Sam Leith

A great writer and drinker

Sam Leith on Peter Ackroyd's latest book

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Poe: A Life Cut Short

Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp. 170, £

When Edgar Allan Poe bumped into a friend in New York in 1845, according to Peter Ackroyd’s brisk new life, the following exchange took place. ‘Wallace,’ said Poe, ‘I have just written the greatest poem that ever was written.’ ‘Have you?’ said Wallace. ‘That is a fine achievement.’ ‘Would you like to hear it?’ said Poe. ‘Most certainly,’ said Wallace. Thereupon Poe recited the verses of ‘The Raven’.

This lovely little cameo — halfway to being a sketch from The Fast Show — is all the funnier for the fact that the joke is not entirely on Poe. Though maybe not the greatest poem ever written, ‘The Raven’ really was pretty spectacular. Poe knew it. Beset though he constantly was by gloom and despair, his claims for his own art were not small — and were not on the whole misguided.

Consider his legacy. Auguste Dupin’s role in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is widely regarded as making Poe the inventor of detective fiction, but, as Ackroyd points out, he anticipates the speculative fiction of Wells and Verne too. The modern horror novel owes an enormous debt to Poe, and the novel of psychological horror owes him almost everything.

In poetry he was a sublime prosodist — the music of ‘The Raven’, for example, is so beautifully orchestrated that a sort of exhilaration reaches the reader even through the fug of horror and sorrow. Ackroyd argues unanswerably for the extreme control and deliberation with which Poe shaped his native terrors into art: ‘it is the difference between an inchoate wail and a threnody’.

His aesthetic, Ackroyd says, anticipated and influenced both the symbolists and the surrealists. In the preface to his 1831 Poems, he wrote: ‘A poem in my opinion is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance by having, for its object, an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure.’ That’s ahead of Pater and ahead of Swinburne, not to mention the French mob.

Some cosmologists, apparently, even credit him with having anticipated the work of Einstein and the discovery of black holes. This is probably a step too far. Poe gave one sparsely attended, rhapsodic and widely misunderstood two-and-a-half hour lecture about the secrets of the universe. A newspaper review described it as a ‘mountainous piece of absurdity’. Poe, predicting that his work would be properly appreciated in 2,000 years, approached a publisher with his idea for a book ‘of profound importance’ that would put Newton’s theory of gravitation in the shade, and ‘command such universal and intense attention that the publisher might give up all other enterprises’. In this case, he was wrong.

All this magnificent stuff proceeded from an exceptionally miserable life, and one that Poe did nothing to make easier for himself. He gave us the phrase ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, and he lived it.

Even though, contrary to myth, he was considerably acclaimed during his lifetime, Poe spent most of his days in abject poverty and a positive rapture of unsuccess. He took on editorships of literary magazines and, falling into drink, lost them. He got posts as a critic and, incensed at the success of those he knew to be his inferiors, set about denouncing them. Longfellow and James Russell Lowell came in for literary cudgellings; others for the more ad hominem kind. Of the magazine editor Lewis Gaylord Clark, he wrote: ‘an apple, in fact, or a pumpkin has more angles . . . he is noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing.’ He rounded off a screed of insults to another writer, Thomas Dunne English, with the observation that ‘he exists in a perpetual state of vacillation between moustachio and goatee’.

He could dish it out but he could not take it, and, when a victim (he of the indecisive facial hair) accused him in turn of forgery and plagiarism, he sued. His libel winnings were almost certainly the most substantial lump sum his writing ever earned him.

Poe lived — just — on journalism; and he had a considerable eye for fads and crazes, working them calculatingly into his fiction. But American writers were at a disadvantage. The law of copyright did not protect the work of English writers, so there seemed no great incentive for a publisher to pay domestically for what he could pirate from overseas for free. It was calculated, says Ackroyd, that the total income from all Poe’s books, over 20 years, was $300.

As well as being broke, he had an agonising personal life. Abandoned by his father, orphaned at three, and enduring a very fractious relationship with his adoptive father (whom, like everybody else, he was perpetually begging for money), he yearned for the safe haven of nurturing women. But he only seemed to be attracted to women (starting with his mother) who were batty, or dying of consumption, or both: ‘I could not love except where Death/ Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath.’

He married his underage cousin Virginia (whom he continued, creepily, to call ‘Sissy’) and carted her and his doting aunt Maria about in a funny little ménage from one rickety lodging-house to another. After she died of consumption he was chased by, and in turn chased, a collection of dotty literary ladies; towards the end, passionately and ineffectively, two at once.

Above all, he was drunk — something that put him in dreadful health and, in more than one sense, dreadful odour. Ackroyd’s thesis in this book is that ‘heavy drinking’ and ‘alcoholism’ are different things, and that while Poe may even have suffered from a congenital predisposition to the first, ‘he was not an alcoholic’. Clinical diagnosis of a long-dead poet is neither, finally, here nor there — but it seems a pretty fine distinction to make.

Poe was able to remain abstinent for periods of time, but when he started drinking he’d set off on week-long ‘sprees’ and be unable to stop. Though a courteous and considerate man in sobriety, he was an ugly and aggressive drunk. He lied (drunk and sober) as easily as most people breathe. He suffered hallucinations, paranoia, lacerating remorse, delirium tremens and suicidal ideation. When he went to dinner parties his devoted aunt waited in the kitchen in the hopes of preventing him drinking too much and making sure he got home. His letters of apology and reproach tell their stories eloquently. Ackroyd decodes one of them, with the delightful dry humour he brings to this book, thus: ‘So he had paraded through the streets wearing his cloak inside-out, and had made fun of a Spaniard’s moustache.’ As a kindly and perspicacious colleague remarked to Poe, ‘No man is safe who drinks before breakfast.’

There was once an interesting, if rather anti-literary, essay written on John Berryman’s Dream Songs by an alcohol counsellor, in which he read the poems as the pathological emanations of an alcoholic consciousness: their content as, more or less, symptoms. So he pointed out, for example, that the ‘Song’ in which Henry wakes up convinced he’s murdered somebody (‘Nobody is ever missing’), is a classic alcoholic anxiety dream. I don’t doubt you could do something similar with Poe.

So much of Poe’s life is lost in the blackouts. The details of a row involving two of his female admirers are too plural and too obscure to be unravelled: ‘somewhere in the welter of claim and counter-claim there was a genuine imbroglio’. His final disappearance — a literary mystery most recently addressed in Matthew Pearl’s scholarly fiction The Poe Shadow — is unlikely ever to be explained.

In the end, though much-mythologised, Poe’s short and wretched life — he died at the age of 40 — is less interesting than his work. This deft, lively summary seems to me to dispatch it at exactly the right length. At damn near 10p a page, though, anyone whose finances resemble Poe’s would be best off waiting for the paperback.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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