Use Your Imagination – Advice from Edgar Allan Poe

He considered himself to be insane, saying he had “long intervals of horrible sanity,” skipped a meeting with the President of the United States because he was drunk, and died under mysterious circumstances. 

Famous writer Edgar Allan Poe left a legacy of wild, creative thinking. This bizarre, troubled genius of history can teach us today how to be more creative and imaginative – to enrich our careers, bring greater happiness, and shape our future.

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”

Edgar Allan Poe believed that true happiness comes not from what happens in life, but rather, what is happening in our minds. He was most content when dreaming, both day and night, free of physical limitation and the judgement of others. Every invention throughout all of history began with a dream. Today, stressful living leaves little time for hopes and aspirations. Let us schedule daydreaming into our calendars and dare to ask “what if?”

“Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.”

Poe led a short and turbulent life, but he saw his problems as ammunition to fuel his active imagination. He did not read other literary works for inspiration. Rather, he used personal experiences as the basis for his ideas. A real life bird that was owned by another famous writer, Charles Dickens, was the inspiration for Poe’s most famous poem “The Raven.” (Dickens taught his pet raven how to speak, like a parrot, which fascinated Poe). It was real life tragedy that got Poe’s mind going the most – including the death of his wife. Can our troubles help feed our creativity? Can we learn from our problems to fuel our determination, ideas and life direction?

“Invisible things are the only realities.”

What we think about becomes who we are. Today’s aspirations, if acted upon, become tomorrow’s real life endeavors. Thought, the way Poe saw it, was the true reality, more potent than the physical world. He also viewed perception as reality. Each and every one of us perceives the world in a certain way, and in our minds, that perception is the truth. But is it? Poe also knew that things are not always as they seem, a fact he used in his intriguing detective stories. Armed with this knowledge, we can respect the differing views of reality held by others, improving our personal relationships, and opening our own minds to different perspectives.

Edgar Allan Poe’s troubled existence began at an early age.

Poe was just 3 when he lost both parents. His father David was an alcoholic who abandoned the family, while his mother Elizabeth passed away from tuberculosis. (David is reported to have died just 2 days after his wife).

Without parents, the little Poe was sent to live with the wealthy family of John and Frances Allan in Richmond, Virginia. (Poe would later use their last name as his middle name). The Allan’s never officially adopted Poe but treated him as their son.

In school, Poe had almost no friends, describing the experience as “miserable” (even though he was actually a top student). Classmates and teachers said he was defensive, egotistical and not open to criticism.

Later in life, colleagues and family members referred to Poe as “the man who never smiles.” He would write that “God gave me a spark of genius, but quenched it in misery.” (Poe did have an ego and many who knew him personally, disliked him. Fellow poet William Butler Yeats labelled Poe as “vulgar”).

In reviewing historical records, today’s experts say Poe was neurotic and suffered from extreme anxiety, paranoia and bouts of unconsciousness – all signs of psychosis, made worse by alcohol and drug abuse. (He once said he dreaded the future).

Miraculously, Poe was able to channel his troubled mind into brilliant stories and poems, becoming one of the greatest writers of all time.raven

Poe’s most famous work is the poem “The Raven” published in a New York newspaper in January, 1845. (The accompanying illustration was by French artist Gustave Doré). The poem is about a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover who is torn between wanting to forget and wanting to remember. Although the poem became an international best seller and put Poe on the speaker circuit, he was paid only $15 (or about $400 in today’s currency). Poe was believed to be one of the first people to try and make a living from writing full-time.   

As he grew into a teenager, Poe would argue with his foster dad who did not want Poe to become a writer. (Like today, most writers in the early 1800s struggled to earn a living).

John Allan wanted Poe to become an academic, enrolling Poe in the University of Virginia. But Poe spent most of his time gambling, then dropped out. Allan helped Poe enter West Point, believing discipline from the military was what Poe needed. But again, Poe gambled, and drank, and tried to be expelled, which he was. (Poe would later claim that he was forced to gamble because Allan had the nerve to give him just a small amount of money).

John Allan, fed up of Poe’s inability to stick with anything, and his gambling and drinking addictions, cut Poe out of his life – and his will.

The troubled Poe went to live with his aunt and her daughter Virginia. Virginia was 7 years old at the time, but would become Poe’s wife within a few short years.

The two married in 1836 when Virginia was 13 (Poe was 26). (Marriage to a cousin was common in the 1800s, but marrying someone at such a young age was not). The Minister who married the two was told by a friend (urged on by Poe) that Virginia was 21.virginia

Edgar Allen Poe’s wife Virginia was said to be more like a sister than a wife to Poe. In fact, Poe referred to her as “Sis.” Historians disagree on the nature of their relationship. While it appeared loving, it’s believed the marriage was never consummated.

The end of the Poe marriage was tragic.

Virginia contracted tuberculosis and suffered from the illness for five years. While she endured her sickness, Poe was having an affair with another woman named Frances Osgood. Virginia was aware of the relationship and apparently okay with it – for a while. She then became enraged when a second “other” woman came on the scene.

Elizabeth Ellet, who also wrote poetry, was obsessed with Poe and jealous of his affair with Osgood. She wrote love letters to Poe, never receiving a response. In revenge, she claimed they were written, not by her, but by Poe, and said it was Poe pursuing her (not the other way around).

It’s believed the stress caused by Poe’s problems hastened Virginia’s death. His wife was so distraught over the scandals that, on her deathbed, she claimed the other women had, in effect, murdered her.cover

This is the actual front cover of a collection of poems written by Edgar Allan Poe when he moved to Boston in 1827. It was his first published work and today, 12 copies are known to still exist. Note that Poe chose not to use his name, calling himself “A Bostonian”. (It’s believed he was trying to hide from his foster father John Allan with whom he had a falling out). Poe wrote the poems during a stint in the U.S. army. A chronic liar, Poe told the army he was 22. He was 18. The poems were virtually ignored when Poe first published them.

For much of his life, Poe was poor and directionless. At one point, he listened to a friend named Frederick Thomas who had connections with the then President of the United States, William Henry Harrison (who served as President for only 31 days in 1841, dying in office from pneumonia). A meeting was arranged between Poe and the President in which Poe planned to ask for a job. But Poe never showed, claiming he was sick. In his words: “I found myself too ill to venture out.”

In fact, Poe was hung over. (He later regretted not showing up, as the job paid $1,500 a year – twice what he made at a magazine where he worked at the time). (Some reports say Poe went to see the President a second time but was turned away due to intoxication).

Edgar Allan Poe never wrote a single book.

From about age 13, he constantly wrote poems and short stories, usually just for himself – then later to sell to magazines. But Poe made most of his meager income from editing publications and being a literary critic.

He achieved a degree of fame in his lifetime, but his genius was not fully appreciated until after his death. (When alive, he was more popular in Europe than the U.S.). Poe popularized detective and horror fiction, had incredible command of language, and drew from his own life to tell tales of loss, sorrow and terror. His stories of murder and the macabre are so shilling, they shock readers even today.

balloon

Long before the existence of “fake news” Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story in the New York Sun about a 3-day balloon trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The year was 1844, which was 134 years before the first actual transatlantic balloon trip was made by the Double Eagle II in 1978. Poe admitted later that he made up the story, which was headlined “Astounding News!”. He wrote the article with realistic descriptions. Readers, believing the story to be true, desperately wanted to get their hands on a copy of the paper, which also featured the crude illustration shown here. The article is said to have kick-started the modern science fiction genre. 

The end for Poe came shortly after the death of his wife.

Virginia’s passing at age 24 from tuberculosis (the same age Poe’s mother and brother died) had devastated Poe to an extreme. He drank more than ever and quickly went into a downward spiral from which he would never recover.

Amazingly, despite his despondency, and within days of his wife’s passing, Poe tried to seduce other women. He quickly got engaged to marry a woman named Elmira Shelton who commented that Poe did not look well. His doctor advised him not to travel, even though he was set to leave so he could edit a book for another poet.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found lying in a Baltimore street – delirious, beaten, sick and mumbling incoherently – near a bar called Ryan’s Tavern. He was taken to Washington College hospital, suspected of being drunk.

While Poe was being cared for, he was unable to explain what he was doing on the street or why he was apparently wearing clothes that were not his own.

He made reference to a “wife in Richmond” apparently believing that his wife Virginia was still alive. Poe also reportedly told his doctor that the best thing he could do is “blow my brains out”.

It was 4 days after entering the hospital, on October 7, that Poe, according to his doctor, said “Lord, help my poor soul,” then collapsed and died. He was just 40 years old.

Nobody really knows what happened to Poe. Speculation has ranged from alcohol poisoning to disease and possibly suicide. (Poe had experienced a drug overdose a year earlier). (One theory is that Poe was the victim of a scam in which people were drugged and forced to vote for a political party at multiple polling stations. There was an election on the day he was found).

While he had many fans in his lifetime, Poe had few true friends. Only 7 people attended his funeral. (Poe’s cousin, Neilson Poe, failed to tell anyone he had died).

Edgar Allan Poe’s use of his imagination put him in the history books. Today, we can use our own creativity and imagination to free us from career and life stagnation.  

After Poe died, a New York Tribune obituary (which quickly went national) said: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” The obit was written by editor and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who hated Poe and considered him to be “a depraved, drug-addled madman.” For many years, the public’s impression of Poe was based on the harshly worded obit. Fans of Poe believed he was poorly treated, so in 2009 in Baltimore, a gathering of 700 fans staged a “proper” funeral for Poe which included a life-size recreation of his body. 

Many famous writers since Poe have been strongly influenced by him. Among them were Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote Sherlock Holmes. Interest in Poe remains strong to this day with over 300 movies, songs and TV shows based on his works.

Poe jumped around from city to city in his life time. He spent time in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Virginia. Each city has, at one time or another, claimed Poe for itself – but his actual birthplace was Boston.

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