Edgar Allan Poe. Mention the name and dark images of phantom ravens lurk on the edge of your memory pulsating with the dull thud of a heartbeat you try to place in a time that has undoubtedly become timeless. His name conjures the same familiar mood brought on by happy fairy tales told in childhood, but echoes the horrific and often strange reality of life reminiscent of lessons told in Grimm stories. Insanity, darkness, depression, terror; some words are forever associated with the legacy of this noteworthy American literary.
Illness, death, poverty and failure Poe knew all to well. His struggles are familiar to many and relevant especially to laboring creatives. His bizarre and unruly imagination, despite his life’s hardships, have inspired artists across genres and continents to continue to explore the surreal, the grotesque, symbols, and psychological expression for all the risk of being misunderstood and denigrated. Poe lives on through these people, today, in myth; his work passed on as tradition, his memory, a man with dark sullen grey eyes who possessed a mood twice as gloomy and three times as deep and complex.
Edgar Allan Poe, because of his fantastic macabre sensibilities and fits of insanity, has become a romantic and much loved Gothic icon; Poe the Patron Saint of the Dark and Weird. Naturally, he has always been a fascination of mine. His struggle to live the life of a poet and writer while constantly being pursued by unrelenting fate is a relatable existence. Not until recently, however, had I thought about the myth that is Poe, or that we have made of Poe. His name has become an illusion which encompasses ideas greater than those of his own and also, at the same time, less than those of his own. He has become an icon and is held accountable for reinterpreting Gothic literature. Even though some critics have dismissed him, I find it fascinating how such a figure has been woven so tightly into American culture that most everyone can understand the near-universal familiarity of Poe references in episodes of the Simpsons, South Park, and in songs such as John Lennon’s “I am the Walrus.”
While pondering Poe and the ideas of popular iconography the play on words Edgar Allan Po(p)e popped into my head. Immediately I created a sketch. I had to paint it. The pieces fit too nicely together to ignore. What greater way to play with symbols, iconography, and allegory that to incorporate one of the best known literary figures with religious, philosophical, and Hermetic references. I could construct a new narrative using the cultural legend of Poe by digging deeper into his psyche and drawing parallels he had laid out secretly within his work.
Besides pointing to two of his most famous works in this painting, also my favorites (The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart), I also reference the Cross of Lorraine and other Hermetic or Alchemical symbols. I believe the duality and esoteric effect of these symbols compliment Poe’s own use of cryptography within his work. Poe, being highly intelligent and literary obsessed, was versed in ideas of Alchemy and other writers who utilized the philosophy. In The Gold-Bug he uses tremendous skill to construct a tale woven with arcane ideas of alchemical philosophy and symbolism to complete his narrative into an aesthetic whole. The tulip tree in the tale draws parallels between the alchemical “tree of life” and the duality inherent within the symbolism. The tree stands in for a ladder braced between two worlds. The “physical” and the “spiritual”, the “profane” and the “sacred,” “As Above, So Below.” I also, incorporated this tree onto Poe’s gold papal vestments.
The equilateral double cross also represents these same ideas of duality while also referencing the “secret knowledge” of the Philosopher’s Stone. This cross is the perfect Hermetic icon as the equal mirrored bars allude to the words of Hermes, “That which is above is the same as that which is below;” macrocosms is the same as microcosms. In essence, Hermes believed that God is the counterpart of man on earth and man as the counterpart for God on earth just as cells are the counterparts for humans and atoms for cells. Poe was held accountable for being blasphemous when he voiced similar views. Poe writes in Eureka, “God, self-existing and alone existing, became all things at once, through dint of his volition, while all things were thus constituted a portion of God.” In the book he explores conceptions of the nature of “matter” rather than the nature of “spirit.” In alchemical terms, matter (things of the earth) would be referred to as the “profane” and spirit as the “sacred.” Suggestions of the profane relate well to Poe’s inspections of earthly fears, delights, and sadistic tendencies in his other works as well.
It is speculated by many that Poe’s only true god was Art. He was obsessed with technique and his genius manifested not only in his distinctive creativity but also his analytical powers. It was his incisive thinking and detailed analysis that most likely lead to his presumed lack of faith in religion and unconventional views, for which, he was criticized and misunderstood. It is with irony that I paint him in iconic Catholic wardrobe. The effect is satirical with concerns to modern day acceptance of horrendous sentimental religious artwork that lacks substance and reality. Demand for diluted imagery which neither expresses critical though process or questions anything has lead to a cheapened art experience where reality of life has been stripped of profanity all for the sake of sparing us scandal. Poe, being a man of technique and mind, refused to stand for work he believed lacked artistic adeptness. He was extremely critical of his peers. I believe he would have been amused by my painting, if anything, in recognizing the satirical nudge.
All this is not without respect for Poe, but in celebration of his memory. Poe was a perfect tragic hero. His intelligence and creativity has put him at the top of the list of truly unique poetic artists. His struggles with melancholia and his despairing and sullen disposition only add to his darkly romantic appeal. It was he himself who wrote, “…that fitful stain of melancholy which will ever be found inseparable from the perfection of the beautiful.” His life’s work, in all of it’s uniqueness and his pursuit of literary perfection was indeed beautiful. Lorine Pruettf writes of Poe’s death in, A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe, and describes it as, “a release not to be regretted by any who love Beauty as an end in itself and who crave for its expression a form no less perfect than that which Poe was able to give in the days of his greatest power” (401).