Edgar Allan Poe: A Philosophy of Death

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe. Clipart.com

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "Talent alone cannot make the writer. There must be a man behind the book."

There was a man behind "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Black Cat," and poems like "Annabel Lee" and  "The Raven." That man--Edgar Allan Poe--was talented, but he was also eccentric and prone to alcoholism--having experienced more than his share of tragedies. But, what stands out even more prominently than the tragedy of Edgar Allan Poe's life is his philosophy of death.

Early Life

Orphaned at the age of two,  Edgar Allan Poe was taken in by John Allan. Although Poe's foster father educated him and provided for him, Allan eventually disinherited him. Poe was left penniless, earning a meager living by writing reviews, stories, literary criticism, and poetry. All of his writing and his editorial work was not enough to bring him and his family above the level of mere subsistence, and his drinking made it difficult for him to hold a job.

Inspiration for Horror

Arising from such a stark background, Poe has become a classical phenomenon--known for the gothic horror he created in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and other works. Who can forget "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado"? Every Halloween those stories come to haunt us. On the darkest night, when we sit around the campfire and tell horrible tales, Poe's stories of horror, grotesque death, and madness are told again.


Why did he write about such horrible events: about the calculated and murderous entombment of Fortunato, as he writes "A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment--I trembled." Was it disillusionment with life that drove him to these grotesque scenes?

Or was it some acceptance that death was inevitable and horrible, that it sneaks up like a thief in the night--leaving madness and tragedy in its wake?

Or, is it something more to do with the last lines of "The Premature Burial": "There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell... Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful... they must sleep, or they will devour us--they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish."

Perhaps death offered some answer for Poe. Perhaps escape. Perhaps only more questions--about why he still lived, why his life was so hard, why his genius was so little recognized.

He died as he had lived: a tragic, pointless death. Found in the gutter, apparently the victim of an election gang who used alcoholics to vote for their candidate. Taken to a hospital, Poe died four days later and was buried in a Baltimore cemetery next to his wife.

If he was not well-loved in his time (or at least not as well-appreciated as he might have been), his tales at least have taken on a life of their own. He's recognized as the founder of the detective story (for works like "The Purloined Letter," the best of his detective stories).

He has influenced culture and literature; and his figure is placed beside the literary greats in history for his poetry, literary criticism, stories, and other works.

His view of death may have been filled with darkness, foreboding, and disillusionment. But, his works have lasted beyond the horror to become classics.

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Lombardi, Esther. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Philosophy of Death." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/edgar-allan-poe-philosophy-of-death-741081. Lombardi, Esther. (2017, February 27). Edgar Allan Poe: A Philosophy of Death. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/edgar-allan-poe-philosophy-of-death-741081 Lombardi, Esther. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Philosophy of Death." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/edgar-allan-poe-philosophy-of-death-741081 (accessed September 20, 2017).