloom goes so far as to say, "No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe's verse" (Bloom 3). His poetry was filled with sophomoric repetition and tonguetripping alliteration. Many contain morbid and depressing themes. Although "an idealist and a visionary" (Webster 891), Poe was forever in the clutches of his own fears and melancholy disposition. The early poems-- "Tamerlane", "Al Aaraaf", "Dreams", "Spirit of the Dead", etc.-- include references to his failed romances and, not vaguely, to his mother. Although positively reviewed, Poe had difficulty obtaining funds to publish, having been shunned by Mr. Allan. His simple rhyme scheme and meter makes his poetry easy to read and understand; however, they are of amateur quality when compared to his contemporaries. Poe was haunted by "an unassuageable longing for a mother left dead, long ago, in a small room" (Bonaparte 11) and was forever searching for a replacement. Unfortunately, the surrogates also died or otherwise departed. The romance in his life was not traditional and he always idealized it in his prose and poetry, which generally involved death, which he inevitably equated with love: "I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty's breath--" (Bonaparte 22). "The Raven," written late in his short career, exemplifies that melancholy tendency and is closely related to "Ligeia," a story he wrote much earlier. Although Poe goes to great lengths to explain the rationale behind "The Raven" in "The Philosophy of Composition," much of his own analysis of the poem is improbable, or at least of questionable candor. It is filled with subtle contradictions and is highly self-serving (O'Neill 978ff). His explanation of the choice of a raven as the symbol of hopelessness in the poem can be traced to a reference in "Ligeia:" "[...] the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant,



and naturally curling tresses[...]" [italics mine] (O'Neill 223). The idea that Poe may have considered a parrot, as he suggests, would have been totally out of character, and, as he admits, the raven was "infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone" (ONeill 223). But "Ligeia" is not the only reference to his mother's raven-black hair. "Elizabeth Poe has thus been described to us by one who saw her in her prime: `...the childish figure, the great, wide-open eyes, the abundant curling hair confined in the quaint bonnet of a hundred years ago and shadowing the brow in raven masses..." [italics mine] (Bonaparte 4). It was this vision of his mother in the wan appearance of her death who "appeared as that morbid and unearthly sylph" (Bonaparte 4) that is constantly in his tales and poetry. It may have been at the time of writing "The Raven" that Poe came to the realization that his mother was not coming back (contrary to "Ligeia") and he envisioned himself as the student in "The Raven." It was a time when his young wife, Virginia, was nearing death, so "The Raven" is symbolic of all the loves he'd lost as well as a foreshadowing of Virginia's fate. He amplifies the paradox of love and death in "The Philosophy of Composition": "...the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world [and] the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover" (Bonaparte 45). Other poems make similar references to the many lost loves of Poe. It is believed that "Annabel Lee" was written about his cousin and child-bride Virginia, who was 13 when they married: "It was many and many a year ago In a kingdom by the sea. [...] She was a child and I was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, [...]" [Poe's italics] (O'Neill 86) In "Annabel Lee" Poe combines the past with the present. "Virginia, throughout her short life, remained a child by the side of her maturer husband. But he, in infancy had dearly



loved his beautiful ailing mother, many and many a year ago (thus he transcribes his distant infancy)" (Bonaparte 127). Poe concludes the poem with a "necrophilist phantasy [...]: And so, all the nighttide, I lie down by the side / of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride / In her sepulchre by the sea-- / In her tomb by the sounding sea" Bonaparte 130). And, as late as 1849, the year Poe died, he wrote "Sonnet --To My Mother." The poem refers, however, to Mrs. Clemm, Virginia's mother with whom Poe continued to live after Virginia's death: "My mother -- my own mother, who died early, Was but the mother of myself; but you Are mother to the one I loved so dearly, And thus are dearer than the mother I knew [...]" (O'Neill 85) Several other poems refer to Poe's hapless romances and his sensitivity toward women. But, alas, the theme is generally the same as that portrayed in "The Raven." By Poe's own admission, melancholy was "delicious," as he explained in his self-critique of the poem (O'Neill 982). Poe was an alcoholic, which produces depression and during his alcoholic state of mind he reveled in the quagmire of his tormented life, wallowed in the pain and suffering and expressed that suffering in his prose and poetry. "Alcohol was for him a means of flight from the temptations aroused by his dire sexuality [...] [his dire sadonecrophilist sexuality]" (Carlson 191). And alcohol certainly contributed to his bouts of melancholy, and later possibly his death. Poe's gift to America may not have been his poetry, but we have certainly been amply blessed with his genius for the tale. In his prose, Poe left his indelible mark. Forced by circumstances to write for an income, Poe became a renowned critic and a master story teller. His tales of the macabre were an extension and expansion of the themes of his poetry. In his prose, Poe was able to experiment with language and his imagination more than he was able to do within the confining structure of poetry. And again, the stories are reflections

Donschikowski of his life. "Ligeia," for example, contains a poem that arguably refers to his mother, the actress: "Lo! `tis a gala night [...] Sit in a theater to see A play of hopes and fears, ..." (O'Neill 226ff) And, behold, a line further on in the poem: "[...] With its Phantom chased for evermore, [...]" [my italics]


As previously mentioned, "Ligeia," may give us clues to the poem "The Raven," beyond mere coincidence, "and this story we may take to be Poe's one love-tragedy" (Lawrence 93). A similar theme haunts "Morella," where "Morella's gradual reappearance in her daughter is, like the death of Rowena in `Ligeia,' a barely disguised wish fulfillment of the narrator's...[which] turns into an allegory of the voice of the narrator's wish fulfillment. The repetition compulsion is Freud's coinage for the unconscious reenactment in the present of ideas, relationships, or traumas from the past" (Bloom 91). Poe's life with the Allans had been dysfunctional, to say the least. Allan, who originally was quite taken by Edgar (Poe) soon lost interest in the young man and was a source of constant frustration to him. Poe's obsession with Mrs. Allan as a mother-substitute, calling her "Ma" was another wedge driven between the two men as "Allan wished to rid himself of Edgar and his devotion to the memory of his `Ma'" (Bonaparte 52). The ultimate insult was Allan's failure to mention Poe in his will, leaving Poe nothing when he died (O'Neill 7). Add to that Allan's meddling in Poe's love affairs and unwillingness to help Poe in times of financial distress and one sees the makings of a life of resentment that surfaces in Poe's writing. The Cask of Amontillado is a case in point: "A thousand injuries of Fortunato I had



borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge" [itasics mine] (O'Neill 666). The insult, in this case, could have been one of a number Allan inflicted on Poe before Allan's death in 1834. Allan was particularly critical of Poe's mother and her profession as an actress, which was then still considered a low-life profession (O'Neill 3). Poe obliquely refers to these insults in letters and marginalia. Additional resentments may be found in several of Poe's other stories ("The Tell-Tale Heart"), where revenge is at work, the Oedipal Complex surfaces and the phallic symbol "in `The Cask of Amontillado,' proper to the maternal bowels, is shifted to Montresor's vaults" (Bonaparte 644/5). Interestingly, Poe uses the first person narrative in these tales, exposing us to the intimate thoughts and plans of the protagonist as well as the madness that accompanies them. This method creates a sense of realism and believability because we are getting first-hand knowledge of the events. The protagonists in many of his tales seem to exhibit an obsessive-compulsive personality, always frustrated by an aggravating external source or foil to whom they react in an unrational way, i.e., the menacing eye of "The Tell-Tale Heart", or the insulting Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado." Poe was a master storyteller in many ways. He is credited with setting the standard for the short story. His lean writing style and use of dialog ("Cask of Amontillado") to fill in details was unique. He is also credited with originating the detective mystery. Indeed, Dupin, his character in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is mentioned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes series (O'Neill 13). Poe's contribution to American literature is undisputed. His criticisms are highly regarded. He broke new ground in his short stories. And, although largely ignored, as most geniuses ahead of their time are, he has become immensely popular and the subject of more analysis than any writer of his time. The details with which he describes the macabre, the madness of his characters, and his insight into the psychology of that madness could only have come from personal experience. The processes of the psyche which mark his work and the anxiety Poe suffered were



as a result of displacement and its opposite "as it were, of condensation [a process] by which one individual is split into several" (Bonaparte 650). Poe led a tormented life. Penniless, forsaken and often ignored by the public, he sank into depression, further heightened by bouts of alcoholism. In a letter to Allan in April, 1833, Poe writes: "Without friends, without any means, consequently, of obtaining employment, I am perishing -- absolutely perishing for want of aid... For God's sake, pity me and save me from destruction (O'Neill 7). He suffered from bouts of depression, during "times of mourning over the absence of a loved one. Yet what was this loved being ever present in his soul? It was no longer his mother, for she was forever beyond reach, but her `imago.' His love for her had transferred itself to this image he carried in his soul or projected on the universe" (Bonaparte 83/4). No one knows exactly how Poe died. There has been speculation that he drank himself to death, and more recently, that he died of rabies because of his hydrophobic condition at the time of death. (This condition may also accompany acute alcoholism). Biographers favorable to Poe tend to downplay his alcoholism, while those critical, present an image of a raging alcoholic and drug addict. However, some have suggested that he died of a broken heart and that is where I would leave it.

Donschikowski Works Cited:


Bloom, Harold, ed. The Tales of Poe (Modern Critical Interpretations). NY: Chelsea House, 1987. Bonaparte, Marie. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Translated by John Rodker. London: Imago, 1949. Lawrence, D. H. "Edgar Allan Poe." Critical Essay on Edgar Allan Poe. ed. Eric W. Carlson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Mirriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Mass: Webster, 1995 O'Neill, Edward H, ed. Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems. NY: Dorset Press, 1989

Bibliography: Bloom, Clive. Reading Poe, Reading Freud. NY: St. Martin's, 1988. Davidson, Edward H. Poe, A Critical Study. Cambridge: Belknapp, 1957. Williams, Miller. Patterns of Poetry. Baton Rouge: LSU, 1986.



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