I spent much of the past eighteen months living with Edgar Allan Poe. I can’t say I knew the man when I first started. I had some travel experiences with him, basic biographical sketches and of course, his tales and poems. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to get into his skin.
I needed his voice for that, and there are descriptions … pleasant, musical is a term often bandied about, sometimes dramatic, somewhat southern – rhyming sister with vista, haunted with enchanted, soft spoken or rather low spoken and somewhat restrained. We were recording an album of Poe’s poetry, sung rather than spoken which requires dissecting his words, finding the rhythm, the phrasing and the melody. How successful I was at that is anyone’s guess, but it felt right.
His letters, notes – these are invaluable for getting inside his head. His poetry, prose, his journalism is intended for a mass audience, even if it feels as though he’s writing for the reader alone. It’s with an eye for craftsmanship. His letters are more off the cuff, closer to his thoughts, not always so developed.
He frequently had ulterior motives when writing – often a request for money – and he was known to fly high over the top. Poe has helped to break me of that habit. Mostly.
To read his letters is often to believe that the end is near, and you have to wonder whether Poe really felt that, or was just being melodramatic. The result was often painting himself into a corner, which usually proved disastrous.
I’ve learned from that as well, and leave the melodrama to others now.
But that doesn’t mean I lack passion, or conviction and I’m not afraid to express emotion. These traits I learned from him too. And sometimes the end truly is near. That never wants sugar coating.
I was reading two Poe biographies simultaneously, as well as recording Poe poems set to music when my father died and my lady left me, taking her daughter with her. It echoed Poe’s own losses of family and love and I tried to soldier on in the work, but I finally had to push Poe aside for a while. He’s not known for happy endings, and he was a bad influence on my mood.
I’m not an alcoholic but I’ve got enough experience in the role that I can put in a passable performance. Poe couldn’t hold his liquor. It not only wiped him out while drunk, but the hangovers appeared to be exquisite. You can’t put your life together that way, and you can’t use alcohol to take your mind away from your problems. They follow you, and even if you can drink them away for a short time, once the booze is gone they’re still there, more menacing than ever.
That said, when you’ve been dealt an insurmountable loss, you’re due a good bender. But I learned from his mistakes … when you’re in your cups, don’t be stupid.
“I’m not an alcoholic but I’ve got enough experience in the role that I can put in a passable performance.”
In the eighteen months since those fateful days, I’ve lost another half dozen or so friends. I’m at the age where people my age start dying young, and too many of my other friends are at the age where dying is the natural thing to do. Poe didn’t romanticize death, he drew it in stark terms. To Poe, the horror isn’t in death, it’s in the ones that survive the deceased.
I’m a bit dark admittedly, but there’s dark and there’s starless and Bible black. It feels romantic at the time, to just let everything go to hell, to watch the ground rushing up to meet you. But there’s enough life left in me to jump back before impact. Poe kept telling me it was too soon, keep falling.
“I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again — again — again & even once again at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much … it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could not longer have endured without the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but — oh God! how melancholy an existence.”
You don’t have to experience the death of those you love to understand that. The loss of a lover, permanent and irreconcilable is little different than watching them die. You never see them again, never hear their voice, all you have left is your memories, and their life ends for you the last you time you see them.
If you want to get inside the head of Edgar Allan Poe, here’s what you do. Study him, read his words, particularly his own thoughts in his letters and notes.
Read what goes on inside the narrator’s head in his stories and poems. Then wait for life to give you the missing ingredient, to find yourself in those same situations he faced, see the same options before you, and start walking down the same roads he did. I understand that oscillation between hope and despair having dealt with two dying parents over the last few years, just as he did. I find it just as maddening.
Poe cultivated his image very carefully. Like many poets of the age, he took Byron’s bare bones – the doomed tragic figure and put his own skin on it. As I studied Poe and suffered hammering losses, I found myself assuming that same role. The clothes seemed to fit.
In Annabel Lee, we’re left with the feeling that though mad from his loss, the narrator is a romantic figure, choosing to love her even in the grave. Poe teaches us not to let go, but to hold onto whatever insane hope you can grasp, even if others look on in horror.
But was that Edgar Allan Poe? When he regained a bit of reason after the death of his wife, he threw himself into the search for a replacement. But it seems obvious that all those he courted he chose for wealth and status. Did he fall in love with them?
Perhaps Poe could love at the drop of a hat. Perhaps he could make himself believd he loved, because it kept his heart pure in his pursuits.
At any rate, he failed with them all. He tried suicide, but was prevented from being successful at that.
Then like me, he found himself in the town where he grew up. It provides a sense of familiarity when your world has turned upside down.
There he found his childhood sweetheart, widowed, wealthy and still carrying a torch for Edgar.
Or so it would appear. Truth and legend are impossibly entwined in the story of Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. According to the story, they were engaged when Poe went away to college. He wrote her but her father never delivered the letters and she eventually married another, breaking Edgar’s heart.
Whether true or not, he did seem to write about her, she pops in his poetry, she kept a drawing of herself that Edgar drew as a young man. And when he met her again there in Richmond, I have no doubts that he believed he’d found his lost love. It might have been imagination on his part, but it was well within his grasp of imagining.
In The Raven, Poe asks for assurances that he will once again find his lost Lenore. The raven utters of course, nevermore.
But it was Poe’s claim at the end, that this was the lady who inspired him in The Raven, who was his Lenore.
Historians will tell you that at best, Lenore is an amalgamation of all of Poe’s lost loves. I believe that, but more important, I believe that Poe believed when he told her, that she was the one, the only one.
And when Poe left Richmond for Baltimore, he was engaged to be her husband. The raven’s refrain of nevermore proved to be fiction.
The raven was wrong.
Eating Poe: A look at the life of Edgar Allan Poe and a culinary literary travelogue
Part One: Poe In Richmond
Part Two: Poe in Charleston and Poe’s Tavern
Part Three: Poe in New York and Il Buco Restaurant
Part Four: Poe in Baltimore and the Annabel Lee Tavern and Horse You Came In On Saloon