Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was one of those writers whose life cannot be separated from his art. Indeed, it mirrored his art to a dangerous and destructive extent. Unlike, for example, the young T.S. Eliot, who was at pains to cultivate the image of a buttoned-up bank clerk in order to conceal the poetical intensity within, Poe’s life was shot through with drama: gambling, false starts, consumptive women (his mother, his adoptive mother, his wife) and the demon drink. This last dogged him throughout his adult life; when sober he was meticulous, personable, courteous, producing work both brilliant and original; when drunk he was incoherent and incapacitated and had to be rescued, literally, from the gutter.
Peter Ackroyd, a wide-ranging writer who has already included Dickens, Blake and Shakespeare among his biographical subjects is on familiar territory with this Gothic genius. In a slim volume he has written a polished and convincing account of one of America’s greatest writers, beginning with Poe’s mysterious collapse between Richmond and Baltimore and his death on 7 October 1849, and then recapitulating the well-known facts of the writer’s life: his early poetical promise, his failed attempt to join the army (also attempted by Coleridge, another poet of chaotic lifestyle and addiction), his strange marriage to an 14-year-old girl and the fitful fame his dark stories brought him in his lifetime.
Although Poe was the son of poor itinerant actors he was adopted in early childhood by a rich, childless couple, the Allans, from Virginia, and grew up in comfortable surroundings; a clever boy, he was treated with affection and received a good education. Yet he seems an example of how nature can trump nurture. Like a cuckoo in the nest, Poe developed from a charming and precocious child into a restless, self-willed and passionate youth, fascinated by themes of morbidity and death and unable to settle into a conventional life. He enrolled at, then dropped out of the University of Virginia; subsequently he managed to get court-martialled from the US Army. According to his biographer “he was born, not made, a drinker”. This predisposition manifested itself early; he squandered his allowance, debts piled up and relations with his adoptive father became soured and finally estranged.
Ackroyd acknowledges Poe’s poetical gifts, particularly those of cadence and rhythm, but he is not sympathetic to him. “Lying came naturally to him,” he comments. Poe was proud, insecure and defensive; it is hard not to see him as the author of his own misfortunes. In this he resembles another man of perverse literary accomplishments, Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo. Both possessed an aura that attracted and exploited the kindness of others and appeared to will their own destructive lifestyles. Yet unlike Corvo, Poe kept the loyalty of a few friends; he was also deeply attached to his sickly young wife, Virginia, and struggled to make a home for her and her formidable mother, Maria Clemm. Moving constantly from poor boarding houses between Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, this bizarre household maintained a precarious existence from Poe’s random earnings by his pen and hand-outs from sympathisers.
This biography does not discuss Poe’s writings in any great detail though Ackroyd does describe one aspect of Poe’s popularity: his talent, influenced by Daniel Defoe, for maintaining “the utmost verisimilitude in order to encompass the wildest improbabilities”. He also describes the fine balance Poe kept between irony and sensational horror. Poe’s versatility, his mastery of different genres of writing, such as the nightmarish prose-poem, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, detective fiction such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the science fantasy of “The Balloon Hoax”, were to be a creative influence on later writers as various as Baudelaire, Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Generations of schoolchildren have also thrilled to readings of his poem “The Raven”. Written in 1845 it made Poe instantly famous; always dressed in black -– “it was his colour”, observes Ackroyd –- he would give recitations of the poem “in his own peculiar and mournful manner” to appreciative audiences and dissipate the proceeds in his usual fashion.
The author concludes dryly that his subject “was fated to die in ignominy. He was fated to die raving.” It is hard to quarrel with this view. Yet the lurid, tragic life, as doomed as any House of Usher, a scenario of evil and decay that Poe was endlessly attracted to, was somehow transmuted into stories that compel and endure by the sheer intensity and force of the imagination..
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.