Poeme'en - Edgar Allan Poe-try 101


Since it is Hallowe'en it would be remiss of us not to cover a bit of horror-y stuff so Susan Omand looks at Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser known Poe-tic works (and promises the Poe-m puns will stop sometime)...

Everybody knows The Raven. At least, even if you don’t know the whole poem, you will be familiar with the fact that the Raven says ’Nevermore.’ The poem by Edgar Allan Poe is a staple of Hallowe’ens and has been an inspiration across the board in films, books and TV. In fact, to many people, The Raven is the sum total of their knowledge of Poe Poetry. But there is so much more to his work.

As with many Gothic writers, Poe was a tragic romantic at heart and many of his poems are written for lovers, current or past, fulfilled or unrequited. Anyone that knows me knows I’m not a 'hearts and flowers' type but there is something utterly wonderful about having a poem written for you, no matter how slushy or not the underlying sentiment is. Some of Poe’s, like Annabel Lee, spoke of the tragedy of lost love, others, like For Annie, speak of a complex unrequited relationship.

Another recurrent theme in Poe’s work is that of dreams, fantasy and spirituality, including basing some poems on the stories from the Quran, and Poe actively rails against science and hard fact in his work. However, he does not ignore the logical mind totally, as he was also a huge fan of cryptography and this showed through in some of his poetry, with names being hidden within the lines. A good example is in the poem An Acrostic, where the name Elizabeth, for his cousin, is semi hidden as the first letter of each line.

Elizabeth Acrostic

But an even more interesting one is in A Valentine where there is another name hidden on the diagonal, i.e. the first letter of the first line, the second letter of the second line and so on, thus revealing the name Frances Sargent Osgood, with whom he had a very public and very controversial relationship.

Valentine cryptography example

Poe also attempted (and I use the term loosely) some humour in his poetry, notably in the short Epigram for Wall street, which is reproduced below for your ..um...consideration:

"I'll tell you a plan for gaining wealth,
Better than banking, trade or leases —
Take a bank note and fold it up,
And then you will find your money in creases!
This wonderful plan, without danger or loss,
Keeps your cash in your hands, where nothing can trouble it;
And every time that you fold it across,
'Tis as plain as the light of the day that you double it!"

I cannot finish a Poe-try article without mentioning the essay that Poe wrote called The Poetry Principle, which I only discovered during my research. It’s his own version of my Poetry 101 articles (of which, more tomorrow) and, in it, he argues that poetry should be written for the enjoyment of them, very much art for art’s sake, and against the belief, popular at the time, that all art should instruct or inform in some way.

He also discusses his belief that long poems “do not exist” because he thinks that the artistry in a poem is in the thing as a whole. He argues that poems which are too long cannot keep up a mood or sustain a poetic form and should be made into a collection of smaller poems instead which he reckons would be more easily appreciated. This opinion however, may have been prompted by his need to justify the lack of popularity of his own long poems.

He used work from other poets to illustrate points in his essay, often very critically and, in return, his own work received a lot of criticism. William Butler Yeats called him "vulgar" and Emerson reacted to The Raven by saying, "I see nothing in it" and called Poe as "the jingle man" (ouch!). Aldous Huxley wrote that Poe's writing "falls into vulgarity" by being "too poetical" but I would argue, “Is there such a thing as ‘too poetical’ if you are setting out just to write poetry to be enjoyed?”

So it seems that, varied as it is, you either love Poe’s poetry or loathe it. One thing is certain for me though - because it provokes a reaction, it works.

Images - wikisource.