Known today as a master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe was a remarkable writer whose gruesome poems and stories have fascinated and haunted readers for over 160 years. Annabel Lee, The Oval Portrait, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, to name a few, were strongly influenced by the lives (and deaths) of the women in the writer’s troubled life. One of the main themes in Poe’s literary works was women in distress, and it has been peculiarly observed by critics and readers alike that the writer had a tendency to idealise female fragility and vulnerability. Poe’s women are doomed from the start; the life of a beautiful maiden is fatal and final. In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe’s famous 1846 essay, he wrote that “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover”.
Poe, born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, watched his mother, actress Eliza Arnold Hopkins Poe, play beautiful female characters who were woeful, miserable and doomed to die. On stage, Eliza Poe impersonated Ophelia in Hamlet, Cordelia in Lear, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, but her real life was just as unfortunate as the women she played. She was widowed twice, then abandoned by Poe’s father, David Poe Jr., all at the age of only twenty-three. Eliza Poe, dying repeatedly on the stage, ultimately died from tuberculosis in 1811. She was the first woman whose death Poe witnessed, and her death had an enduring effect throughout his life.
Abandoned, orphaned and separated from his siblings, three-year-old Poe was adopted by the Allans, a childless couple from Richmond, Virginia. His adoptive mother Frances Valentine Allan, also known as Fanny, resembled Eliza Poe in many ways: they were both full of love for the young boy, and both weak in health. Poe became attached quickly and could not predict the forthcoming losses. Little did young Poe know those days – death was inescapable. With an insatiate need to replace his dead mother, Poe sought attention in others. While Fanny Allan, poorly and weak, was unable to give him the motherly care he needed, Poe fell in one-sided love with Jane Stanard, a mother of one of his school friends. Stanard is thought to be the poet’s first love, the poem To Helen considered to be inspired by and dedicated to her. According to some critics, Poe wrote the poem when he was only fourteen years old, spellbound by the older woman’s charm and beauty. When Stanard suddenly died in 1824, her name was added to the list of dead and darling women in Poe’s life. Unfortunately, the deathly list would only become much longer.
During a year in college in 1825, Poe met the young and beautiful Sarah Elmira Royster. Mesmerised by her splendour and in need of companionship, Poe soon wanted to propose to Royster. They exchanged several letters but neither Poe’s foster father John Allan nor Royster’s parents agreed to the engagement and the young couple had to part. When it seemed that utter disappointment would not abate, Royster got engaged to someone else. Poe, experiencing yet another loss, felt betrayed and abandoned. It seemed like any woman he ever loved, he would lose. The couple, however, met again years later during the summer of 1848 and Royster recognised Poe right away. She was now a widow of Alexander Shelton and Poe, still in love with her, wanted to propose once more. Before August ended, rumours were spread about an apparent wedding of Royster and Poe, which in fact never happened. It is believed that Poe and Royster saw each other for the last time in the late 1848.
Back in 1827 Poe enlisted in the United States Army and while he was serving with his regiment his foster mother, Fanny Allan, got gravely ill. It was in February 1829 when, as a consequence of serious condition and poor medical help, Fanny passed away. While she was slowly dying in pain, Poe remained helpless, kept away from any information about her health as his foster father (who was not very fond of Poe) failed to send him a letter. After Fanny Allan died, Poe blamed himself for not being able to keep her away from the arms of death.
Having witnessed several deaths at the age of barely twenty, Poe began to understand that love could not last forever. He suffered from constant anxiety and a fear of abandonment, terrified that any woman he loved would be always taken away from him. The dread of relationships and death had planted a seed that would soon bloom into the frightful stories and haunting poetry we know today. The description of Madeline in The Fall of the House of Usher is the perfect example:
The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspicious lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death.
Poe met his cousin and future wife Virginia Eliza Clemm for the first time in 1829 when she was seven years old. Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm was Poe’s aunt, and he moved in with the two women in their house in Baltimore in 1833. In August 1835, Poe left the Clemm household for Richmond, Virginia to start a job at the monthly magazine, Southern Literary Messenger. Poe returned to Baltimore in 1835 and claimed to have fallen in love with his young cousin Eliza Clemm. He wanted to marry her, now thirteen years old, and have a family but before he had even proposed he was on the verge of losing her as a result of their mutual cousin Neilson Poe’s courtship towards Virginia. Edgar felt betrayed and contemplated suicide. He begged Maria and Virginia to not accept Neilson’s offer of marriage and threatened to kill himself; it seemed that Poe would desperately do anything to not be disappointed and left alone again. Eventually, to Poe’s relief, Virginia did not marry Neilson, and on 16 May 1836 Poe officially married his cousin, now Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe.
He cared for her dearly; he taught his wife languages, algebra, and gave her piano lessons. Virginia is believed to be his muse and served him as the greatest inspiration. In the middle of January 1842, however, the girl suddenly began to bleed from her mouth – it was the first symptom of tuberculosis, the disease that had taken Poe’s loved ones before… Shortly Virginia became dangerously ill and thought soon to be dead. Poe watched his wife closely and her ill appearance – pale looks and blood red lips – manifested itself in his stories with characters like Madeline Usher and Ligeia. Virginia was said to be “the victim for an early grave” and was slowly dying. With time, Virginia’s condition didn’t improve and Poe only kept losing himself more and more in alcohol and depression. Even though in 1845 Poe’s most famous poem The Raven was published, it didn’t help the family’s situation – they were still awfully poor. Virginia’s condition was hopeless; Poe watched his wife fading away, constantly coughing and choking on blood. On 30 January 1847 Virginia died from tuberculosis and Poe fell apart. He loved her ardently and it is believed that the haunting poem Annabel Lee was inspired by his young dying wife:
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
Nevertheless, tragedy would strike again. Sarah Helen Power Whitman was a poet born in 1803 in Providence, Rhode Island. She had read Poe’s stories and poems and claimed they had such a terrific impact on her she wanted to meet the writer in person. In 1848, Helen tried to contact Poe at the Valentine’s Day party, which she was convinced he would attend. She wrote a poem To Edgar A. Poe to be read during the party to show her affection but, alas, it turned out Poe was not invited. Whitman really wanted Poe to know that she was very fond of him and his writing; she was confident that they shared a passion for literature as they both wrote about death and the gothic. Whitman, six years older than Poe, was a strong and wealthy woman – the mother figure that Poe was looking for. On 21 September 1848 Poe visited Whitman at her house in Providence and hastily proposed. Although flattered by the proposal and charmed by the writer’s persona she was not so sure about the marriage. Whitman, adamant and still questioning the marriage with Poe, was unable to answer to the proposal. On 4 November 1848 Poe went to Providence and, in his hotel room, attempted a suicide by taking laudanum. Eventually, Whitman agreed on a “conditional” engagement if Poe would end his destructive habit of drinking and Whitman’s mother gave her approval. Although Poe was unable to remain sober for a long period of time, and Sarah’s mother wasn’t keen on giving her blessings to the couple, in December 1848 Whitman agreed to marry Edgar. With that said, Whitman still could not bear his drinking habit and his unflattering reputation. After the wedding was scarcely announced in January 1849, Whitman changed her mind and their relationship was over.
All his life, Poe was looking for a woman who would fill the void left by his mother. Unable to accept the inevitability of death, he repeatedly sought to bring back Eliza Poe from the dead. In Poe’s biography, Kenneth Silverman underlines that “throughout his work runs a vein of melancholy, sometimes despair, and . . . women who through death abandon their loved ones”. Poe was abandoned and rejected all his life, and his anxieties and the emptiness left by the women he loved, were turned into the haunting poems and stories that are now so familiar. Sick, dying women, some of them buried alive or returning from their graves are the centrepieces of his stories, and it is no surprise that Poe is known as a master of macabre.
On 3 October 1849 Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in a state of delirium; he died on Saturday 7 October 1849. His famous last words are believed to be Lord, help my poor soul… Not more than ten people attended to mourn Poe at his funeral and his death remains a mystery to this day, 168 years later.