[ilds] one of those writers like Lawrence Durrell,

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sat Jan 26 16:48:40 PST 2008

*Eulogy for a master

Even if it sometimes reads like a rough draft for a longer, more rounded 
book, Peter Ackroyd's brief life of Edgar Allan Poe is still wonderfully 
rewarding, says Hilary Spurling
Hilary Spurling
Sunday January 27, 2008


Poe: A Life Cut Short
by Peter Ackroyd
Chatto £15.99, pp163*

'Wild and shivery, ' wrote an enthusiastic American magazine, reviewing 
Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven' when it first came out in 1845. Poe 
himself said it was the greatest poem ever written and his 
contemporaries tended to agree. 'Nevermore' - the raven's catchphrase - 
became a buzzword in New York. People were seduced by the lilting 
cadences and rhythms of lines that seem to glide, like certain kinds of 
pop music, in sugary swoops and swirls over dark pits of unspecified 

This was the core of Poe's subsequent appeal for both Symbolists and 
Surrealists. *He is one of those writers, like Charles Morgan and 
Lawrence Durrell, revered far more by French than by Anglo-American 
intellectuals.* Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Valery admired him. 
Charles Baudelaire said that, whenever he read Poe, he came across 'not 
just subjects I had dreamed of, but sentences which I had thought out, 
written by him 20 years before'. French translation somehow manages to 
veil sentiment and phrases that remain in English trite or trashy. Even 
Peter Ackroyd rarely quotes his subject's actual writing, presumably 
because so much of it teeters on the verge of bathos.

That was precisely where Poe aimed to be: 'The ludicrous heightened into 
the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty 
exaggerated into the burlesque,' he wrote, defending his rule of 
deliberate 'bad taste' to an editor who complained that he went too far. 
Excess, uncertainty, imbalance were for Poe the basic ingredients of 
both art and life. From start to finish, he existed on (and sometimes 
over) the edge of catastrophe, breakdown, rejection and dereliction.

Child of a couple of strolling players - very young, semi-destitute, 
both already incubating TB - the infant Edgar was farmed out first to 
grandparents and later to a nurse who dosed him and an infant sister 
with laudanum and gin. His biographer traces Poe's fictional 
preoccupations - the black holes, windowless cells and narrow coffins, 
the shrouded or chained bodies interred alive in graves and jails - back 
even before birth to malnutrition in his mother's womb, where he must 
have known in fact 'the perils of a confined space, in which a victim 
lays panting'.

Poe was not quite three years old when his mother finally took to her 
bed in the icy winter of 1811. Elizabeth Poe, still capable of 
projecting herself on stage as a pert, pretty, lively actress barely two 
months before, now lay dying on a straw mattress in a rented room, 
abandoned by her husband, attended only by her bewildered children, 
helplessly exposed to the prurient or charitable gaze of more prosperous 
local ladies.

'Eddy', as he was known, would recreate the scene nearly 40 years later 
when his own wife died of TB at 25, the same age as his mother, also 
lying on straw in wretched lodgings with, according to one visitor, 
nothing but her husband's greatcoat and the family cat to keep her warm.

'The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic 
topic in the world,' he wrote at about this time in a book of tips for 
aspiring writers. Blurring the sharp outlines of an unbearable reality 
in favour of grandeur and vaguer imaginative truths was Poe's 
speciality. It suited the newly emerging popular market for fiction in 
the US. The dreamlike intensity of his writing, its latent menace, 
abrupt displacements and hideous reversals mirrored the rootless 
insecurity of first- and second-generation European immigrants, patchily 
educated as he was, with no interest in recalling the past from which 
they fled, or looking too closely at a bleak present and an all too 
often precarious future.

Poe invented the first fictional detective (in The Murders in the Rue 
Morgue ), pioneered the genre of science fiction, perfected the 
journalistic flashbacks and shortcuts that would serve Hollywood so well 
a century later. 'He was one of the first truly professional writers in 
American literary history,' writes Ackroyd, pointing out that his 
professionalism proved largely honorary in a market where British books 
could be pirated for free (Poe's earnings as an author amounted to 
roughly $3,000 over 20 years ).

His private life followed the same unchanging pattern. The orphaned 
Edgar was adopted by a childless business couple called Allan (hence his 
middle name), whose initial pride and pleasure rapidly ran out when 
their handsome, charming, gifted child turned into a resentful 
adolescent. Exemplary first reports from different schools always ended 
in discouragement and failure. So did successive attempts to join the 
army, to retrain as an officer at West Point and later to hold down 
various more or less unpromising editorial jobs.

The one thing that never let him down was the drink he had sucked in 
instead of mother's milk. Poe got no pleasure from it. Alcohol gave him 
oblivion, consolation, respite from unfaceable pain and dread. 'He did 
not drink regularly,' writes his sympathetic biographer, 'but when he 
did, he could not stop. The red mist fell upon him.' Like many infants 
missing a mother, he grew up with no streak of sensuality. Even the 
possibility of sexual consummation appalled him. A long series of 
abortive love affairs with women who were invariably married, damaged, 
dying or otherwise ineligible culminated in his wedding to a 13-year-old 
cousin named Virginia, who probably remained, in Ackroyd's view, a virgin.

The single successful sustained relationship of his life was with her 
mother, Poe's aunt, Maria Clemm, nicknamed Muddy (presumably a childish 
rendering of Mummy), who loved, comforted and protected him to the end. 
'God bless my own darling Muddy,' he wrote in his last letter, two weeks 
before he died aged 40 of drink and destitution, 'do not fear for your 

Poe's brilliant, erratic, abbreviated career stands to gain rather than 
lose from the form of brief life patented by Ackroyd. A short biography 
is not a long one shrunk. Instead of patiently accumulated details, 
emotional complexity and architectural shaping, it operates by lightning 
strikes, atmospheric colouring, impressionistic techniques of concision 
and suggestion. If this one has a fault, it is precisely that it reads 
like the first, tenuous rough draft of a fuller, richer, more densely 
researched book. Ackroyd should perhaps have stuck more closely to Poe's 
recipe for 'the curt, the terse, the well-timed and readily diffused, in 
preference to the old forms of the verbose and ponderous'.

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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