When Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, he left behind a literary mystery.
Poe was just 40 years old. His fame had only recently peaked, in 1845, with the publication of The Raven, his haunting narrative poem of lost love. But after four days in hospital in a state of delirium, he died, and it has never been clear why. In the years since, scholars have tried to work out what might have happened to Poe, suggesting theories ranging from alcohol withdrawal to carbon monoxide poisoning, brain tumor to murder. Many have also believed, both at the time and since, that he took his own life.
Now, researchers at the University of Lancaster in the UK and the University of Texas at Austin have applied a new technique of computational language analysis to Poe’s letters, poems, and short stories, seeking clues as to the author’s mental state in each year of his writing life, with a view to proving or disproving the suicide hypothesis. Their conclusion is that Poe was not, in fact, showing signs consistent with suicidality in the years immediately preceding his death. But they discovered something else interesting about Poe’s language: Specific markers of depression and unhappiness do exhibit peaks—and, perhaps counterintuitively, the peaks coincide with the years of his greatest success.
Poe and “I”
The researchers first identified all the works they could find that fit their criteria (over 100 words in length, with an identifiable month and year of creation, and definitely by Poe), giving them a sample of 309 letters, 49 poems, and 63 short stories. They then used a technology that scans text “for words that reflect psychologically meaningful dimensions,” they wrote, a tool called LIWC2015. The tool, developed by researchers at Austin led by James W. Pennebaker (and including one of those who then applied it to Poe), uses machine learning to read text and categorize it by word type. One thing it can look for is use of “negative” and “positive” words, (perhaps dreary or radiant, to give two examples from Poe’s poem The Raven.) But perhaps more interestingly, what Pennebaker discovered is that instances of other, apparently innocuous words can give a more robust picture of how a person is feeling when they write.
Pennebaker made the discovery when analyzing essays written by people who had suffered trauma. Alongside positive and negative words, he included “function words,” of which there are about 500 in English, and which we use mostly unconsciously, in his computer program. He then cross-referenced the use of those words with other measures of the subjects’ mental states. What he discovered was that use of prepositions, pronouns, and auxiliary verbs were more telling than use of adjectives like dreary or radiant. For example, people exhibiting symptoms of depression tend to use personal pronouns, like I, much more than do non-depressed people.
The method has been used with all kinds of text, from email communications to personal essays to conversation transcripts, with reliable results, Pennebaker says. Based on the discovery, he went on to co-found a company, Receptiviti, which promises companies it can help them identify unhappy teams by analyzing office communication.
For the Poe study, the researchers focused on five measures that had, in previous studies, been found most consistently to be diagnostic of depression and/or suicidality: “first person pronouns (e.g. words like I, me, and my), negative emotion words (bad, sad, angry), cognitive processing words (think, understand, know), positive emotion words (happy, good, terrific), and first person plural pronouns (we, us, our).” (The last two of which would be expected to be lower than average.) They discovered that despite Poe’s image as a writer of dark tales, he in fact appeared to be more positive than average, as shown by an “exceedingly high use of positive emotion words, and notably low use of negative emotion words,” as they wrote in their paper, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
His use of pronouns, however, told a different story. Here, there was a much clearer pattern: “the author’s elevated use of first-person singular pronouns and decreased use of first-personal plural pronouns suggest that Poe’s language bears undeniable semblance to that of persons in poor psychological health,” the authors write. When they went on to map this over time, they found that there was no increase in the instances of those words in the lead up to his death, but that there were three distinct spikes: One when he was 20, and suffered the loss of his “adored” foster-mother; one in 1843, when his work “began to grow wildly in popularity”; and the highest in 1845, when The Raven was published to instant huge success.
The painful peak
It’s easy to imagine, when taking stock of one’s own career or creative aspirations, that ultimate success will be an emotional high point. Recognition of our work, promotion to a higher position, even fame, can seem like uncomplicated rewards. But Poe’s experience is a reminder that success can come with pressure that some of us will find difficult to bear. The “increases in depressive affect…co-occur with several of the author’s significant life events. These events likely acted as stressors during Poe’s later years and jointly contributed to the decline of his mental health,” the researchers write.
Not all these stressors, by any means, were work-related. In 1842 Virginia Poe, the poet’s wife, began exhibiting the symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease which killed Poe’s birth parents and his older brother. Virginia didn’t die until 1847, but the years of her illness were a terrible time for the couple, during which Virginia would appear close to death one day and resurgent the next. Poe used alcohol to cope with psychological distress, to the detriment of his physical and mental health, the paper notes.
Nevertheless, the study’s authors note that the year Virginia died does not exhibit a peak of unhappiness in Poe’s language. According to the language analysis, that came two years before, when the publication of The Raven “elevated the author to national celebrity status,” and ultimately cemented his reputation “not only as the father of the macabre genre but as a timeless icon of American literature.”
However much we know about troubled genius and the perils of fame, it’s very easy to hanker for a time when we’re professionally lauded, to imagine that this will set the crown on our happiness. In fact, the researchers who went looking for the cause of Poe’s death seem to have uncovered something simpler, and yet salutary: That the poet was happiest when his family was well, and his success was modest.