The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was a fascinating character. He lived a short life but, in that time, was responsible for helping to create two major genres of literature, before meeting a mysterious death at the age of forty.

Born in Boston in 1809, his father deserted the family when Poe was only a year old and his mother died a year later from consumption. He was adopted by a Scottish merchant named John Allan, but Poe would have a very strained relationship with Allan throughout his early life.

At the age of 17, Poe enrolled in University but dropped out after a year, partly due to gambling debts – something that didn’t help his strained relationship with his stepfather. He then joined the US Army but that didn’t seem to take either and he eventually left the Army by having himself court-martialed. At this point, Poe’s stepfather disowned him.

With no family support, Poe turned to writing to try to make a living. In 1835, Poe secretly married his cousin Virginia who was only 13 years old. During this period, Poe was the editor of a number of periodicals and published many short stories and poems. Despite making his living as a writer, he was constantly in debt and was always turning to others for money. However, he is regarded as one of the first well-known American writers to make his living solely through writing.

In 1845, he published “The Raven”, which was a big hit and made him a household name. In 1847, Virginia died of consumption after many years being sick. The theme of the death of a young woman is a constant throughout Poe’s later works. After Virginia’s death, Poe apparently began to drink heavily and to behave erratically. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, delirious. He was taken to hospital where he died on October 7.

The popular conception of Poe’s death is that he was found lying in a gutter, delirious, after the effects of an alcohol-fuelled week-long binge. However, much of this would turn out to be false. It’s true that Poe went missing a week prior to his death but the fact is, nobody knows where he was or what he was doing for that week until he was found on October 3. Another reason for the alcohol story may be because he was found outside a tavern, but it seems he was staying there, it’s not known whether he was drinking there. The man who found him – Joseph Walker – later claimed that he found Poe “in a state of beastly intoxication” but, again, this has been proven to be untrue.

However, the main reason for this image of Poe is an obituary and subsequent biography written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold who was a rival of Poe’s. Apparently, through pure jealousy, Griswold set about assassinating Poe’s character, claiming he was a depraved alcoholic, drug-addict. Despite the fact that many who knew Poe came to his defence and denounced the obituary, it became the popular image of Poe in the minds of the public.

In the end, there is no agreement on how Poe died. Over the years many theories have been put forward including suicide, murder, cholera, rabies and syphilis. However, it’s somewhat fitting that the man so influential on the mystery genre should have such a mystery of his own surrounding his death.

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The Every Dead Author Challenge – Edgar Allan Poe

The aim of this series is to read a short piece by every deceased writer who I haven’t read. With Poe, this is very interesting because I – like most people – would be very familiar with Poe, but not through his own writings. Rather, it’s through adaptations. I’ve seen the Vincent Price movies of the 60s – The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. When I was a kid, I read lots of Poe stories but they were all annotated adaptations written for children. So this was the first time I’d ever read a Poe story in its original form.

I decided to look at some of his most well-known poems: “The Raven”, “Lenore” and “Annabel Lee”. While I picked these three at random, I quickly realised there was a connection there. And the connection was this: all three poems deal with the loss of a woman through death. In 1835, Poe secretly married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia (although she was listed on the marriage cert as being 21, presumably for legal reasons). Virginia contracted tuberculosis seven years later and eventually died in 1847. The poem “Lenore” is very much a poem about a heartbroken man grieving the loss of his wife:

“Come! let the burial rite be read- the funeral song be sung!
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young”

Although this poem seems as much tinged with anger as grief:

“How shall the ritual, then, be read?- the requiem how be sung
By you- by yours, the evil eye,- by yours, the slanderous tongue
That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young?”

One wonders if these lines are aimed at those who may have raised eyebrows at the age of his young bride. The poem “Annabel Lee” has a similar sentiment although it’s not quite as heart-rending or as personal as “Lenore”.

“The Raven” – probably his most famous poem – is like the final distillation of both poems. It opens with the line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”, telling the story of a man who’s sitting in the darkness musing about the loss of his beloved. A raven flies into the room, perches itself on a bust of Pallas and speaks to the man. But the only word the raven can speak is “Nevermore”. The narrator doesn’t understand why this is the only word he can say. The more he enquires of the raven, the more his mind starts to break down under the weight of the memory of Lenore. Until finally, he asks the raven …

“Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’”

At that point, the man breaks down and screams at the raven to leave but the raven doesn’t move. And, in the final lines, as illustrated below, the man says,

“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!”

I don’t know that these poems could be called great poetry. There’s a lot of very simple rhyming: “dreary” and weary”, “rapping” and “napping”. But there are some quite nice lines in there as well, such as his description of the deceased Lenore:

“For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes
The life still there, upon her hair- the death upon her eyes.”

However, beyond the actual words themselves, there’s something very interesting about these poem’s subject matter. Poe took a personal tragedy and turned it into poems that invented a whole genre: horror (and specifically, gothic horror). He was to be a huge influence on other writer – not just in the horror genre – but also writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Bernard Malamud. Despite some issues with the writing style, I enjoyed the poems, especially the ideas behind them and I do think I would read more Poe.

And to finish, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this one.

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The First Anniversary Post!

Today is the one year anniversary of this blog! Although it’s a cliché, it really doesn’t seem like a year. In one sense, it’s flown by but, in another – given all that’s happened in that time – it seems a lot longer! I started this blog a year ago with no intention of releasing an album and only a vague notion of where the blog was headed. I wanted to talk about writing and post some of my songs. Now – 152 posts and 45 songs later – my debut album is on release and my writing has been published in an anthology. And that’s all due to the wonderful readers of this blog and the people on Twitter and Facebook who have supported and encouraged me over the past year.

So a huge, heartfelt THANK YOU to every one of you!

And as a little celebration of the blog’s birthday, I thought I’d post the most popular post both in music and writing. When you’re writing a post or recording a song (especially a cover version) you can never gauge what’s going to be the most popular, which one is going to catch the reader’s eye or the listener’s ear. Sometimes it comes as a surprise. It’s certainly the case with the most popular music post. It’s not – as you might think – even a rock song. The most listened-to song on #NewMusicMonday in the past year was the anti-war ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”:

As regards the post, it was actually a mixture of music and writing and it got a staggering 5,200 views! The most popular post was When Lou (Reed) Met Edgar (Allan Poe) – Music Meets Literature

Once again, thanks to everyone for reading and here’s to another year of music and writing that will hopefully keep you entertained!

 

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When Lou (Reed) Met Edgar (Allan Poe) – Music Meets Literature

There was time when being a writer and being a musician were two completely separate things. Writers were solitary, reclusive individuals who shuffled around in their pyjamas mumbling to themselves, while musicians were rock gods who strutted the stage, ingested massive quantities of illegal substances, and … well, shall we say, got better acquainted with their fans. No more. Now writers are rock stars and rock stars are writers.

Some examples of musicians-turned-writers include Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith. On the flip side, there aren’t as many examples of writers-turned-musicians, but there are a few, such as Michel Houellebecq and Neal Pollack. (And, there was a also a band called the “Rock Bottom Remainders”, that featured Stephen King, Amy Tan and Rick Moody, amongst others).

The same applies when it comes to music inspired by literature, and vice versa. Literature has inspired many songs and even entire albums. Led Zeppelin wrote a number of songs inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings; Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” is based around the work of the poet Anne Sexton; and then, there’s the most obvious example, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Not to mention the wonderfully-titled song by the late Warren Zevon, “Lord Byron’s Luggage”.

Another writer who has been a great source of inspiration to musicians is Edgar Allen Poe. Lou Reed released a double CD concept album called The Raven in 2003 that featured a number of musical and spoken-word interpretations of Poe. And, unsurprisingly, many heavy metal bands have made reference to Gothic Horror-writer Poe in their recordings, including Iron Maiden and the wonderfully-named Agathodaimon.

But again, on the flip side, there aren’t as many novels inspired by a specific piece of music. There are many books about music in general, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity being one great example. There are, however, plenty of novel titles inspired by songs: everything from Douglas Copeland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Eleanor Rigby to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (an Elvis Costello song). (And, disclaimer: I do it too. I stole the name of my blog – “Rant, with Occasional Music” – from Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music)

Of course, many people would say that performers such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are songwriters and poets, musicians and writers. Others – mostly poets – take great umbrage with the idea that a mere pop song could be considered poetry. And while this may be the case with a song like Jedward’s ‘Lipstick’, what about the staggering oeuvre of someone like Dylan?

So, there is certainly a cross-fertilisation between music and literature, and this is becoming increasingly more so. Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs made an album together; writer Alan Moore has performed spoken-word pieces live on stage with musical accompaniment, as has writer Neil Gaiman, with the added accompaniment of illustrations by artist Eddie Campbell projected on the wall behind him.

With the increasingly easy access to recording equipment and the ability to self-publish or put your writing on the internet, this is only likely to increase. There are plans to release e-books with soundtracks, and authors have started compiling “soundtracks” to their novels – the songs that inspired their novels or even original music – and posting them on their websites. It is an exciting time for both music and literature. It has been said many times in recent years that albums and books are dead; they’re not dead, they’re just evolving.

If you have any thoughts on this subject or any suggestions of other writing/music combos, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!

When Lou (Reed) Met Edgar (Allan Poe) – Music Meets Literature

There was time when being a writer and being a musician were two completely separate things. Writers were solitary, reclusive individuals who shuffled around in their pyjamas mumbling to themselves, while musicians were rock gods who strutted the stage, ingested massive quantities of illegal substances, and … well, shall we say, got better acquainted with their fans. No more. Now writers are rock stars and rock stars are writers.

Some examples of musicians-turned-writers include Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith. On the flip side, there aren’t as many examples of writers-turned-musicians, but there are a few, such as Michel Houellebecq and Neal Pollack. (And, there was a also a band called the “Rock Bottom Remainders”, that featured Stephen King, Amy Tan and Rick Moody, amongst others).

The same applies when it comes to music inspired by literature, and vice versa. Literature has inspired many songs and even entire albums. Led Zeppelin wrote a number of songs inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings; Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” is based around the work of the poet Anne Sexton; and then, there’s the most obvious example, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Not to mention the wonderfully-titled song by the late Warren Zevon, “Lord Byron’s Luggage”.

Another writer who has been a great source of inspiration to musicians is Edgar Allen Poe. Lou Reed released a double CD concept album called The Raven in 2003 that featured a number of musical and spoken-word interpretations of Poe. And, unsurprisingly, many heavy metal bands have made reference to Gothic Horror-writer Poe in their recordings, including Iron Maiden and the wonderfully-named Agathodaimon.

But again, on the flip side, there aren’t as many novels inspired by a specific piece of music. There are many books about music in general, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity being one great example. There are, however, plenty of novel titles inspired by songs: everything from Douglas Copeland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Eleanor Rigby to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (an Elvis Costello song). (And, disclaimer: I do it too. I stole the name of my blog – “Rant, with Occasional Music” – from Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music)

Of course, many people would say that performers such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are songwriters and poets, musicians and writers. Others – mostly poets – take great umbrage with the idea that a mere pop song could be considered poetry. And while this may be the case with a song like Jedward’s ‘Lipstick’, what about the staggering oeuvre of someone like Dylan?

So, there is certainly a cross-fertilisation between music and literature, and this is becoming increasingly more so. Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs made an album together; writer Alan Moore has performed spoken-word pieces live on stage with musical accompaniment, as has writer Neil Gaiman, with the added accompaniment of illustrations by artist Eddie Campbell projected on the wall behind him.

With the increasingly easy access to recording equipment and the ability to self-publish or put your writing on the internet, this is only likely to increase. There are plans to release e-books with soundtracks, and authors have started compiling “soundtracks” to their novels – the songs that inspired their novels or even original music – and posting them on their websites. It is an exciting time for both music and literature. It has been said many times in recent years that albums and books are dead; they’re not dead, they’re just evolving.

If you have any thoughts on this subject or any suggestions of other writing/music combos, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

(Image: Click the pic for credits)

If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!