A Dream within a Dream

Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849

Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
Born: 19 January 1809, Massachusetts, USA
Nationality: American
Died: 7 October 1849, Maryland, USA

Poe was a writer, editor, and critic, best known for his tales of mystery and macabre through poetry and short stories. He was a central figure of Romanticism in the USA and one of the earliest practitioners of the short story. He was the first well-known American writer to earn a living from writing alone, leading to a financially difficult life and career.

Born in Boston Poe’s father abandoned his family in 1810 and he was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Although he was never formally adopted Poe stayed with them well into his young adulthood. Tension developed between John and Poe over debts, including gambling and the cost of Poe’s education. Poe attended the University of Virginia for a year and left due to a lack of finances. In 1827 he enlisted in the US army under an assumed name. It was also at this time his publishing career began with the anonymous collection Tamerlane and Other Poems, credited to a ‘Bostonian’, Poe failed as an officer cadet at West Point and switched his focus to a writing career.

Poe spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals and became known for his own style of criticism. He moved among several cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. In 1826 he married his cousin Virginia Clemm who sadly died in 1847 of tuberculosis. In 1845 Poe published ‘The Raven’ to immediate acclaim. His plans to produce his own journal never came to be as Poe died in 1849, aged 40.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe was the second chid of a English actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins and actor David Poe Jr. who abandoned the family in 1810. Poe’s mother died in 1811 from pulmonary tuberculosis and Poe was taken into the home of john Allan, a successful merchant in Richmond Virginia. The Allan’s had Poe baptized into the Episcopal Church in 1812. The family sailed to the UK in 1815. Poe attended a grammar school in Ayrshire, Scotland before re-joining the Allan family in London in 1816. He studied at a boarding school in Chelsea until 1817 and entered the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington. In 1820, Poe returned to Richmond with the Allans. He served as lieutenant of the Richmond youth honour guard for the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. In 1825, Allan’s uncle and business benefactor died, leaving Allan several acres of real estate. By the summer of that year Allan had purchased a two-storey brick house called Moldavia.

It is like Poe got engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster before he went to the University of Virginia in 1826. In its infancy, the university was established on the ideal of its founder Thomas Jefferson. However, strict rules against gambling, tobacco, horses, guns, and alcohol were largely ignored by the students. The unique system of student self-government with regards to studies, boarding, and wrongdoing was chaotic, resulting a high dropout rate. Poe lost touch with Royster and became estranged from his foster father due to gambling debts. Poe gave up on university in 192y7, he felt unwelcome returning to Richmond, more so when he discovered Royster had married another man. Poe travelled to Boston in April 1827 where he sustained himself with odd jobs as a clerk and a newspaper writer. It was at this time he started using the penname Henri Le Rennet.

Unable to support himself financially, Poe enlisted in the US Army as a private in May. 1827, using the name Edgar A. Perry and claiming to be 22, he was 18. His first posting was Fort Independence in Boston Harbour for five dollars a month. He also released his first poetry collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827. With only fifty copies printed it received little attention. Poe’s regiment was posted to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina and travelled by ship, the brig Waltham, in November 1827. He was promoted to ‘artifacer’; and enlisted tradesman preparing shells for artillery and his monthly pay doubled. He served for two years attaining the rank of Sergeant Major and sought to end his five-year term of enlistment early. He revealed his real name and circumstances to his commanding officer who would only allow the discharge if he reconciled with Allan who ignored his pleas for several months. Poe’s foster mother died in February 1829 and he visited the day after her burial. Allan agreed to support Poe’s attempt of early discharge to receive an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. Poe was finally discharged in April 1829 after securing a replacement to finish his enlistment for him. Poe travelled to West Point and matriculated as a cadet in July 1830. His foster-father married his second wife, Louisa Patterson, later that year. The marriage and bitter quarrels over the children with Poe over the Allan’s children born out of wedlock led to the foster father finally disowning Poe. Poe left West Point by purposefully getting court-martialled. In February 1831 he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience f orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, and church. Tactically he pled not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing that he would be found guilty. In February 1831 Poe left for New York and released his third collection of poems entitled ‘Poems’. He returned to his family in Baltimore in March 1831. His brother was in ill health and died in August 1831.

Poe began a serious career in writing after the death of his brother, however it was a difficult time in American publishing. He was among the first Americans to live by writing alone and was hampered by the lack of international copyright laws allowing publishers to print unauthorized copies of British works instead of paying American writers for new work. Publishers often chose not to pay their writers or delayed payment. This left Poe in the humiliating situation of pleading for money and other assistance.

Poe turned to prose after his early attempts at poetry following critiques in The Yankee Magazine. He placed stories with a Philadelphia publication and in October 1833 he was awarded a prize by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for the short story ‘MS. Found in a Bottle.’ The story also caught the attention of John P Kennedy, a wealthy Baltimorean who assisted Poe in placing some of his stories and introduced him to the editor of the Southern Literary Magazine, Thomas White. Poe became assistant editor of the periodical in August 1835 but was discharged within a few weeks for being intoxicated on the job. White reinstated Poe after he promised good behaviour, and he returned to Richmond with Virginia and her mother. Poe remained with the Messenger until January 1837. He published several poems, critiques, book reviews, and stories in the paper. In May 1836 he and Virginia held a wedding ceremony at their Richmond home, with a witness falsely attesting her age to be 21.

In 1838, Poe’s novel ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ was published and widely received. He became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839 and published numerous articles, stories, and reviews increasing his reputation as a sharp-edged critic. Also in 1839, Poe’s collection ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’ was published in two volumes.

In 1840 Poe published a prospectus of his intention to start his own journal called The Stylus and purchased advertising space in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post. However, the journal was never published before Poe’s death. Poe attempted to secure a position within President John Tyler’s administration around this time by claiming to be a Whig. He failed to turn up to a meeting yet was promised an appointment, but eventually, all the positions were filled.

In January 1842, Virginia showed the early signs of tuberculosis while singing and playing the piano. She only recovered partially and Poe began drinking more heavily from the stress of her illness, He attempted to find new employment and returned to New York where he briefly worked for the Evening Mirror before becoming editor of the Broadway Journal, and later its owner. In January 1845, Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a sensation, making Poe a household name.

In 1946 after the failure of the Broadway Journal Poe moved to Fordham, New York, in what is now known as the Bronx. Poe befriended the Jesuits of St. John’s College. Poe’s wife, Virginia, died in January 1847 and his frequent theme of the death of a beautiful woman is regarded to come from the repeated loss of women throughout his life.

Increasingly unstable after the death of his wife Poe attempted to woo the poet Sarah Helen Whitman who lived in Rhode Island. The engagement failed because of Poe’s drinking and erratic behaviour. Poe returned to Richmond resuming his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster.

On 3 October 1849 Poe was found semiconscious in Baltimore and taken to the Washington Medical College. He died on 7 October 1849. He was not coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in such a dire condition. At the time newspapers reported his death as due to cerebral inflammation, a common euphemism for death from such causes as alcoholism.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

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.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door –
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; –
This it is, and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”- here I opened wide the door; –
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals 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.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; –
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore –
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door –
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the raven, sitting lonely on the 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.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore –
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never – nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite – respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting –
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

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’s 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!