In 1849, a little over 167 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe was found dead in a Baltimore gutter under mysterious circumstances very likely related to violent election fraud. It was an ignominious end to a life marked by hardship, alcoholism, and loss. After struggling for years as the first American writer to try and make a living from his art, and failing in several publishing ventures and positions, Poe achieved few of his aims, barely getting by financially and only managing to attract a little—often negative—notice for now-famous poems like “The Raven.” Contemporaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson disparaged the poem and a later generation of writers, including William Butler Yeats, pronounced him “vulgar.”
But of course, as we know, a countercurrent of Poe appreciation took hold among writers, artists, and filmmakers interested in mystery, horror, and the supernatural—to such a degree that in the previous century, nearly every artist even passingly associated with darker themes has interpreted Poe as a rite of passage. We recently featured a reading of “The Raven” by the often-sinister Christopher Walken.
At the top of the post, you can hear another version of the Queen’s-born actor reading Poe’s best-known work, a poem designed to produce what the author called a “unity of effect” with its incantatory repetitions. This recording comes from a collection of celebrity Poe readings called Closed on Account of Rabies, which also features such unique takes on the classic horror writer’s work as that above, “The Tell-Tale Heart” as read by Iggy Pop.
Just above, hear a lesser-known poem by Poe called “Ulalume” read by Jeff Buckley, with an accompanying soundtrack of low, pulsing, vaguely Western-inspired music that well suits Buckley’s formal, rhythmic recitation. The use of music on this album has divided many Poe fans, and admittedly, some tracks work better than others. On Buckley’s “Ulalume,” the music heightens tension and provides a perfect atmosphere for imagining “the misty mid region of Weir,” its “ghoul-haunted woodland,” and the “scoriac rivers” of lava pouring from the poet’s heart. On Marianne Faithful’s reading of “Annabelle Lee,” below, a score of keening synths can seem overwrought and unnecessary.
The remainder of the 1997 album, which you can purchase here, treats us to readings from 80s goth-rock stars Diamanda Galas and Gavin Friday, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara, Blondie singer Debbie Harry, and gravel-voiced New Orleans bluesman Dr. John, among others.
The Great Stan Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
Christopher Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and From “The Fall of the House of Usher”
James Earl Jones Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
John Astin, From The Addams Family, Recites “The Raven” as Edgar Allan Poe
The Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe’s Death: 19 Theories on What Caused the Poet’s Demise
7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Stories and Poems
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
First, Poe was NOT found dead in a Baltimore gutter. He was found alive, not wearing his own clothing, and disoriented. He was taken to the local hospital, in a building that is now part of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, were he died several days later of what was called “brain fever.” The collection here is called “Closed on Account of Rabies” because a modern physician provided a case study of Poe’s illness (without being told that the patient was Poe)noted that the symptoms listed by Poe’s 19th century medical caregivers were characteristic of rabies, which would explain Poe’s off-and-on comatose behavior, ravings, and delirium (no anti-rabies shots available then). So Poe likely did not die of severe alcoholism, but had come into contact with a rabid animal and been infected. He had been on a short poetry-reading tour from his current home in the Bronx, where he lived in a cottage with his mother-in-law after the death from tuberculosis of his wife, Virginia. He was NOT the first American writer to make a living from his work. That was likely James Fenimore Cooper, whose popular adventure novels, like The Last of the Mohicans, were best-sellers from the 1820s on. The rabies probably became acute while Poe was traveling. The false legend about Poe’s death is similar to that about Vincent Van Gogh, who supposedly shot himself in the chest with a pistol and died a day later from suicide. But two art historians recently uncovered evidence that Van Gogh had come into contact with French teenagers who were playing with a gun, which went off, fatally wounding the unfortunate artist, who refused to tell the local police the true cause of his death to avoid getting the kids in trouble. (Too bad they didn’t have Level I trauma care in 1890–he probably would have survived.)
thank you for the excellently done correction! yay history buffs
Poe did have a scratch on his shoulder near the time of his death. He had been in his mother’s old theatre- chain city, Norfolk, Virginia for ten days right before he died. He had met some one who interested him there. He was really not that interested now in his old girlfriend Elmira Shelton, and he said so in several letters: “The thought of this marriage makes me sink!” He went to this woman’s homes inside and outside of Norfolk. Her relative was a colleague of Poe’s. Elmira’s husband’s will had stipulated if she remarried the son would get everything, and Poe certainly could not support her in the style to which she was accustomed. It was not possible that he marry Elmira. He liked younger women. There are a lot of errors in Poe’s story that have purposely been allowed to stand. I researched this here for forty years, and my play is available. It could easily be converted to film, my experienced and respected advisors said. Poe had lived around Norfolk for 18 months as a child and soldier. His father died here.–Myreen Moore (Nicholson)