Edgar Allan Poe and Religion


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A common, almost automatic, assumption about Poe is that he was an irredeemable atheist. As with so many other aspects of Poe’s life, however, the truth is far less simplistic. Unfortunately, nowhere in Poe’s writings do we find a straightforward and definitive statement of his position on this topic. (Nor, perhaps, should we expect one.) We are, therefore, left to divine it for ourselves. Those who knew Poe and were quick to recall him as having no religion, such as R. W. Griswold and J. H. Hopkins, were often themselves quite zealous in their views. Effusive enthusiasm was likely to raise Poe’s sense of the contrary. Poe loved to startle or surprise, and was likely to say something merely for effect. Others assume his position based on the negative evidence that there is no overtly moral preaching and relatively little mention of religion in his writings. Some have suggested, rather dramatically, that Poe’s only god was Art.

Poe’s upbringing in this regard appears to have been quite typical for his era. By all accounts, Francis Allan, Poe’s foster-mother, was a pious and deeply religious woman. John Allan, while apparently less religious than his wife, strongly adhered to such Christian virtues as hard work, honesty and thriftiness, though one might question the depth of his sense of charity or forgiveness. When the Monumental Episcopal Church was built in 1814, John Allan purchased pew number 80 for $340 (Poe Log, p. 21). Francis and Edgar regularly attended services there. John Allan, raised as a Scotch Presbyterian, may have visited from time to time, if only for maintaining business contacts in the community. One of the surviving artifacts from Moldavia, John Allan’s elegant Richmond mansion, is a large painting of “the holy family,” a nativity scene complete with putti and seraphim. (This painting is now part of the collection of the Poe Museum in Richmond, VA.) At least one illegitimate child, for whom Allan at least accepted a share of the financial obligations, indicates a personal weakness which clearly goes against the teachings of the church. One must be careful, however, not to rush to use this flaw to negate all possibility that Allan sincerely believed in God or morality. Even the best of intentions sometimes fail to control our actions, a theme Poe would enshrine in several stories, most notably in “The Black Cat” and “The Imp of the Perverse.”

Details of Poe’s personal exposure to religion are sparse but compelling. Not quite 3 years old, Edgar was baptized on January 7, 1812 by the Reverend John Buchanan, with John and Frances Allan as his godparents. (This event is the origin of Allan appearing as Poe’s middle name.) Although no actual record exists, T. O. Mabbott feels that Poe was probably confirmed at Monumental Episcopal Church by bishop Richard Channing Moore (Mabbott, Poems, 1969, p. 536). One must also remember the dominant role of Christianity in the United States in the nineteenth century, especially before Darwin’s theory of evolution and the unutterable horrors of the Civil War. It would have been nearly impossible to avoid being bathed in a general consensus of the existence of God and the importance of religion. One should not be surprised that one of the subjects Poe was taught at the London school of the Misses Dubourg was the Catechism of the Church of England (Poe Log, p. 10). That he was also given lessons of a religious nature at the school of Reverend Bransby seems inherently obvious. Poe’s description of school life in “William Wilson,” by Poe’s own admission based loosely on his own school days at Bransby’s Manor House School, suggests that there were mandatory morning and evening services every Sunday.

As an adult, Poe’s involvement with organized religion is less certain. To get out of West Point, Poe refused to attend classes or church services, clearly indicating that in prior months, he had gone to both. When Poe married Virginia on May 16, 1836, their vows were administered by the Reverend Amasa Convers, a Presbyterian minister. In Fordham, NY, Poe often played cards with Jesuits who lived nearby. The Reverend J. H. Hopkins’ letter to Mrs. Shew, quotes Poe (probably in 1848) as saying “They were highly cultivated gentlemen and scholars . . . smoked, drank, and played cards like gentlemen, and never said a word about religion” (John Henry Hopkins to Marie Louise Shew, Feb. 9, 1875, Ingram collection, item 201, reprinted in Miller, Building Poe Biography, p. 101). It should be noted, of course, that Poe and Hopkins disliked each other intensely, for personal reasons. Poe apparently attended church with Mrs. Shew in New York in 1848. Indeed, the most revealing comment we have is from one of Poe’s letters to Mrs. Shew. “How can I believe in Providence when you look coldly upon me, was it not you who renewed my hopes and faith in God? . . . Why I was not a priest is a mystery, for I feel I am now a prophet . . .” (Poe to Marie Louise Shew, June, 1848, Ostrom, Letters, p. 373). To Thomas Holley Chivers, Poe wrote, “My own faith is indeed my own. You will find it, somewhat detailed, in a forthcoming number of the ‘Columbian Magazine’ ” (“Poe to Chivers, July 10, 1844, the story referenced being “Mesmeric Revelation”).

Poe’s small Bible, given to him by Mrs. Clemm in 1846, is presumed to have been one of the books in his trunk when he died. (This Bible, formerly part of the collection of the Bronx Historical Society in New York, now appears to be lost. Phillips, 1:847 and 2:1546 notes that one of the passages marked, presumably by Poe, was the Lord’s prayer. Another, similarly marked, was Job vii, 16: “I loath it; I would not live alway; let me alone; for my days are vanity.” The source for this information appears to be an article from the Scranton Republican, June 21, 1883, p. 2. col. 3, reprinted from an unspecified issue of the New York Herald, about the sale of “Edgar Poe’s Cottage” in New York. In this article, Mrs. Cromwell is interviewed, and comments that she bought a mantle clock and rocking chair from Mrs. Clemm, but that Mrs. Clemm gave her the small bible, noting that “one passage was found marked” and citing the verse given, although without italics. The aritcle is reprinted by K. Cameron in The New England Writers and the Press, 1980, p. 64.) Another book Poe presumably owned, as it contains some notes written in his own hand,  is the 1833 edition of the Rev. Thomas Chalmers’ On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard. As the date of publication of this book predates by several years Poe’s career as a writer of critical reviews, it may be assumed that he read it for personal rather than merely professional reasons. (This book is now in the Poe collection at the University of Texas at Austin.)

What clues do we find in Poe’s own writings? There are brief references to religion in letters and in “Marginalia,” but while hardly typical of an atheist, such phrases may be little more than clichés or figures of speech. At best, they are rather vague and lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Two examples will suffice for our purposes. “After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment” (“Marginalia,” Graham’s, Feb. 1848, reprinted in Pollin, Brevities, p. 330M199). “A strong argument for the religion of Christ is this — that offenses against Charity are about the only ones which men on their death-beds can be made — not to understand — but to feel — as crime” (“Marginalia,” SLM, July 1849, reprinted in Pollin, Brevities, p. 399M263).

Perhaps more significantly, Poe wrote a “Hymn [to the Virgin Mary]” (1833) as part of “Morella.” Removed from later versions of the story, it was nevertheless included as “Catholic Hymn” in The Raven and Other Poems (1845). Another poem, “For Annie” (March 23, 1849) begins with “Thank Heaven!” and includes a reference to “. . . she prayed to the angels . . . To the queen of the angels . . .” (Mabbott notes that the Virgin Mary is known as the Queen of Angels, Mabbott, Poems, 1969, p. 461). As has often been noted, Poe knew his Bible well, at least as literature. Forrest and Mabbott both contain long lists of Biblical quotations and, far more numerous, allusions. These occur in a few of the poems and many of the tales.

It has also been argued that, contrary to popular opinion, there is a strong sense of morality behind Poe’s works. Here one must be careful not to confuse the views of Poe’s fictional characters (including the narrators) with those of Poe himself. The narrator who has murdered the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” defiantly defends himself against the idea that he is mad. Poe, however, clearly wants us to understand that the character is insane, despite — and in part because of — his protestations. He may not feel that killing the old man was wrong, but we certainly should. That he is to be hung in the morning suggests that justice will be served. In “The Cask of Amontillados,” Montressor carefully plans and executes a horrible revenge on the unwary Fortunato for offenses that are conspicuous for their omission from the tale. It would be difficult to imagine what Fortunato might have done to Montressor to be deserving of such treatment and yet be completely unaware of the danger of being alone with him in an isolated place. A number of interpretations have been applied to the story. Montressor is recounting, probably from his deathbed, his crime from fifty years ago to an unnamed person, perhaps a cleric or priest. Some detect a sense of bragging in his tone, while others claim it as a confession. The final words, “In pace requiescat” have suggested to many readers that Fortunato has rested in peace, while Montressor has been racked with guilt. At any rate, Poe almost certainly does not expect us to identify with Montressor. If we did, where would be the horror of the tale? If Poe’s sense of morality sometimes seems out of balance, it must be in “Hop Frog.” In this less well-known tale, the King’s harsh treatment of the young girl is clearly wrong but hardly justifies being burned alive with his eight Ministers of State. Perhaps it is not the specific act, but the habitual abuse of power that is being punished there.

No survey of Poe and religion would be reasonably complete without some mention of his most remarkable and spiritual, if rather esoteric, work — the prose poem Eureka (1848). There, Poe confidently detailed the essence of life itself, the very soul of existence. Poe felt that Eureka, first a lecture and then a small book, was the culmination of his career. “I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka.’ I could accomplish nothing more” (Poe to Maria Clemm, July 7, 1849, Ostrom, Letters, p. 452). Although the subtitle of this book is “The Material and Spiritual Universe,” Poe deals much more with the nature of matter than the nature of spirit. Poe’s implication that these are separate components, however, is a strong indication of his belief that we each have a soul which exists apart from the physical body. (Kenneth Hovey makes an intriguing case that Poe, basing his views on Epicurian philosophy, thought of the soul as comprised of a sort of energy which is itself also material, as “the highest gradation of matter” (Hovey, “Poe’s Material Metaphysics of Man,” 1996, p. 356).) There are also clear statements that the act of creation from nothingness owes everything to an unnamed but very necessary Deity. “That Nature and the God of Nature are distinct, no thinking being can long doubt. By the former we imply merely the laws of the latter. But with the very idea of God, omnipotent, omniscient, we entertain, also, the idea of the infallibility of his laws. With Him there being neither Past nor Future — with Him all being Now — do we not insult him in supposing his laws so contrived as not to provide for every possible contingency?” (Poe, Eureka, p. 80). Thus far, Poe has remained fairly conventional. With his next step, however, he placed his feet on more dangerous ground: “. . . a God, self-existing and alone existing, became all things at once, through dint of his volition, while all things were thus constituted a portion of God” (Poe, Eureka, p. 81). With this statement, and others, Poe suggested that we were all god and was astonished to discover that some misunderstood his ideas as being blasphemous. In a lengthy letter to C. F. Hoffman, responding to a criticism in the Literary World, Poe ends with “Were these ‘misrepresentations’ . . . made for any less serious a purpose than that of branding my book as ‘impious’ and myself as a ‘pantheist,’ a ‘polytheist,’ a Pagan, or a God knows what . . . I would have permitted their dishonesty to pass unnoticed, through pure contempt for the boyishness — for the turn-down-shirt-collar-ness of their tone . . .” (Poe to Charles Fenno Hoffman, September 20, 1848, Ostrom, Letters, p. 382).

To Poe, who understandably felt somewhat cheated in this life, the idea of one or more future lives held an obvious appeal. He used reincarnation as a theme in several stories, but there is no reason to presume that he actually believed in it as a doctrine. His quote from “Marginalia” suggests something other than traditional reincarnation: “. . . in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream” (SLM, June 1849, reprinted in Pollin, Brevities, p. 379M231). Certainly, Poe’s religious views were unconventional, though they may seem considerably less so today, with our dizzying array of groups preaching a virtual cornucopia of spiritual possibilities.

It would certainly have been understandable if Poe had lost confidence in a divine hand, one that directs our daily lives for purposes of our own spiritual benefit. The sad and youthful deaths of so many loved ones (his mother, Mrs. Stanard, Frances Allan, his brother and especially the long and lingering illness of Virginia) would have tested anyone’s faith. Poverty, illness and failure no doubt seemed his constant companions. If we can accept the testimony of Dr. John Moran, which generally must be taken with more than a little scepticism, Poe’s last words were “Lord, help my poor soul” (J. J. Moran to Maria Clemm, November 15, 1849, reprinted by J. A. Harrison). The most realistic view is that Poe’s religious inclinations changed greatly back and forth during his lifetime, but were never seriously abandoned.

 


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Bibliography:

  • Burduck, Michael, Usher’s “A Forgotten Church”? — Edgar Allan Poe and Nineteenth-Century American Catholicism, Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 2000.
  • Campbell, Killis, “Poe’s Knowledge of the Bible,” Studies in Philology, July 1930, 27:546-551. (Review of the book by Wm. M. Forrest.)
  • Cantalupo, Barbara, “Eureka: Poe’s ‘Novel Universe’,” in Eric W. Carlson, ed., A Companion to Poe Studies, Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 323-344. (A useful summary of criticism and commentary on Poe’s Eureka.)
  • Forrest, William Mentzel, Biblical Allusions in Poe, New York: Macmillian, 1928.
  • Halio, Jay L., “The Moral Mr. Poe,” Poe Studies, vol. I, no. 2, October 1968, pp. 23-24.
  • Hirsch, David, Poe as Moralist: “The Cask of Amontillado” and the Transvaluation of Values, Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1998.
  • Hovey, Kenneth Alan, “Poe’s Materialist Metaphysics of Man,” in Eric W. Carlson, ed., A Companion to Poe Studies, Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 347-366.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed, The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe; (Vols 1 - Poems, Vols 2 & 3 - Tales and Sketches) Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Vol. 1 - 1969, Vols 2-3 - 1978.
  • Moran, John J., Letter to Maria Clemm, November 15, 1849. Reprinted by J. A. Harrison, “A Poe Miscellany,” Independent, vol. LXI (whole no. 3022), November 1, 1906, pp. 1044-1051.
  • Ostrom, John W., ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe; 2 Vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1948. (Reprinted with a supplement, New York: Gordian Press, 1966.).
  • Poe, Edgar Allan, Eureka, New York: G. P. Putnam, 1848. (Reprinted by Patrick Quinn, ed., Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, New York: The Library of America, 1984, pp. 1257-1359.)
  • Pollin, Burton R. Pollin, ed., The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe,Vol 2 - The Brevities: Pinakidia, Marginalia and Other Works, New York: Gordian Press, 1985. (This volume contains the complete “Marginalia” series, including the items selected above.)
  • Smith, C. Alphonso, “Poe and the BibleBiblical Review, July 1920, 5:354-365.
  • Smith, C. Alphonso, Edgar Allan Poe: How to Know Him, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1921, pp. 58-68.
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: a Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809 - 1849; Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987
  • Wagenknecht, Edward, “[Poe and] God,” Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 202-221.

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[S:1 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - General Topics - Edgar Allan Poe and Religion