This year marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. The Academy was inspired by the success of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. National Poetry Month is believed to be the largest literary celebration in the world, with writers and students all over the country and the world participating in various events highlighting the importance of poetry to our society and culture.
In honor of National Poetry Month, this week we celebrate the life of Virginia’s best-known poet: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is remembered for his poetry, including “The Raven,” and his short stories. His work continues to capture the imaginations of readers across the world with its dark and macabre themes. Many are also drawn to learn about Poe himself due to his tumultuous life and mysterious death.
Edgar Allan Poe was born simply Edgar Poe in Boston in 1809, the son of two actors. He was orphaned at only two years old when his mother died of tuberculosis. After his mother’s death, Poe was taken in and fostered by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Although they never formally adopted him, they christened him Edgar Allan Poe in 1812. The family spent several years in Scotland, John Allan’s place of birth, but returned to Richmond by the time Poe was 11.
By the time Poe reached young adulthood, he and his foster father were having frequent disagreements, mainly on the subjects of money and gambling. Poe attended one semester at UVA in 1826 before dropping out due to lack of money for tuition. After that, he joined the army under an assumed name. Around this time, he also published his first book of poetry, but it received almost no notice at all.
For a number of years, Poe moved from place to place, always trying to achieve success as a writer. He is one of the first American writers to pursue writing as a primary occupation, although this mostly led to frustration and poverty. In his late 20s Poe achieved some measure of stability and happiness. He found work as an editor for a magazine in Richmond and was happily married to his cousin, Virginia Clemm.
After a time, he became dissatisfied with his work in Richmond and moved to New York and then Philadelphia in search of better writing and editing work. He enjoyed some fame after the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. However, his wife’s deteriorating health and other personal and professional problems led him to move to an isolated home in the country only a year later. Poe died in Baltimore in 1849.
In addition to “The Raven,” Poe’s well-known poems include:
- For Annie
- The City In the Sea
- Annabel Lee
Richmonders may remember the Annabelle Lee, the riverboat named in honor of “Annabel Lee” that offered dinner cruises on the James River until it closed in 2004.
Poe’s most famous short stories are in the gothic fiction genre. However he also made several contributions to the emerging detective story genre. Some of Poe’s notable prose works include:
- The Fall of the House of Usher
- The Tell-Tale Heart
- The Cask of Amontillado
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue
While his literary work is compelling enough to stand on its own, Poe himself has elicited continued interest for over a century mainly due to the mysterious circumstances of his death.
In September of 1849 Poe was in Richmond, courting an old flame who was also recently widowed. He departed Richmond for Philadelphia on September 27, an informally engaged man. He then disappeared for five days during which his whereabouts are completely unknown.
Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in the early morning of October 3, 1849 by Joseph W. Walker. Poe’s friend Dr. Joseph Snodgrass arrived to find him incoherent and dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothes that were almost certainly not his own. Poe was taken to the hospital where he spent several days drifting in and out of consciousness. He never recovered enough to explain what had happened to him or how he had ended up in this condition.
On his fourth night in the hospital, Poe began calling repeatedly for “Reynolds,” though no one knows who he was referring to. He died the next morning. Some accounts report that his last words were “Lord help my poor soul.” No autopsy was performed, and his cause of death was listed as “congestion of the brain,” which could be a euphemism for any number of conditions in the Victorian period.
Theories about the cause of Poe’s death began to be posed almost immediately and have continued to this day. Possible causes that have been put forward include heart disease, diabetes, syphilis, cholera, beating, murder, and alcohol withdrawal. Without access to physical evidence or further records on the matter, it is likely that Poe’s death will remain shrouded in mystery.
If you would like to learn more about Edgar Allan Poe, consider a visit to the Edgar Allan Poe museum located in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.
For more information on National Poetry Month, visit the Academy of American Poets website.
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