Poe – Crazy or Genius?

“And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art: she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing of all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover (Poe 291).”

In Edgar Allen Poe’s compelling short story, The Oval Portrait, I found this brief passage to be particularly compelling. In this point in the story, the narrator is reading about the portrait of the young woman in the book he found. One of the more interesting things I noticed about this passage was Poe’s seemingly bitter tone toward love. For instance, he says “evil was the hour when she saw, and loved..” To him, the wedding of the painter to the young bride was not a moment to be celebrated, but a moment to be dreaded, and also seems to foreshadow the dark events that occur later in the passage. Further, he talks about the art as her “rival” which deprived her of the “countenance of her lover.” Again, we see Poe take a negative stance toward love by suggesting that love is only fleeting. To me, these quotes almost seemed to be a reflection of Poe’s character. Poe himself was an artist, and was obviously a very dark, troubled man. Could these quotes be a reflection of Poe’s own failed attempts at love? If you read beneath the surface of these quotes, they seem to be. Why else would he take such a negative stance on the relationship between an artist and a young lover?

Another interesting aspect of the text I noticed was the contrast between the maiden in the passage I selected and the maiden from later in the story. At first, she was a “maiden of rarest beauty,” “full of glee, light, and smiles,” “loving and cherishing,” and “frolicsome as the young fawn.” These positive, flattering quotes are in direct contrast with some of Poe’s quotes from later in the text. Later in the text, the woman has “withered health and spirits,” “visibly pining,” and grew “daily more dispirited and weak (Poe 292).” Clearly, Poe’s use of contrast adds a vivid visual element to his work. Not only is she beautiful, she is of the “rarest beauty.” “Frolicsome as the young fawn” is a brilliant metaphor that describes her love for life and purity of spirit. “Withered health and spirits” invokes an image of an apple going bad, which is a very vivid description for her failing beauty. All in all, the good and bad descriptions of the woman are very vivid. This contrast also further adds to one of the central themes that I think Poe is striving to reach. Losing yourself in your work shouldn’t cause you to miss out on life. So by contrasting the woman so vividly, Poe makes the woman a symbol for the enjoyment of life, and how the artist loses this enjoyment of life as he loses his touch on reality. And when she finally dies, this represents the death of sanity and reality for the artist.

Furthermore, this passage has very dynamic shifts in two of the characters. We already know that the woman shifted from “a maiden of rarest beauty” to “withered health and spirits,” but the artist had a dynamic shift as well. He is described as “passionate, studious, and austere,” all very positive descriptions. However, by the end of the whole passage, he became a “wild and moody man who became lost in reveries (Poe 292).” He also “turned the his eyes from the canvas rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife (Poe 292),” and only realizes her demise at the very end. The artist shifts from a studious, peaceful man to a man who is obsessively lost in his work and out of touch with reality. Both characters go through dynamic shifts, and both character’s shifts are in a negative direction.

As a whole, I see this work of fiction as a reflection of Poe’s character. And I believe that this idea is represented best in Poe’s use of the word art. The fact that the word “Art” is capitalized throughout this passage seems significant. In my view, it is an attempt at personification. In the passage, “Art” is the artist’s “bride” and the woman’s “rival.” In this case, it seems as if Poe is depicting Art as a physical being with the power to take away the love and life of the artist. Again, I believe that Poe’s negative use of the word Art is significant in terms of reflections regarding his character. Poe himself is an artist of sorts. So why would someone who writes, who pens verbal art, look at art in such a negative way? Perhaps at this point in Poe’s life, he was depressed and didn’t see any significance in his work. Maybe he was a brilliant literary mind who felt trapped by his genius and never truly enjoyed writing, but continually fell back on it because it was what he was good at. Or maybe he is just questioning Art itself. While everyone sees art and artistic geniuses as brilliant and worthwhile, perhaps Poe sees the obsessive pursuit of art as detrimental to the enjoyment of life. In the end, it seems to me that Poe is critiquing art’s dissociation with reality.

All in all, I think that the particular passage I chose was very important when attempting to understand The Oval Portrait. Poe uses contrast, description, and metaphor brilliantly to predict the demise of the woman. He also uses her as a symbol for the enjoyment of life. Furthermore, this passage seems to be a reflection of Poe’s character. His stances on art and love seem to be very dark interpretations, and may shed light on Poe’s troubled character.


One comment

  1. I definitely agree that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait reveals his character. After walking through the Poe exhibit during class, I saw how his love life was a bit twisted in light of today’s standards. I believe that what people create is greatly impacted by their emotions and the society in which they live. This holds true with Poe’s writing; he had several unsuccessful (or abnormal) pursuits in love, so he transferred this negativity into his own stories. By doing so, a person’s creation—whether it be art, writing, or music, etc.—can serve as a living diary that demonstrates what the artist or writer was going through at a certain point in his or her life. Because of this, one may ask that if Poe’s characters fall to ruin because of their artistic creations, did Poe believe he would fall to ruin as well due to his writing? Are his pieces a call for help or a warning to other artists like himself? I suppose only Poe can tell. To answer the question in your title, I believe Poe was a crazy genius.

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