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This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

Portrait: Edgar Allan Poe (David C. Ward) Edgar Allan Poe 1809-49


Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his poem ‘The Raven’ (1844); the one line from poetry that everyone can recite is ‘Quoth the raven, Nevermore!’ The pro football team in Poe’s hometown is called the Baltimore Ravens in a marriage of big-time sport and literature. Like the raven itself, Poe was a dark presence amidst the optimism of early American culture. Not for Poe the glorification of the individual or the celebration of nature as life-giving. He peeled back the underside of America and sketched a gothic world in which nothing, especially human motivation, was transparent, predictable, or even knowable. In their dark hallucinatory imagery, Poe’s writings had a profound influence on European poets including Baudelaire and Rimbaud. In America, his voice is still singular for the strength with which it spoke against the spirit of the age. Poe’s great subject was death and he seemed to court it in his life as well as in art, dying early after proving himself unable to function in the society he anatomised remorselessly.

This photograph of Poe was taken in the year of his death and the wan resignation one reads in the sitter’s features is due to something more than the technical difficulties of taking a daguerreotype. Poe’s widely spaced eyes seem not to be looking at the viewer but inward, into an imagination that few of his contemporaries could comprehend:

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws the shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!


George Kendall Warren (1834-84)
c. 1874 (after c. 1849 daguerreotype)
Albumen silver print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

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