The poems published just after Edgar Allan Poe’s death are among his most popular: “Annabelle Lee” and “The Bells.”
“The Bells” was written with the assistance of Poe’s good friend Loui Shew, whom he visited one evening in 1848, complaining that he lacked inspiration to write a poem. According to one version of the story, she offered the opening line and he completed the first stanza, she offered an opening line for the second stanza, and so on. “The Bells” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia: the sounds of the words directly reflect the mood evoked by each bell described. This manuscript, which is featured in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Poe, shows the poem’s earliest form, which Poe eventually expanded to four stanzas.
You can listen to Charles Keating doing a reading here from The Big Read audio guide CD:
“If Edgar Allan Poe had never written a poem, he would still have been one of America’s greatest writers, thanks to his wonderful short stories, and the invention of the murder mystery genre in particular. If he had never written any of his colorful and often scary short stories, he would still have been one of America’s very greatest poets. In our program at the Harry Ransom Center we’re going to try to demonstrate both sides of this unique literary artist.”
Tonight’s program also features actors René Auberjonois and Fionnula Flanagan. They will read works by Poe, including “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Black Cat,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Bells.”
Poe’s influence on varied and broad swaths of popular culture—hard-boiled detective fiction, horror and suspense films, song lyrics, crime-scene-analysis dramas, graphic novels—seems to prove Allen Ginsberg’s claim that “everything leads to Poe.” Immortalized in the minds of readers and fans—as well as in television, film, t-shirts, and collectibles—Poe continues to fascinate and inspire.
One classic example is Poe’s appearance on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967). In their song “I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles declared, “Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” The band also made him a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, placing him in a prominent position on the memorable album cover.
Many other popular musicians have paid homage to Poe: Alan Parsons—famous for his engineering of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—set Poe’s works, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.” In 2003, Lou Reed released a concept album, The Raven, featuring musical and spoken interpretations of Poe’s works by various actors, including Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe.
The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:
Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!
Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).
Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.
Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.
In 1839, while working as an editor for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe encouraged his readers to send in cryptographs, or short encrypted texts, that he would then attempt to solve. He explained that the “ciphers” should be simple substitution ciphers, that is, readers should substitute a particular symbol for a particular alphabet letter every time it appeared in a statement. The readers responded, sending, by Poe’s estimate, “nearly one hundred ciphers.” He claimed to have solved all but one, and that one, he argued, was not a true cipher.
Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. In this story, the character William LeGrand must solve a puzzle to find a buried treasure.
Learn more about how to solve cryptographs and then practice your decoding skills on the Poe Project website.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. The tradition of writing parodies of “The Raven” dates back at least as far as 1853, when Graham’s Magazine published “The Vulture: An Ornithological Study.” Its first stanza begins:
Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O’er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping
Suddenly there came a ripping whipping, at my chamber’s door.
“’Tis the second-floor,” I muttered, “flipping at my chamber’s door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!”