Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809 to two young actors. Soon after his birth, both parents died suddenly, and he and his two siblings were left alone. After been passed around in numerous foster homes, a man named Jonathan Allan and his wife took Edgar in after his separation from his other siblings to different foster homes. Although they didn’t legally adopt him, they did change Edgar’s name to what we know today: Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe and his newfound family moved to London, England where he went to many prestigious schools and was first introduced to his love for literature. As the years passed, Poe struggled with losing financial support from his family, being expelled from school, and developing alcohol and gambling addictions. Despite all of that and teetering on the lines of depression, Poe was still able to publish some of his literary works under a pseudonym. At first, he published critic reviews and small stories in periodicals, but eventually branched out into one of the most popular genres of literature: Dark Romanticism.
Poe incorporated the Romantic characteristic of nature by portraying it as something terrifying, mysterious, or dark and used metaphors to highlight a crumbling aristocracy—all by using gothic/horror elements as descriptors or to set the tone. Since Dark Romanticism is less optimistic than Romanticism and shows that individuals are prone to self-destruction and madness, Poe fit into this subgenre perfectly. By drawing from his tragic past and his own self-destructive nature, he formed a cynical outlook on life and chose to portray that in his works. He emphasized on the duality of human nature, and how that as humans we want to be good, but oftentimes give in to our darker impulses. Many of Poe’s gothic elements in his work came from his time spent in London in his early years, when he was fascinated with the gothic architecture as well as English gothic literature. By using Dark Romantic elements, Poe was able to draw the attention of readers through their curiosity and tap into their human nature of wanting to take a few steps on the dark side.
One of Poe’s stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the perfect example of Poe’s use of gothic elements to describe nature: “I looked up upon the scene before me—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sledges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees… the bitter lapse into common life—the hideous dropping of the veil” (654). Poe’s use of gothic imagery gave the story an ominous tone, and his descriptors of nature in the beginning set the stage for the horrific tale that followed. His use of the literal crumbling house as a metaphor for the crumbling aristocracy allowed Poe to create a sense of urgency that people could start to follow and break out of the societal standards before giving into their own madness.
Another of Poe’s popular tales is “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story, the narrator/main character takes a common act of revenge to the point of madness and eventually to murder. Poe used the Dark Romantic characteristic of individuals prone to sin and madness in Montresor to draw emphasis to that “hidden dark side” he believed was in every human being: “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (715). Instead of incorporating the transcendentalist ideals of Romanticism, Poe chose to write stories like this that instead focused on the dark side of human nature and the importance of embracing that, rather than trying to find oneself in the beauty of nature or other elements.
Baym, Nina, and Levine, Robert S., editors. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume B: 1820-1865. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Baym and Levine, pp. 654-666
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Baym and Levine, pp. 714-717