Many romanticists focused on the contemplation of the natural world, but few dared to journey down the road of the unexplainable into the supernatural realms. Only one man, Edgar Allen Poe, crossed the threshold between the real world and the dark and dreary habitat of his mind.
Unlike the masses, Poe disregarded the French revolutionary philosophy, humanitarianism, reform, the new interpretation of nature, and exploration of the past.
He worked on exploiting the purely imaginative faculty of his mind and focused on the realm of mystery and horror (Blankenship, 216). He treaded the rich and sometimes dank soil of the Gothic and grotesque. His tales littered with distraught narrators, deranged heroes, and doomed heroines caused the atmosphere of his work to fall somewhere between a nightmare and hallucination (Edgar Allan Poe, 260). All of his fictions contain an evident irritation with the commonplace and a penchant for intellectual and emotional extremes (Conn, 133). Poe distinguished himself from many of his contemporaries and successors with his feverish search of perfection. To Poe literature was a serious vocation expressing the beauty and poignancy of life and to be effective required flawlessness. One of his few weaknesses however was his intellectual detachment from his time and environment (Blankenship, 216). Poe is most noted for his incredible short stories of the bizarre and insane (Edgar Allan Poe, 260). Poe does not invent the short story, but he is one of the first to distinguish between a story that is short and a short story by defining one. Poe simply states that a short story should emphasize unity or the totality of the impression and brevity because the unity of the story is lost in a mass of details. Also, the writer must chose the desired effect and then create incidents to assist in the creation of that effect (Blankenship, 260).
In addition to the unexplainable, supernatural realms and the consequences of allowing our wants to impel our choices and actions in life, the arts and sciences were recurrent topics for Poe in his poetry. Many times it seemed as if art and science were characters playing the roles of opposite foes, and the same could be said for sanity and insanity. Poe reminds the reader that there is a fine line between sanity and insanity, love and hate, and even the dream world and the real world. It is as if Poe saw dreams as an entrance to the subconscious mind where the line between reality and the imaginary diverged and then blended in a violent, continuous cycle of blurred creativity that bordered on insanity.
In “Sonnet-to Science” it would seem from his choice of words used to describe science that he thought of science as quite evil. Poe used words like preyest, Vulture, and torn, to describe science’s impact on mankind. Apparently, Poe did not view science or the advances made by science as a good thing, rather he felt that science alterest all things with thy peering eyes.(2) The eye for most poets has long been considered a window to the soul and as such Poe must have thought that science was becoming to God-like if it had such power to alter all things just by examining them closely. It would seem that he felt certain things about the human psyche or form needed to remain a secret from man. He most certainly felt that science was trespassing on matters of the heart in terms of the heart representing emotion and ones experiences in life as denoted in the line, “Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart(3)”. It was as if he thought that the realities as unearthed by science were destroying the heart of man by replacing emotion with an emphasis toward reasoning and intellect which might be construed by a poet as cold detachment.
In “Silence–A Sonnet,” Poe seemed to be addressing the corporate silence as the symbolic nature of death almost as a personage separate from evilness. Support for this appears in the tenth line: He is the corporate Silence: dread him not! The rest of the poem appeared to be a speech in the intrinsic nature of evil, but Poe was clear to point out his conclusion that death-the corporate silence is not evil in itself: No power hath he of evil in himself. There is a sense that Poe wanted to emphasize that there are boundaries (There is a twofold Silence- sea and shore(5)) while at the same time showing that in nature there is very little control ultimately over eventual outcomes (Newly with grass o’ergrown(7) ). Finally, there is confusion over whether nature’s control over man or evil’s control over man is winning or losing the battle once “Silence” steps in to assert the ultimate spin on the fate of man.
One story, “The Masque of the Red Death” clearly illuminates the chief impressions of horror fear and melancholy that Poe sought to create. “The Masque of the Red Death” takes place during the course of a particularly gruesome plague. The only true character, Prince Prospero, calls together a thousand of his friends to go into seclusion with him at one of his castellated abbeys until the plague has ended. A masquerade is thrown in seven distinct, joining rooms and the guests arrive in their elegant costumes and begin to partake in the festivities. The night is interrupted when a masked presence enters the room dressed in the garments of the dead with the symptoms of the plague of red death. The uninvited guest moves from room to room until confronted by the Prince Prospero in the apartment arrayed in black. Prince Prospero suddenly falls dead at the intruder’s feet and the crowd descends upon the intruder to find that the costume is “untenanted by any tangible form (Poe, Edgar Allan, 1406).” The guests soon begin to die as all acknowledged the presence of the Red Death (Poe, Edgar Allan: The Masque of the Red Death, 1). The story is shrouded in a great amount of symbolism. For instance the seven rooms are symbolic of the seven stages of life including death–the black velvet chamber. The Prince must pass from the blue room through all of the other rooms to the black chamber to catch up with the Masque of the Red Death. The ebony clock symbolizes our internal clocks with its “clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical (1403)” chiming. The theme of the story is chilling–death cannot be avoided it is internal demon that holds an “illimitable dominion over all (1406).”
Edgar Allen Poe explored the dark side of romanticism and made the line between sanity and insanity virtually vanish. His life and literature are best summed up by his own words, “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who only dream by night (American Romanticism, 145)”