Edgar Allan Poe: Poems, Tales, and Criticism
by William Dean Howells
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was born in Boston, the child of actors who died while he was very young. He was adopted by a Virginian gentleman, Mr. John Allan, who put him to school in England for five years, then in Richmond, and finally sent him to the University of Virginia. He remained there only a short time, and after finding that he disliked business, and publishing a volume of poems, he enlisted in the army. Mr. Allan had him discharged and placed him in West Point, from which he got himself dismissed. After that he supported himself in a hand-to-mouth fashion by writing for and editing newspapers and periodicals, living successively in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. The publication of his remarkable poem, "The Raven," in 1845, brought him fame, and for a short time he was a literary lion. But in 1847 his wife died, and his two remaining years were a gradual descent.
Poe's work falls into three divisions: poems, tales, and criticism. The poems are chiefly remarkable for the amazing technical skill with which haunting rhythms and studied successions of vowel and consonant sounds are made to suggest atmospheres and emotional moods, with a minimum of thought. In the writing of fiction, Poe is the great master of the weird tale, no writer having surpassed him in the power of shaking the reader's nerves with suggestions of the supernatural and the horrible. In these stories, as in the poems, he shows an extraordinary sense of form, and his effects are produced not merely by the violently sensational, but by carefully calculated attacks upon the reader's imaginative sensibilities.
In criticism Poe was, if not a scholarly, at least a stimulating and suggestive, writer, with a fine ear and, within his range, keen insight. His essay on "The Poetic Principle" is his poetic confession of faith. He makes clear and defends his conception of poetry; a conception which excludes many great kinds of verse, but which, illuminated as it is by abundant examples of his favorite poems, throws light in turn upon some of the fundamental elements of poetry.
It is worth noting that no American author seems to have enjoyed so great a European vogue as Poe.