Not unlike many literary figures through the ages the work of Edgar Allan Poe is much debated as to its meaning and literary worth. Poe has been both lauded and vilified as a writer and the discrepancies in the opinions of other writers and critics is quite extreme. Poe lost both his parents before the age of three and was subsequently raised by John Allan a wealthy exporter from Virginia, although he was never formerly adopted. With this upbringing came access to the most prestigious schools and eventually a stint at university that was cut short because Allan failed to provide adequate support financially. The relationship between Edgar and his benefactor was somewhat strained and in1827 Poe went back to his roots in Boston where he joined the Army and published ‘Tamerlane and other poems’ his first collection of poetry.
In 1829 Poe released a second collection but like the first it received little attention from either readers or critics. Leaving the army for violating regulations and with no support from Allan Edgar arrived in New York and in 1831 published his third collection of poems simply named ‘Poems.’ Finally, he arrived in Baltimore to live with his aunt and continued writing both short stories and poetry. Poe met with a small measure of success from his writing, winning a cash prize for best story in the local paper with ‘Ms found in a Bottle’. He was unable to be wholly self-sufficient from his writing but fared better when he became an editor at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond.
Through various positions in different journals over the years Poe managed to establish himself as a successful man of letters in America, gaining recognition for his fiction and poetry as well as gaining status as a literary critic. Poe is variously remembered for his poetry and short stories and the often dark, disturbing nature of the content. The fascination with troubling, melancholy subject matter was a trademark of Poe’s and the subject of debate among the critics. Many well-known writers have been significantly divided in opinion with the likes of Henry James and TS Eliot calling his work vulgar and immature. Interestingly the same work elicited high praise from such literary giants as George Bernard Shaw according it the highest literary merit. Poe is frequently remembered for his works of short fiction but for him it was poetry that he loved most and began writing at an early age. Initially he was influenced by English romantics such as Shelly and Keats but later developed his own unique style borne from a more subjective, imaginative outlook.
Poe’s later work more often reflected a fascination with the surreal often mystical elements of life. Thus, the early poems seem more literal and simple in the narrative whilst progressively subject matter came to examine the areas of lost love, beauty and death. Of this genre the poem ‘To Helen’ is often regarded as one of the most beautiful love poems in English and it’s contemporary ‘Lenore’ examines the ways in which the dead can be remembered, be it celebrating life beyond the grave or mourning death itself. ‘The raven’, one of Poe’s most well-known poems, focuses on the psychological aspects of a young man’s torment following the death of his lover and his desire to know the probability of an afterlife. Ironically Poe’s work received greater regard abroad particularly among French writers who applauded his use of symbolism and surrealism as illustrated in his often-bizarre imagination. Today Poe is widely regarded as one of the more prominent originators of modern literature both for his popular detective or macabre fiction and the more introspective poetic forms. Despite the controversy surrounding the man and his methods his work stands as an integral part of modern literature.