NOTE: You can listen to me read and discuss my favorite poem on my archived radio show Hour 90, which was broadcast in 2004. This was actually one of my last shows; we had just announced the end of show (after 25 years of broadcasts), so many of the callers that day were asking about our retirement plans.
Halloween is a good time to think about ghosts and spooky deaths. I think that the greatest poem for Halloween is The Raven, written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1845. It’s my favorite poem. Every sentence is a metaphor to teach us about philosophy, sadness, death, fatalism and life. Every word has a musical tone. Listen to the opening verse:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”
The tapping is caused by a raven, and the raven is a symbol that something bad has happened or is going to happen. The poem is about a raven visiting a man whose wife, the love of his life, has died and he has difficulty accepting the fact that she is gone forever. In every stanza, the man hopes that she will come back, and every time he hopes against reality, and each time he hopes for the impossible to happen, the raven tells him that she will not come back by stating, “Nevermore.”
Death is Final
The raven tells us that death is final and you can’t bring a dead person back to life, no matter how dear that person was to you. Two years after Poe wrote The Raven, his wife died of tuberculosis, and he was devastated. Two years after her death, on October 3, 1849, Poe was found unconscious by Dr. James E. Snodgrass, an old friend, at a tavern in downtown Baltimore. Dr. Snodgrass had the delirious poet taken to Washington College Hospital. On Sunday morning, October 7, 1849: “He became quiet and seemed to rest for a short time. Then, gently, moving his head, he said, ‘Lord help my poor soul.'” As he had lived, he died–in great misery and tragedy.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted-nevermore!
How He Probably Died
To this day, physicians argue over the cause of his death. Alcoholism was ruled out because he did not have signs of alcohol withdrawal. On his deathbed he lapsed in and out of a coma and babbled incoherently. The most logical explanation for his death is that a few days before his death, he began to drink heavily, wandered drunk into the streets and fell into the hands of a gang of vote-repeaters. It was election day, and elections in Baltimore were won by the people who could threaten and force the most people to vote for them. So gangs went out and threatened to kill anyone who didn’t do what they told them to do. They forced people to vote, then change clothes and go back to the polls to vote again and again. That would explain why Poe was found in horrible clothes that could not possibly have been his. The most likely cause of his death was brain damage from being beaten by the thugs.
Psychological Background of a Great Author
Poe was born January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, to two actors. His father abandoned his mother after his birth and died soon after that. His mother died when he was three. Poe was adopted by John and Frances Allan, prosperous tobacco merchants in Richmond, Virginia. He never got along with his foster father.
Poverty and Death Shaped His Life
In 1826, he went to the University of Virginia to study Latin and poetry. Because his foster father refused to send him money, he tried to pay his way by gambling, but lost everything and had to quit school. In 1829, he dealt with death again when his beloved foster mother, Frances Allan, died. Soon afterward, he moved to Baltimore to stay with his widowed aunt and her daughter, Virginia Eliza Clemm. In 1830, he went to West Point but was forced to leave because he could not obey orders. In 1831, he returned to Baltimore to live with his aunt, his cousin Virginia, and his older brother, Henry. In August of 1831, Henry died from tuberculosis and alcoholism.
He Married his Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin
Poe had a great talent for writing, so he worked for newspapers and published short stories. On September 22, 1835, he married his cousin Virginia. He was 26, she was 13. Later that year, he moved to Richmond and became a literary critic known for attacking other writers. In 1842, his beloved wife became sick with tuberculosis and Poe responded by drinking heavily. In 1845 he published his immensely popular The Raven, which predicted the death of the love of his life. On January 30, 1847 his 24-year-old wife died. Her illness and death affected Poe’s poetry and prose, and he often wrote about dying young women, as in Annabel Lee and Ligeia.
On October 7, 1849, Poe died in Washington Medical College Hospital, Baltimore. Walt Whitman attended his funeral and letters from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Lord Alfred Tennyson were read aloud. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Westminster Burying Ground of Baltimore. Now there is a stone monument with a carving of a raven and the following inscription:
Quoth the Raven, Nevermore
Original Burial Place of Edgar Allan Poe
From October 9, 1849 Until November 17, 1875
Mrs. Marian Clemm, His Mother-In-Law Lies Upon His Right And Virginia Poe, His Wife, Upon His Left.
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
Edgar Allan Poe
January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849