Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered one of the most important writers in the canon of American literature, and in particular, of the 19th century.
Regarded by many as the central figure of American Romanticism, particularly the Gothic, he was also an originator of the short story in America and of the detective crime fiction genre. Best known for his poetry, short stories, and literary criticism, Poe wrote and edited prolifically during his short life.
Now, every Halloween, he’s the most quoted writer, hands down. (If you want a great mystery for Halloween, check out The 25 Best Mystery Books of All Time.)
But who was Edgar Allan Poe, really? So many myths surround him, so let’s get a few things straight.
Born in Boston on January 19, 1809, Poe was the second child of actors David and Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe. David, however, wasn’t around long for the family and abandoned Eliza with two young children in 1810. A year later, Eliza died, and Poe was informally adopted by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Poe started gambling young — in tune with the obsessive personality that would follow him his entire life. Though he attended the University of Virginia for a year, he left when his gambling problem ran out of control.
In 1827, he enlisted in the United States Army under a pseudonym, also publishing his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, under the simple name “A Bostonian.” The Army sent Poe to West Point, but he soon failed out, also falling completely out of favor with his adoptive family.
But soon he had a little family of his own. Poe married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin, in 1836. Working for several literary journals and periodicals — mostly as a critic — Poe and Clemm moved to Philadelphia, then New York City, and finally to Baltimore.
It was in Baltimore that Poe finally found the literary success he so craved with the publication of his poem “The Raven” in January 1845. In 1847, Virginian Clemm died of tuberculosis. Though Poe continued writing after her death, his own health became increasingly precarious. Poe died on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore. How did he die? We’re not exactly true, but the cause is widely speculated, some arguing for alcoholism, tuberculosis, rabies, or even suicide.
At the time of his death, Poe was just 40 years old. Yet he left a hefty body of literary work in his wake.
This post is a guide to 20 of his best works, including short stories, poems, and essays.
“From childhood’s hour, I have not been / As others were—I have not seen / As others saw,” Poe writes in the poem “Alone.”
Lesser known than many of his longer poems or gothic short stories, “Alone” offers us a look into Poe’s obsession with the macabre from a young age. He ends the poem by eerily seeing “(When the rest of Heaven was blue) Of a demon in my view—”
2. The Balloon Hoax
This 1844 short story appeared in the New York Sun as if it was a real piece of news! Poe, however, was a master of literary extortion. “The Balloon Hoax,” tells the story of a fictional passenger balloon, the Victoria, which supposedly crossed the Atlantic Ocean in just three days to land near Charleston, South Carolina.
3. Annabel Lee
One of Poe’s most famous poems, “Annabel Lee” tells the story of a woman tragically eaten by the sea she so loved. She was thrown there by angels jealous of the love between Annabel and the poem’s narrator, a gothic rendering of Christian theology if there ever was one. The poem inspired a 2009 horror film of the same name.
Poe isn’t known for his short stories with happy endings. But “Eleonora” isn’t your typical short story on many levels.
The story tells the tale of a man living with his aunt and a much younger cousin in The Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. They are isolated but happy, and after a decade-and-a-half of living in this manner, “Love entered.”
The man is enchanted by his young cousin, and they fall in love with one another. When she tragically dies, the man vows to never marry “to any daughter of Earth.” Most scholars find the story to be one of Poe’s more autobiographical.
5. To My Mother
Remaining in the vein of sweet Poe, a few of his collected works is the fine little poem, “To My Mother.” We know Poe’s family life was complicated from birth, to say the least. But his biological mother, who died when Poe was still an infant, remained a beloved mythical creature in his mind and writing throughout his life, as did the other mothers in his life.
He addresses them in this oddly sweet verse, writing, “Because I feel that, in the Heavens above, / The angels, whispering to one another, / Can find, among their burning terms of love, / None so devotional as that of ‘Mother’.”
6. Sonnet-To Science
“Sonnet—To Science” — Poe joined a series of prominent nineteenth-century American intellectuals in rejecting religion, men and women who devoted themselves to the pursuit of science.
But at heart, Poe was still a romantic. “Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!” he begins in this odd little love sonnet to science. Then he asks, “Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” Poe, in both poetry and verse, was consumed by the metaphysical.
7. The Masque of the Red Death
Writers often confront the pressing issues of their day through allegory, and 1842’s “The Masque of the Red Death” offers Poe at his finest in joining this long literary tradition.
In the story, Prince Prospero attempts to avoid a dangerous plague, the Red Death, by hiding in an abbey. Most believe the Red Death is an allegory for tuberculous, the disease that would kill Poe’s wife and possibly Poe himself.
8. A Dream Within a Dream
With one of the most well-known couplets in Poe’s poetry — “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream. — “
A Dream Within a Dream” is the height of American Romanticism in verse. According to the Academy of American Poets, “Romantic poets cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural.
Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics.” Here, Poe certainly cultivates an individualism, as he would do for the rest of his career.
9. The Tell-Tale Heart
Perhaps the most famous of Poe’s short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a standard curriculum in many American literature classes, from middle and high school to university surveys.
Published in 1843, it features a nameless narrator — trademark to Poe’s work more generally — who is going mad following a murder he committed.
The narrator believes he has committed the perfect murder until he is constantly haunted by what he believes to be his victim’s thumping heart. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is considered one of the finest works of American Gothic fiction.
10. Spirits of the Dead
Poe’s fascination with death and haunting is seemingly endless. In the poem “Spirits of the Dead,” he writes, “Thy soul shall find itself alone / ’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone—” but that we should celebrate this place, for death allows us, finally, to “Be silent in that solitude, / Which is not loneliness.”
Not the most uplifting of poems, even for Poe, but certainly a fine representation of his turning morbid into something more familiar and thus, acceptable. Need a break from all this doom and gloom? Check out Up Journey’s guide to the 27 Best Books on Happiness and Joy.
11. William Wilson
This early (1839) short story chronicles the life of a young nobleman, William Wilson, who meets his doppelgänger, also William Wilson, in school. The noble Wilson dismisses their shared name, their shared birthday of January 19 (also Poe’s birthday), and their shared appearance.
After being haunted by his twin, Wilson finally admits that his mirror was but the dark side of himself, saying, “mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood.”
Poe didn’t only obsess over dream states in verse. In this 1838 short story, a demon observes the actions of a solitary man in a desolate land of sadness and death.
Of course, that land ends up being a dream, but the story, short as it is, remains one of the most confusing, lyrical examples of Poe’s enduring prose.
We often forget that Poe felt deeply. But in the poem “Romance,” he writes, “My heart would feel to be a crime / Unless it trembled with the strings” of passion.
Exemplary of his ability to move between the classically romantic and the macabre, this poem is not often read but is an important part of Poe’s collected works.
14. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
This 1845 short story illustrates well Poe’s obsession with trying to communicate with the dead or dying. At the center of this tale is a mesmerist who hypnotizes a man at the exact moment of his death.
One of his goriest stories — Poe loved medical textbooks and consumed them voraciously — many readers thought the story to be an actual scientific report and not a work of fiction. (We, too, find hypnosis pretty interesting! Check out Up Journey’s guide to The 11 Best Self Hypnosis Books.)
A poem subsequently sung by many, “Eldorado” shows some of Poe’s finest lyrical tightness in verse. The poem ends with some of the most famous of Poe’s lines: “‘Over the Mountains / Of the Moon, / Down the Valley of the Shadow, / Ride, boldly ride,’ / The shade replied,— / ‘If you seek for Eldorado!’” Few scholars agree on what Eldorado is actually an allegory for.
16. The Fall of the House of Usher
Many a high school student has responded to an essay question on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous stories. The story is famous for good reason.
Published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839, the story is one of Poe’s more narratively driven, chronicling the literal (and metaphorical) destruction of Roderick Usher’s once-grand house.
17. The Haunted Palace
Not surprisingly, Poe was also obsessed with places he felt to be haunted, spirit-filled, or otherwise storied. In “The Haunted Palace,” Poe writes of “Once a fair and stately palace” gone to ruin because “evil things, in robes of sorrow, / Assailed the monarch’s high estate.”
Indeed, Poe enjoyed deploying themes of decay again and again. In the 1835 story “Berenice,” Poe returns to a familiar narrative. It is the story of Egaeus, a man who is preparing to marry his cousin Berenice.
In the story, Berenice is dying from a mysterious disease that slowly rots her body until all that remains are her teeth. Similar to the heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Berenice’s teeth haunt Egaeus until he, like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” goes mad.
19. The Spectacles
The finest of Poe’s comedic writing, 1844’s “The Spectacles” is a story about love at first sight. A young man, Napoleon Bonaparte Froissart, instantly falls in love with a rich widow, Madame Eugenie Lalande.
When he asks her to marry him, she agrees but demands that he wears glasses on their wedding night. When they go to consummate their nuptials, Napoleon quickly realizes that Eugenie is actually a hideous toothless woman of 82 years old.
20. The Raven
The most enduring of Poe’s poems, and a Halloween staple, “The Raven” deploys some of the most well-known languages of American storytelling. It begins: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—.”
Like many of Poe’s stories and poems, “The Raven” is about a haunting creature, this time a bird, not a heart or teeth, who never leaves its narrator in peace. “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting / On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.”