Tuesday 2 November 2010

A modern Faustus

When it comes to genre fiction there is no writer who can match Edgar Allan Poe. It’s he who deserves the credit for creating the detective story and in developing new forms of science fiction; he who gave a new starkness and vitality to the Gothic form, free of the exotic excesses of a previous generation of writers, the kind off thing parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. Add to this his poetry, with themes of loss, separation, death and madness then we really do have a unique and disturbing talent.

It was through the poetry that I first came to Poe, verses that unsettled and scared me; poems like The Raven and The Haunted Palace, the last verse of which is firmly settled in my memory;

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh- but smile no more.

What a strange, haunted, compelling man Poe was; what a brave and tragic life he lived. His was the best of times…and the worst of times. Born in America not long after the beginning of the nineteenth century he was to do so much to shape the literary imagination of the new nation, to shape the imagination of the world beyond.

But there was something of a devil’s bargain here; his success, always hard won, was accompanied by the sense of loss, the absolute loss that he touches on in The Raven, of death and nevermore. He lost his mother Eliza at an early age to tuberculosis (TB), the great killer of the age; he lost Virginia Clemm, his cousin and child bride, to the same disease. The latter was particularly bad, for Virginia’s death was prolonged: she rallied in false hope at some points, only to sink still further at others, a spiral ever downwards.

I watched – if you’ve not already guessed – Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women, a documentary broadcast on BBC4, in which Denise Mina, a writer of crime fiction, had a look at Poe’s life through his relationship with significant female figures.

I have mixed feelings about arguments that try to detect elements of personal biography in an author’s work, but in Poe’s case a psychological explanation seems wholly convincing, particularly with regard the tragic details of the slow decline of Virginia. Her five year struggle impacted directly on Poe, causing his own steady descent into the alcoholism that was to kill him in the end. It also impacted on his work, his poetry, most particularly, and some of his fiction.

Take the disease itself, the nature of the disease, which wastes victims in a kind of hinterland between life and death. Apparently those suffering from TB can sink into a kind of catatonic torpor, characterised by shallow breathing, so shallow, so difficult to detect, that it can be mistaken for death itself. Hence the fear of being buried alive that haunted contemporary imagination, a fear that Poe makes use of in such stories as The Premature Burial, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado and Berenice. It’s really no surprise that this is the beginning of the age of the vampire.

Then there is the fear of death, the fear of ultimate and irredeemable separation, more real in Poe’s age than any other because the old Christian certainties were under question by science, even in the time before Darwin. Hence the desperate and hopeless appeal of the scholar to the Raven, an appeal for reassurance, rejected in one awful word;

`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 named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

The narrator in The Raven, incidentally, is clearly looking for consolation for the loss of Lenore in magic, not God, in his books of forgotten lore. Is it consolation, I begin to wonder, or is it something else; a message from beyond, or even resurrection? A messenger comes alright in the form of the black Raven, a devil bird destined to stay with him evermore. As for resurrection, in some kind of vampire or witch form, there is the story of Ligeia, who comes back to life in the body of another, or there is Morella, another voyager in the black arts, in volumes of forgotten and forbidden lore.

I’ve journeyed far from the themes of the BBC documentary, which was really about women as archetypes in the author’s life. Is there anything, anything more dreadful than an archetype? In the end it seems to me that Poe lived a half-life, somewhere between existence and non-existence, brilliant and sad at one and the same time. His own end in Baltimore, while still only forty years old, is as mysterious and macabre as anything in his fiction, a modern Faustus, laughing but smiling no more.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks, Adam. I'll look for that.

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  4. Why do you guys get the interesting docs while we get 50 Gordon Ramsey shows? :P I've always been drawn to Poe and Blake. I'm writing about Byron now. I guess I love the crazies. :)


  5. Coll, can you get BBC iPlayer? If so it's on BBC4. I'd be so interested in seeing what you have to say about Byron. I love the crazies too. :-)

  6. The macabre nature of Poe's work has prevented him from receiving his just acclaim as one of literature's most innovative minds. I'm glad to see that you appreciate his genius, Ana. My wife and I went to see his grave in Baltimore some years ago. It's in an area of the city that was then notorious for violent crime - quite close to Johns Hopkins hospital. Our visit was in daylight, but our cab driver sped off as soon as our toes touched the pavement. It was about this time of year, so there were drifts of autumn leaves in tiny churchyard, and the autumn sun was warm but there was a slight chill in the shadows. The first thing we noticed was a substantial monument, complete with bronze plaque, near the entrance to the church. This is where Poe's remains now lie, together with those of his child wife Virginia and those of her mother. But as we explored further, behind the church among the monuments to Revolutionary War heroes, we found Poe's original, simple grave, near that of his father. And as we stood there in that quiet enclave of melancholic peace in the heart of one of Baltimore's roughest neighbourhoods, a jet black cat with bright yellow eyes slid stealthily across the graveyard before disappearing between the bars of the wrought iron fence. Perfect!

    You can see some of the photographs we took that day here:


  7. Thank you for posting about one of Americas greatest and most creative writers. I actually just two nights ago read a Poe short story called "Bon Bon - a tale," it's actually a Poe comedy about a French restauranteur and would be intellectual geniuses encounter with the devil, but the interesting thing is that, while he does die at the end of the story, it isn't the devil who kills him. I'll leave the rest for you, but it's really a very descriptive, fascinating, poetic, and darkly funny story where the portrayal of the devil is much more in the line of the tradition of a biblical "advocate" or District Attorney, sometimes overzealous and stupidly aggressive but never totally in the wrong, then that of an epitomization of evil that the Catholic Church made him out to be.

  8. Calvin, what a super story. I'm off to look at your piccies in a mo.

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  10. There is no need to thank me, Jeremy: he is a wonderful writer, yours certainly, but ours also; certainly mine. I think I've read just about everything he's ever written.

  11. I didn't know there was anything odd about Poe's demise until I read this and was prompted to Google it.

    A lot of prominent people seemed to die weirdly in the 19th Century. I often discover some odd yarn like this at the end of a biography. A typical method is to wear strange clothes, have incomprehensible documents in your pockets and utter expostulations such as "The Horror! The Horror!" A few sinister characters in attendance to dispute each other's accounts is standard too.

    Celebrities just don't die like they used to...(Sigh).

  12. Retarius, do you know what happened to Ambrose Bierce? No? Don't worry; neither do I. :-)

  13. Calvin, the pictures are superb. That black cat - it would be impossible to stage such an encounter

  14. I also watched that brilliant documentary. I believe it is impossible to neglect wholly the elements of personal biography in an author’s work. It is dangerous not to, a good critic knows where to deal out a striking balance.

    I can't think of a single line in English literature where the boundaries of the sacred and the profane mingle so measuringly as `Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!

    There is a poem by the Urdu poet Parveen Shakir called 'We Are All Dr Faustus.' Goes it thus:

    In a way
    We are all Dr Faustus
    Some barter their souls
    From their craze
    And others helpless from blackmail
    One pawns the eyes
    To trade-in dreams
    And another offers
    The mind as collateral mortgage.
    All that may need sense
    Is the currency of the day.
    So a survey of life’s Wall Street says
    That among those with the buying power these days
    Self-Respect is very popular commodity!

  15. Tremendous! Thank you, Rehan; you always manage to impress me.