Biography

The Enduring Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

Despite the fact that Edgar Allan Poe died more than 160 years ago, his poetry and stories remain controversial and popular.  Not only have his writings continued to be discussed and examined in the classroom, but also, for more than a century, his poems and stories have been adapted into screen, television, stage and other forms of creative media.  According to The Atlantic, “The long-gone author… has 251 movie- or TV-writing credits and counting.”

No discussion or lecture in American literature can be complete without the inclusion of Edgar Allan Poe and the legacy of his unique, imaginative works.  To this day, he inspires readers and authors alike to explore the supernatural underbelly of our darkest thoughts and the sinister side of human nature.

 

Poe: The Literary Critic

Edgar Allan Poe was also a well known literary critic and editor. He was a major proponent of the “art for art’s sake” movement in 19th century European literature, describing in his essay, The Poetic Principle, that “true art” shouldn’t be tied into any moralistic viewpoints or practical, everyday uses.  This philosophy, which went against the grain of so much literature of the day, was exemplified by the literary formalism in his use of words and phrasing. Poe demonstrated an excellent command of language and literary techniques in both his poetry and short stories.

As a critic, he was recognized for his harshness, and in fact, offended many of his colleagues. His rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, bore a grudge against him due to an unfavorable review. When Poe died, Griswold saw his passing as an opportunity to destroy the poet’s public image by publishing an obituary and a biography that portrayed Poe as a drug addicted and insane drunkard. Revelations from Poe’s friends later contradicted Griswold’s slanders.

At one point, poet and literary critic James Russell Lowell described Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Although they were friends at first, Lowell and Poe had a falling out partly due to Poe’s unforgiving criticism of the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a good friend of Lowell’s.

Impact on Modern Literature

Edgar Allan Poe introduced different styles to the literary landscape of his period as well as to modern literature, and he is considered the inventor of the horror and detective fiction genres.  Back then as now, Poe was recognized for his grim, unrestrained prose and poetry that explored the dark nature of humanity. Themes like death, violence and madness frightened yet fascinated readers, and the effectiveness of his works can be attributed to his rhythmic mastery of language, imagery and psychology.

The Bells is an exquisite example of this ability:

 

THE BELLS

Hear the sledges with the bells—

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle

All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

II.

Hear the mellow wedding bells,

Golden bells!

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells?

Through the balmy air of night

How they ring out their delight!

From the molten-golden notes,

And all in tune,

What a liquid ditty floats

To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats

On the moon!

Oh, from out the sounding cells,

What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!

How it swells!

How it dwells

On the Future! how it tells

Of the rapture that impels

To the swinging and the ringing

Of the bells, bells, bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

III.

Hear the loud alarum bells—

Brazen bells!

What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

In the startled ear of night

How they scream out their affright!

Too much horrified to speak,

They can only shriek, shriek,

Out of tune,

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,

In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,

Leaping higher, higher, higher,

With a desperate desire,

And a resolute endeavor

Now—now to sit or never,

By the side of the pale-faced moon.

Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

What a tale their terror tells

Of Despair!

How they clang, and clash, and roar!

What a horror they outpour

On the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear it fully knows,

By the twanging,

And the clanging,

How the danger ebbs and flows;

Yet the ear distinctly tells,

In the jangling,

And the wrangling,

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells—

Of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

IV.

Hear the tolling of the bells—

Iron bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

In the silence of the night,

How we shiver with affright

At the melancholy menace of their tone!

For every sound that floats

From the rust within their throats

Is a groan.

And the people—ah, the people—

They that dwell up in the steeple,

All alone,

And who tolling, tolling, tolling,

In that muffled monotone,

Feel a glory in so rolling

On the human heart a stone—

They are neither man nor woman—

They are neither brute nor human—

They are Ghouls:

And their king it is who tolls;

And he rolls, rolls, rolls,

Rolls

A pæan from the bells!

And his merry bosom swells

With the pæan of the bells!

And he dances, and he yells;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the pæan of the bells—

Of the bells:

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the throbbing of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells—

To the sobbing of the bells;

Keeping time, time, time,

As he knells, knells, knells,

In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells—

To the tolling of the bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells—

Bells, bells, bells—

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Towards the end of the 19th century, several more authors who rose to prominence explored the detective fiction genre.   Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, once said that Poe’s works were “a model for all time.”  Other authors Poe inspired include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

Poe’s popularity and prominence grew during the 20th century, not just as model for prolific authors, but also as a staple of high school and college curricula. He is now commonly mentioned along the ranks of such luminaries as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as major figures who helped shape English literature.

Adaptations

Poe’s stories are a constant source of material for TV shows, films and theater performances. Many fans and readers make complaints about such adaptations, from being inaccurate to having a weakened plot. However, there is reason for this tendency; Poe’s short stories and poems are not long enough to sustain a full-length film. In The Raven, for instance, Poe creates a beautifully layered intensity for the story’s ambiance and grim horror but doesn’t focus on developing a plot. This is just one example of why Poe-esque elements were often added to the central themes.

Of the aforementioned hundreds of known adaptions to date, numerous versions of his masterpiece, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ are among them, and it is this particular work that I chose to use as the focus for my book, ‘The Poe Consequence.’

 

Sources:
http://theamericanreader.com/2-july-1844-edgar-allan-poe-to-james-russell-lowell/
http://www.nps.gov/edal/forteachers/upload/defamation.pdf
http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-meant-by-phrase-art-for-arts-sake-390822
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_for_art’s_sake
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edgar-allan-poe
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http://psychobabble200.blogspot.com/2014/01/ten-mysterious-and-imaginative-edgar.html

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