Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most intriguing writers in American literature. His short life (he died at 40) was productive and inventive. He’s often credited with the invention of the detective story (i.e. “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), and was prolific as a writer of stories, poetry, and criticism. We know him for macabre tales like “Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem, “The Raven.” Few authors invoke such a benighted image.
Yet the popular image of Poe is a bit of a dark caricature, reflecting truths but exaggerating features for effect. Part of this exaggeration probably owes to our collective desire to romanticize the tortured artist – and Poe is as tortured as they come. However, some of the exaggeration of Poe’s faults owe to the fact that he was a harsh critic, and at least one of the authors who felt the sting of his pen found an opportunity to amplify the “drug-addled lunatic” aspect of Poe’s nature in a biography after the great author’s death. That’s not to deny that Poe had an addictive personality. He was both an alcoholic and prone to gambling away whatever funds graced his pockets.
This short biography (less than 150pp.) gives one insight into Poe’s life from birth to death in five chapters. The first of these chapters describes Poe’s childhood, which was marred by the death of his mother, abandonment by his father, and being taken in — but not adopted — by a foster couple. Granted the foster couple was wealthy, but Poe’s foster-father could be a harsh man and the uncertainty of not being formally adopted seemed to have weighed on Poe’s mind.
The middle chapters give special attention to Poe’s life as a writer, noting under what circumstances he was published, starting with a self-published chap book and moving through to becoming one of America’s great men of letters (though he never made enough money to live in comfort.) Poe famously married a cousin who was very young (though of legal age) at the time, and we get some insight into that relationship, which ended not terribly long before his own death. The last chapter gives the details of Poe’s demise.
I found this book interesting and educational. Collins neither gets lost in the minutiae nor give’s Poe’s life short shrift, and it feels as though he reveals the true Poe and not the T-shirt version. I would recommend this book for fans of Poe’s work and for those who are interested in the literary history of America.
The title is self-explanatory with respect the book’s content. However, if one is just expecting all of Poe’s poems bound together, one may be pleasantly surprised by some relevant bonus material in the form of scenes from plays and a few essays on poetry.
The works included are divided into seven sections. The first is entitled “Poems of Later Life” and includes many of the author’s most famous works such as: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” The book then follows an inverse chronological order with the section entitled “Poems of Manhood” coming next. Next there are scenes from a drama entitled “Politian” that emulates classic Greco-Roman plays. Then there are the poems written in Poe’s youth. There are two more sections of poetry with only a few pieces each. The first is the “doubtful poems’’ – i.e. poems that may or may not have been penned by Poe. The last chapter of poetry consists of Poe’s prose poems. Finally, there is a section consisting of three essays about poetry. This is a nice inclusion as it offers the reader insight into Poe’s thoughts on poetry. For example, Poe believed in a poetry Goldilocks zone. That is poems that were too long would not be able to maintain the emotional experience, but one’s that were too short would not be able to convey meaning.
I enjoyed this book. Not all the poems are of the caliber of “The Raven” by any means, but the book is insightful nonetheless, and there’s a mix of Poe’s trademark darkness with pieces that might strike the reader as decidedly uncharacteristic. As I said, it’s fun to have Poe’s essays on poetry next to his poems so that one can consider his verse in that light. The inverse chronological order provides an interesting way to view the evolution of a poet – Benjamin Button style. (Plus it offers one some strong momentum by starting the reader off with some of Poe’s most exceptional work.)
There’s a brief biography in the front of the book, and there are a surprising number of detailed notations for a collection of poetry. That’s all the ancillary matter. There are editions with illustrations, but the edition that I read didn’t have them (i.e. the version on offer from Gutenberg Project .) Amazon seems to have editions both with and without illustrations. (I don’t think they would offer much value-added.)
I’d recommend this for poetry readers and poets interested in Poe’s approach to the art.