This Day In Literary History
On October 9th, 1849, Annabel Lee, the classic final poem by the legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe, was published. It was published posthumously by the New York Daily Tribune, as Poe had died two days earlier.
Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston in January of 1809, would become most famous as a master of the short story and the author of classic Gothic horror tales such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, and The Fall of the House of Usher.
However, he began his literary career as a poet, and would become famous for classic poems such as The Conqueror Worm and The Raven. His last great poem was Annabel Lee.
Written in May of 1849 as Poe's life was falling apart and his health rapidly deteriorating, Annabel Lee was an ode to his great love, his young wife Virginia, who had succumbed to tuberculosis two years earlier at the age of 24.
Virginia, a cousin of Poe's, was thirteen when they first married, though they wouldn't share a bed until she was sixteen. They adored each other. Virginia often sat close to Poe while he wrote. She maintained his pens and prepared his manuscripts for mailing.
In a letter to a friend, Poe wrote of his Virginia, "I see no one among the living as beautiful as my little wife." When she contracted tuberculosis in 1847 at the age of nineteen, Poe was devastated.
Virginia turned to her husband for the strength to fight her illness. A year before her death, she wrote this poem:
Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we'll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we'll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we'll be.
Unfortunately, as Virginia's illness grew worse, Poe fell back into the alcoholism that had nearly destroyed him in the past. Her death devastated the man who had loved her so dearly.
A friend remarked that "the loss of his wife was a sad blow to [Poe.] He did not seem to care, after she was gone, whether he lived an hour, a day, a week or a year; she was his all."
Drowning in his grief for Virginia, Poe visited her grave often and drank heavily. The more he drank, the worse his mental state became. He tried in vain to move on, knowing that he really couldn't live without her.
He dated poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement was called off as a result of Poe's drinking, his mental instability, and the interference of Sarah's mother, who did all she could to sabotage the relationship.
Poe returned to Richmond and resumed his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. He later returned to Baltimore, where he plunged into a quagmire of severe alcoholism and mental illness. He fell into financial ruin and disappeared.
Before his disappearance, Poe gave a manuscript to a friend of his. It was something he'd written a while back, a poem he described as a "little trifle that may be worth something to you." It was his completed manuscript of Annabel Lee.
On October 3rd, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore by a man named Joseph W. Walker. Severely ill, incoherent, and wearing someone else's clothes, Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital. He died four days later at the age of 40.
Poe's death certificate and medical records were lost in a fire, so the actual cause of his death remains a mystery. Newspapers reported that he died of "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation."
These were common euphemisms used when a person died of illicit causes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or venereal disease. They were also used when the authorities wanted to keep the real cause of death quiet.
Some scholars and biographers have suggested that Poe may have been murdered for political reasons or may have contracted rabies. Others theorize that he just drank himself to death out of grief, which, sadly, is the most likely case.
Rufus Griswold, an enemy of Poe's who had published his work in the past, somehow became his literary executor. He wrote a biography of Poe called Memoir of the Author, where he described the writer as a depraved madman addled by drink and drugs.
Most of Griswold's claims were either outright lies or half-truths. For example, although Poe was an opium user and wrote about it, he was only a casual user and never became addicted to the drug.
Griswold's biography was virulently denounced by those who knew Edgar Allan Poe. The letters that Griswold presented as proof of his claims were later revealed to be forgeries.
Over a hundred years after Poe's death, his classic poem Annabel Lee would inspire the legendary Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov to write his classic novel, Lolita (1955).
The novel opens with protagonist and narrator Humbert Humbert recalling his great childhood love Annabel Leigh, (named after Poe's Annabel Lee) her sudden death from typhus, and the grief that would lead him down a path of self-destruction, ending in his death.
Quote Of The Day
"The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." - Edgar Allan Poe
Today's video features a reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem, Annabel Lee. Enjoy!