“Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant, the party on the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and awe. In the next a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corspe, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon it’s head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled up the monstor within the tomb.”
Stephen King? No. H.P. Lovecraft? No. A script from one of the films of M. Knight Shyamylan? NO. These are the final words of the story of “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe, who was born on today’s date – January 19 in 1809. What must have been going on in the mind of this man…how utterly tortured he must have been, to have written such passages of sheer horror! Of course, it does not necessarily have to be so. Other than an awful accident with a van a few years ago, Stephen King has had a happy and normal life. The same for Mssr.s Lovecraft and Shyamylan. But not for Edgar Allan Poe. His life was hard – marked by disappointments, alcoholism, and the deaths of his loved ones, and his own untimely demise under mysterious circumstances at he young age of 40.
Poe’s Early Life
Poe was born in Boston Massachusetts, to a pair of theatrical parents, who may have named him for the mad character of Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear which they had been performing around the time of his birth. Poe’s father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died of Consumption (Tuberculosis) a year later. Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan, a rich merchant couple in Boston. Pictured above is the Edgar Allan Poe House in Boston wherein Poe lived for a time. Although they never formally adopted the young man, Poe’s adoptive parents did give him their name – Allan.
Poe’s Literary Criticism
Poe was the first American writer to attempt to make a living off of his work alone. He made several attempts throughout his life to work with literary magazines. He had some degree of success in this attempt. In fact he was better known in his time as an astute literary critic than as a writer. Fellow critic James Russell Lowell called him “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America”, though he wondered if Poe used prussic acid instead of ink. Clearly, Poe was seen as a man to be reckoned with, and his abilities were respected by his literary fellows.
Poe’s Marriage to Virginia Clemm
But the world of real life was considerably more difficult for Poe. He made a try at army life for a couple of years, but that was a failure. He was eventually cut off from any support by his adoptive father. He married his cousin, Virginia Clemm (above) when he was in his late twenties, and she was merely 13. The marriage was happy and loving, but Poe was unable to sustain himself in regular employment through this time. He published his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (horror)” containing “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tomb of Ligea” in 1840 to mixed reviews. His young wife fell ill in 1842, and under the stress of this time, he began to drink more and more heavily.
Poe’s “the Black Cat”
In “The Black Cat”, published in 1843, he wrote of a man who had once been kind and gentle, but who, under the influence of alcohol gradually became cruel. He centered his loathing and resentment on his cat.
“I grew, day by day, more moody more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence…..my disease grew upon me — for what disease is like alcohol!…Even Pluto(the cat)began to experience the effects of my ill temper.”
It is not difficult to imagine Poe experiencing these dark and troubling feelings and writing about them in the guise of the tortured man of his stories. The man in this story took a swing at the cat, and wound up killing his wife instead – hence the line about the creature having “seduced” him into murder. He then concealed her body behind a brick wall, and when the police came calling, the cat, whom he had inadvertently entombed with his late wife began crying – hence his date with the hangman.
Poe’s “The Raven”
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
”Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.’ “
These of course are the opening lines of “The Raven” published in Janaury of 1845. This poem about a man’s nocturnal visit from a large and mysterious black bird was a rare literary success for Poe, making him a household name. He was sought after for public readings of the work. At one such reading, a spectator remarked at the atmosphere Poe would create for the event:
“To hear [Poe] repeat the Raven… is an event in one’s life…He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite… in the most melodious of voices… So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken.”
Poe’s Mysterious Death
Regrettably Poe would realize but a small amount of money from this success. Even more regrettably for Poe, his wife died almost exactly two years after the Raven’s publication. His drinking got worse, and following several attempts at remarriage, he died under mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849. He had been found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance” in the account of the man who found him. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.
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” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales” by Edgar Allan Poe, A Signet Classic, New American Library Inc., New York, 1960