January 19th marked Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, and the news was abuzz with talk of a unidentified person, who, since 1949, has slipped into Baltimore's Westminster Burial Ground, made a strange gesture, and left three roses and a bottle of cognac at Poe's grave. The event now attracts hundreds of onlookers who stay up all night hoping, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger (who has proven remarkably elusive).
Journalist Bruce Goldfarb recounted his near run-in with the man in 1983. It reads like something out of, well, Poe:
He was slender, wearing what appeared to be a cape or long cloak. His head was covered, but I couldn't make out the style of hat. In one hand he held a walking stick.
The Poe Toaster looked up at us and raised his hand to either salute or shake his fist at us; the gold tip of his walking stick glinted under the streetlights. With a flourish of his cloak, the Poe Toaster slipped into the darkness and was gone.
Sadly, this was the second straight year that the stranger failed to show, inviting speculation that he has died.
It's hard to beat a macabre little mystery involving one of the best-known mystery writers of all time, but it's important to remember that Poe was more than just a mystery writer. Some credit him with inventing the horror and mystery genres and with helping to establish the short story as a literary form. His poetry and criticism -- particularly his attention to style and structure -- were groundbreaking. He was also one of the first American writers to earn international acclaim; the great French poet Charles Baudelaire spent more than a decade translating Poe's work.
We should also remember that Poe's dark stories were born out of a very difficult life. He was highly intelligent, but gambling debts forced him to leave the University of Virginia after only one semester. He later married his 13-year-old cousin, who died just two years later. And he went on to battle depression and alcoholism, dying rather mysteriously at the age of 40 from "acute congestion of the brain."
The Poe Toaster may not have left him gifts this year, but we can remember what Poe left for us. Here are two poems that you probably haven't read: the very clever "Sonnet -- To Science" and the chilling (and perhaps autobiographical) poem "Alone." You can read more of Poe's work here.
"Sonnet -- To Science"
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were--I have not seen
As others saw--I could not bring
My passions from a common spring--
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow--I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone--
And all I lov'd--I lov'd alone--
Then--in my childhood--in the dawn
Of a most stormy life--was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still--
From the torrent, or the fountain--
From the red cliff of the mountain--
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold--
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by--
From the thunder, and the storm--
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view--
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