Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849: His Poems and Stories Are Strange and Frightening.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849: His Poems and Stories Are Strange and Frightening.
Photo: poemuseum.org
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum offers thousands of artifacts of Poe's life and legacy.

STEVE EMBER: I'm Steve Ember.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I'm Faith Lapidus with PEOPLE IN AMERICA from VOA Special English. Today, we tell about Edgar Allan Poe, a nineteenth-century American writer. His stories and poems were some of the most frightening and strange ever written.


STEVE EMBER: Americans celebrate Halloween on October thirty-first. It is mostly a holiday for children who like to be frightened. Yet many grown people observe Halloween, too. Those who love the writings of Edgar Allan Poe think Halloween is the best time of year to celebrate them. Poe is most famous for his stories and poems of strangeness, mystery and terror.

He wrote about people buried while still alive. About insanity and death. About dreams that become real...or reality that seems like a dream.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Edgar Allan Poe died in the city of Baltimore, Maryland in eighteen forty-nine. Now, in that city, an unusual party takes place every Halloween. In the dark of night, visitors go to the grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church where Poe is buried. Everything is quiet. Then a voice calls out. It is Poe! No, it is just an actor, reading Poe's work.


Poe is most famous for his stories and poems of strangeness, mystery and terror.
Poe is most famous for his stories and poems of strangeness, mystery and terror.

STEVE EMBER: Reading stories was one of the most important forms of enjoyment in Edgar Allan Poe's time. Poe created many of these "short stories." They appeared in different publications.

Horror stories already were popular when Poe began writing. Critics say he wrote the perfect horror story. Poe also wrote detective stories. These were mysteries about crimes, such as murder. An investigator called a detective solves the mysteries. The detective is able to find important, hidden meanings in facts. The horror and detective stories Poe created remain popular in books and movies.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Edgar Allan Poe's work is not easy to read. His language is difficult to understand today. And most of his writing describes very unpleasant situations and events. His story "The Pit and the Pendulum," for example, is about the mental torture of a prisoner. Each time the prisoner saves himself from death, a new and more horrible form of death threatens him.

Another story is "The Masque of the Red Death." In it, a terrible disease -- the Red Death -- has killed half the population of a country. The ruler of the country shuts his castle against the disease. He and his wealthy friends are inside. They pass the time by having parties. They believe the Red Death will not find them. But it does.


STEVE EMBER: Edgar Poe was born in eighteen-oh-nine in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were actors. At that time, actors were not accepted by the best society. Edgar was a baby when his father left the family. He was two years old when his mother died. He was taken into the home of a wealthy businessman, John Allan. He then received his new name -- Edgar Allan Poe. John Allan never officially made Edgar his son. In fact, he came to dislike him strongly.

Edgar attended schools in England and in Richmond, Virginia. As a young man, he attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He was a good student. He was a member of the Jefferson Literary Society. But he liked to drink alcohol and play card games for money. Edgar was not a good player. He lost money he did not have.

John Allan refused to pay Edgar's gambling losses. He also refused to let Edgar continue at the university. So, Edgar went to Boston and began working as a writer and editor for monthly magazines. He also served in the army for two years.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Edgar Allan Poe worked hard. He became a successful editor. He published three books of poetry. He also began writing stories. Five of his stories were printed in a publication in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in eighteen thirty-two. Yet he was not well paid. His life was difficult. He was poor, and he was troubled by sicknesses of the body and mind. Poe suffered from depression. He feared he was insane. He drank alcohol to escape his fears. The alcohol had a very bad effect on him.

Edmund Quinn's Bust of Poe is on display at The Poe Museum in Richmond, VA.
Edmund Quinn's Bust of Poe is on display at The Poe Museum in Richmond, VA.

STEVE EMBER: In eighteen thirty-five, Poe began editing the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. The following year, at the age of twenty-seven, he married Virginia Clemm. She was the daughter of his father's sister. She was only thirteen years old.

Poe and his wife moved often as he found work at magazines and newspapers in Philadelphia and New York.

For a time, it seemed that Poe would find some happiness. But his wife was sick for most of their marriage. She died in eighteen forty-seven. After his wife's death, Poe's problems with alcohol increased. He died two years later, at the age of forty. He was found dead in Baltimore after days of heavy drinking.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Through all his crises, Edgar Allan Poe produced many stories, poems, and works of criticism. Some of his stories won prizes. Yet he did not become famous until eighteen forty-five. That was when his poem "The Raven" was published.

There is no question that Poe suffered from emotional problems. One critic said Poe's spirit was torn. He said Poe's stories were often about his own divided nature. Each person in his stories showed a different side of the writer. There is a question, however, about Poe's importance. Some critics said he was one of America's best writers. Others disagreed.

STEVE EMBER: One critic said Poe discovered a new artistic universe -- a universe of dreams. It was a place where the line between reality and unreality is extremely thin.

Even those who praised Poe agreed that there are many difficulties in his work. These difficulties place Poe's writing outside the main body of American literature. Most American writing is realistic. Poe's interests and way of writing were not realistic at all. Poe's work has been praised most in France. He had a great influence on many French writers.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Poe's best-known poem is "The Raven." Some people love it. They say it is like music. Others hate it. They say it sounds forced and unnatural -- like bad music.

"The Raven" is about a man whose great love, Lenore, has died. She is gone forever. But the man cannot accept that all happiness is gone. He sits alone among his books late at night. He hears a noise at the window. Here is the beginning of the poem:

Litho-graph of Edgar Allan Poe's Mem-orial Grave in Balt-imore, Mary-land.
Litho-graph of Edgar Allan Poe's Mem-orial Grave in Balt-imore, Mary-land.


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."

FAITH LAPIDUS: The man looks out the window and sees only blackness.


Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"

Merely this and nothing more.

FAITH LAPIDUS: But there is something at the window. It is a large black bird -- a raven. It comes into the room like the spirit of death and hopelessness. It sits on a small statue above the door. The raven can speak just one word: "nevermore" -- meaning "never again".


But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing further then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered --

Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before –

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before."

Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

FAITH LAPIDUS: The man becomes frightened. He does not know if the raven is just a bird or an evil spirit. We know the raven will never leave the man's room.


And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting -- still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a Demon that is dreaming,

And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!

STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis. Our poetry reader was Richard Rael. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA from VOA Special English.