Education, adolescence and Edgar Allan Poe

That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of the heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.”

The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe

D.H. Lawrence once said that Edgar Allan Poe was “doomed to seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process.” This statement drives at the significance of Poe’s influence and unique literary contribution, though his writings are often dismissed as sensationalist, gothic sideshows.

Henry James, in the vein of such criticism, said: “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” The primitive stage of reflection, however, is an integral part of human experience and hence human education. Everyone passes through a primitive stage of reflection during adolescence—a stage of darker bents, psychological tempests, self-awakening, and self-doubt. It is the concern of education to provide contexts and consolations for the tribulations that arise in adolescence, and Poe’s works, because they are dark, can serve as an outlet and occasion for young people struggling to find the light of truth.

As childhood is doffed and the inky cloak of young adulthood is donned, perceptions can shift to realms of solitude and secrecy where truth has been somehow lost. The adolescent feels suddenly estranged, and frequently filled with longings for an immortal good that has not yet been reached. Beauty becomes elusive and inaccessible—the subject of impossible dreams and desires. The skies can become shrouded by horror and the soul strangled by terror. This is the world of Edgar Allan Poe, this is the world of adolescence, and it is a world everyone must conquer in the process of education.

Poe’s “great continuous convulsion” speaks very naturally and very intensely to the adolescent spirit—passion, love, hatred, murder, primal desires and fears, a desperate pursuit for meaning in a corrupt world. Poe is a maelstrom of pleasures both pure and perverse and, as such, he appeals to youth. As such again, care must be taken not to mistake the pleasures of elevating the soul in the contemplation of the beautiful for the pleasures of entombing the soul in the contemplation of the baleful.

Though Poe offers an intense access to beauty, his is a brooding beauty. Nevertheless, his stories, though risky for their heaviness, invite the denial of those things that make men mad, and the refusal to succumb to the fascination of evil or the capitulation before woe. Edgar Allan Poe’s tales capture the adolescent trial, which education must take seriously. Adolescence is a search. Adulthood is dealing with the discovery, and education must be the guide.

Poe’s tales, grim and brutal though they often are, provide an occasion to cope with the contradictions of the mind, so characteristic of adolescence, as they move toward contemplation of metaphysical beauty. Stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, poems like “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” offer what T. S. Eliot called the objective correlative: a criterion to identify and objectify the experience of stirrings that are almost too profound to bear.

Though there is a nightmarish intangibility in many of Poe’s gothic masterpieces—a vague sense of foreboding, a floating uneasiness, or shadowy moodiness—this abstract aura always surrounds objects of a very concrete nature: bricks and mortar, cats and rats, spades and coffins, cutthroat apes and crippled dwarves, ravens and red masks, and antique houses with vacant, eye-like windows. Poe’s juxtaposition of the tangible and the intangible drives at the distinction between reason and madness, between reality and reverie, between hope and horror, and gives young readers a chilling chance to demarcate these elements of the universe in tones that are often in-keeping, that are sympathetic, with the melancholic adolescent spirit.

There is a dark side to human nature that education should not ignore, and one way to defeat it is to face it in vicarious experiences. In this way, Poe’s tales afford an Aristotelian catharsis, giving form, meaning, and outlet to things that are naturally grappled with given the coming of age. Such experiences, jarring though they may be, can be therapeutic in the struggle to burst into the light of truth that glimmers at the end of a dark tunnel.

This struggle dominates Poe’s tales of mystery, madness, and the macabre because it dominated his own tortured existence. Poe, for all his ugliness, however, believed in beauty; but he believed that beauty required a battle before it might be beheld. And those battles are not always won, but an education that addresses the needs and notions of the young in strains that can be understood is calculated to bring victory.

There arises in adolescents an appetite for principles as well as for pleasures, and this is a quality to be held and honed. Adolescence, together with adolescent education, draws awakening intellects and hearts to be both turned in on themselves and observant of outside things. This double preoccupation and perception is the educational effort to discover who we are and how we fit into our surroundings, deciphering the pit from the pendulum.

The phantasms of Edgar Allan Poe’s imagination are potent educational material for such reflections, for his stories wrestle with who we are as human beings, engaged in the seemingly irreconcilable problem of evil. Poe is a guide to find and contemplate that one, elusive beauty that will hold life together and make it meaningful forevermore, and his voice should be heard and heeded in the realm of education.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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