Text: Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “Edgar A. Poe,” The Prose Writers of America (4th edition), 1851, pp. 523-524


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[Born, 1811.   Died 1849.]

EDGAR A. POE, born in Baltimore in January, 1811, was the second son of David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, of the theatre, both of whom died in Richmond, in 1815, leaving three children in homeless poverty. He was adopted by Mr. Allan, a merchant, who in the following year placed him at a school near London, from which in 1822 he was removed to the University of Virginia, where he graduated with distinction in 1826. His irregularities at college caused a a disagreement with his patron, and he joined an expedition to assist the Greeks; but after proceeding as far as St. Petersburg, on the way to Athens, he returned, and a reconciliation with Mr. Allan having been effected, he was enabled to enter the Military Academy at West Point. Here he made his first essays in literature, in a small volume of Poems, printed in 1830, about which time he left the Academy, and Mr. Allan having died without making any provision for him in his will, he was compelled afterward to rely entirely upon his pen for support. Securing attention with two literary prizes at Baltimore, he was in 1835 engaged by the proprietor of The Southern Literary Messenger, at Richmond, to assist in editing that magazine; in 1838, he removed to Philadelphia, where he was connected as editor with Burton’s Magazine one year, and with Graham’s a year and a half; and he continued in the latter city until 1844, during which time he published Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, in two volumes; and Arthur Gordon Pym, a nautical romance, in one volume; besides many of his finest criticisms, and other tales and poems, in periodicals. He went next to New York, where he was employed several months as a reviewer of books for the Home Journal, and was first an associate and afterward the sole editor of the Broadway Journal. In the winter of 1848, while at Fordham, a few miles from the city, he suffered much from poverty, and his wife, to whom he had been married about twelve years, died in the following spring. He had already published new collections of his Poems and Tales, and the magazine [column 2:] sketches of the Literati, and in 1849 he gave to the world Eureka, a Prose Poem, intended to illustrate his views of the constitution of the Universe. In the summer of 1849 he revisited Virginia, and it was believed that he had entirely mastered his habits of dissipation; but on the fourth of October he set out for New York, to fulfil a literary engagement, and to prepare for his second marriage. Arriving in Baltimore, he gave his trunk to a porter, with directions to convey it to the cars which were to leave in an hour or two for Philadelphia, and went into a tavern to obtain some refreshment. Here he met acquaintances who invited him to drink: his resolutions and duties were forgotten; in a few hours he was in such a state as in commonly induced only by long-continued intoxication; after a night of insanity and exposure, he was carried to a hospital; and there, on the evening of the seventh of October, 1849, he died, at the age of thirty-eight years.

Soon afterward, having been appointed his literary executor, I collected and published his various works, in three volumes, for the benefit of his family. In the third volume I have given an account of his life, with opinions of his genius. His realm was on the shadowy confines of human experience, among the abodes of crime, gloom, and horror, and there he delighted to surround himself with images of beauty and of terror, to raise his solemn palaces and towers and spires in a night upon which should rise no sun. His minuteness of detail, refinement of reasoning, and propriety and power of language — the perfect keeping and apparent good faith, with which he managed the evocation and exhibition of his strange and spectral and revolting creations — gave him an astonishing mastery over his readers, so that his books were closed as one would lay aside nightmare or the spells of opium. The analytical subtlety evinced in his works has frequently been overestimated, because it has not been sufficiently considered that his mysteries were composed with the express design of being dissolved. When Poe attempted the illustration of the profounder [page 524:] operations of the mind, as displayed in written reason or in real action, he frequently failed entirely. In poetry, as in prose, he was eminently successful in the metaphysical treatment of the passions. His poems are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art. They display a sombre and weird imagination, and a taste almost faultless in the apprehension of that sort of beauty which was most agreeable to his temper. But they evince little genuine feeling, and less of that spontaneous ecstacy which gives its freedom, smoothness, and naturalness to immortal verse. He was not remarkable original in invention. Indeed some of his plagiarisms are scarcely paralleled for audacity: for instance, [column 2:] in The Pit and the Pendulum, the complicate [[complicated]] machinery upon which the interest depends is borrowed from a story entitled Vivenzio, in Blackwood’s Magazine. In his Marginalia he also borrowed largely, especially from Coleridge. As a critic, he rarely ascended from the particular to the general, from subjects to principles.; he was familiar with the microscope but never looked through the telescope. His criticisms are of value to the degree in which they are demonstrative, but his unsupported assertions and opinions were so apt to be influenced by friendship or enmity, by the desire to please or the fear to offend, or by his constant ambition to surprise, or produce a sensation, that they should be received in all cases with distrust of their fairness.







[S:1 - PWA-1ST, 1851] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (R. W. Griswold, 1851)