Edgar Allan Poe (1809)
It was on this date, January 19, 1809, that American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of itinerant actors: a father who abandoned him and a mother who died within two years. Edgar was reared but never adopted by merchant John Allan and his wife in Richmond, Virginia, and from them Poe took his middle name.
Poe showed great poetic skill from a young age. His first collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque – which included “The Fall of the House of Usher” – appeared in 1840, and Poe became an established man of letters of the American Romantic Movement when his Raven and Other Poems was published in 1845. Aside from distinguishing himself as an editor and literary critic, Poe is considered a master of mystery and the macabre with such stories as “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833 – MS. Is the abbreviation for “manuscript”), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Gold-Bug” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Premature Burial” (1844), “The Purloined Letter” (1844) and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) – but also for poems such as “The Raven” (1845), “Annabel Lee” (1849) and “The Bells” (1849), the last two published posthumously.
Poe did not dwell on his agnosticism in his writings. His biographer, G.E. Woodbery, says that “the only mention of his religion in his entire life is that the Bible was read to him when he was dying.”* Poe himself, in his prose-poem “Eureka,” published the year before he died, says,
Let us begin, then, at once, with that merest of words, ‘Infinity.’ This, like ‘God,’ ‘spirit,’ and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but of an effort at one. It stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception.**
“Eureka” shows that Poe did not believe in life after death. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to pin down a solid religious belief attributable to Poe from the available evidence, as the writer for the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website is compelled to conclude, although giving the poet the benefit of no doubt: “The most realistic view is that Poe’s religious inclinations changed greatly back and forth during his lifetime, but were never seriously abandoned.”† Poe seems to have been surrounded by conventionally religious people all his life, including Roman Catholics, yet rarely did their influence reveal itself in his published writings or in his letters.
Edgar Allan Poe was found one day in Baltimore, unconscious in a gutter, and died of mysterious causes four days later, age 40, on 7 October 1849 – having no chance to recant whatever irreligion he may have espoused. Indeed, like Shakespeare, his literary talents were such that his true feelings on religion may never be known. Since 1945, the Mystery Writers of America have presented the Edgar Award for distinguished work in that genre.
* George Edward Woodberry, Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols., 1809, II, 345. ** Edgar Allan Poe, “Eureka- A Prose Poem” (dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt), 1848. You can read the full text at this link. † More on the religion of E.A. Poe can be found from the Edgar Allan Poe Society at this link.
Originally published January 2004.