EDGAR ALLAN POE:
THE ORIGINAL IMP
OF THE PERVERSE
An overview based around the book ‘VISIONS OF POE’, a
selection of EDGAR ALLAN POE stories and poems with
photographs and an introduction by SIMON MARSDEN
(Michael Joseph/ Webb & Bower, £14.95)
those little slices of death,
how I hate them...’
(Edgar Allan Poe, quoted on the introduction to
‘Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’)
Born in the Michael Dukakis city of Boston over two-hundred years ago – 19 January 1809, Edgar Poe was immediately orphaned. His father, the Irish actor David Poe, deserted the family in 1810 and died soon afterwards. His mother – Elizabeth, died of pneumonia a year later. The middle name ‘Allan’ he took from the stepfather and benefactor he alternately vilified and, when finances deemed it necessary – fawned over. The young Poe was ‘removed’ from the University of Virginia for immoderate drinking and gambling which amassed debts of $2,500, and was subsequently court-martialled from West Point Military Academy for deliberate neglect of duty.
He nevertheless went on to reasonable success as editor of various periodicals – ‘The Southern Literary Messenger’ and ‘Graham’s Magazine’, minor triumphs again sabotaged by his personality problems which tended to terminate each position with the sour fetor of acrimony. He was neither a pleasant, nor an easy work colleague. In mitigation, Poe’s notorious drink problem was exaggerated by a diabetic condition, complicated by a ‘brain lesion’ that rendered him particularly succeptible to alcohol. His use of opium and laudanum is also well-documented, but hardly exceptional at an time when such tinctures were the widely-accepted valium of their day. More genuinely odd is his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia, who was already ill with the tuberculosis that was to kill her. The ‘consumption’ that seems to have been a source of Poe’s unhealthy fixation – not unconnected to the memory of his mother’s death.
Poe died – as that heavily over-written scenario demands he must, in grotesquely romantic squalor. After failed suicide attempts, bouts of insanity, fits and delirium tremens, he was on his way to Richmond to marry himself out of penury, when he disappeared during a stop-over in Baltimore. He was found much later on the street in a wretched condition. Following four days of hospitalised raving he groaned ‘lord, help my poor soul,’ and died. He was aged just forty.
Edgar Allan Poe’s life has been described as ‘a long slow suicide,’ the black drugs ‘n’ booze aspects of which were posthumously exhumed by decadent French poet Charles Baudelaire who helped embellish them into the unshakably powerful literary mythology that persists. It was left to Anthony Burgess to question that myth in an ‘Observer’ book review (15 January 1978) by pointing out that ‘Poe’s life, though wretched enough, was not exceptionally so. It was the life of any writer struggling in a world devoted to commercial values.’ What makes Poe’s work so exceptional – Burgess argues, is his apparent self-absorption in that ‘wretchedness’ which – like Marsden’s camera, tints and taints all of his life-experience, and all of his creative perceptions. Poe was rigidly agnostic, a man who – according to expert fantasist Sam Moskowitz, ‘knew that the ultimate damnation lay in the distortion of a man’s own inner consciousness and not in any supernatural event’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.38).
Irregular, querulous and eccentric, unacknowledged in life and unmourned in death, Poe casts a long and blackening shadow that’s now exquisitely reinterpreted through the demonic gargoyles and macabre mansions in Simon Marsden’s ‘Visions Of Poe’.
no mortals ever dared to dream before…’
(Edgar Allan Poe from ‘The Raven’)