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Edgar Allan Poe, man of mystery

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The bicentenary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, the US short-story writer, poet, editor and literary critic, is celebrated on 18 January.

Few writers have equalled Poe in his presentation of fictional mystery and supernatural horror, as in ‘The fall of the house of Usher’ (1840). In ‘The pit and the pendulum’ (1842) and other tales he combined factual material with the wildest fantasies. Many of his works are written in the dark romantic style.

In 1841 he published ‘The murders in the Rue Morgue’, which some consider to be the first detective story. He also contributed to the emerging genre of science fiction. Poe was one of the earliest US practitioners of the short story.

Recognition as a major poet came in 1845 with the publication of ‘The raven’. Many of his poems show metrical mastery, haunting resonances and undertones of melancholy.

The view that Poe was a depraved, drug-addled madman and alcoholic is derived from slanderous writings of his old enemy, yet literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold. Every assertion was refuted by those who knew Poe well but the myth persists.

Mystery followed Poe to his death. After his wife died in 1847 he became increasingly unstable and two years later he was found delirious on a street in Baltimore. He died on 7 October 1849, aged 40, without having become coherent enough to explain his condition. The cause of his death remains unknown but speculation has ranged from hypoglycaemia to rabies.

Conflicting accounts surround Poe’s last days. Oddly, he was found wearing clothes that were not his own. It was the day of an election and it has been suggested that he was a victim of “cooping”, a ballot-box stuffing scam in which the victim was shanghaied, drugged and used as a pawn to vote for a political party at multiple locations.

Poe was the first well-known US writer to try to earn a living through writing alone and to establish an international reputation. There was a side to Poe’s nature remote from the macabre.

In ordinary circumstances he was a pleasant companion. His sensitivity to the beauty and sweetness of women inspired touching lyrics, he talked brilliantly and he read poetry in a voice of surpassing beauty. 

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