An Untimely Predicament and How to Write About It

Edgar Allan Poe is a famous and popular American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. But the poor man had a lousy life. Edgar was born on January 19, 1809, the second child of two actors. But by 1810, his father had abandoned the family and then died and by 1811, his mother had died from consumption.

Edgar was taken in by, but never adopted by, a merchant family in Richmond, Virginia. But while he got along well with his adopted mother, Frances Allen, there was a lot of tension between Edgar and his adopted father, John Allen. Especially about the gambling debts Edgar accumulated while at the University of Virginia. John Allen cut Edgar off and refused to pay his debts or support him so Edgar was forced to leave school. Edgar Allan Poe lied about his age (he claimed he was 22 when he was only 18) and joined the United States Army.

After two years of service, Edgar sought early release but his commanding officer would only agree on the condition that Edgar reconciled with his adopted family. But John Allen refused to reply to any of Edgar’s letters until his wife Frances Allen died on February 28, 1829. Her deathbed wish was that Edgar and John would reconcile and John honored her wish. Edgar left the Army and entered West Point Military Academy. His reconciliation with John Allen did not last and John finally disowned Edgar in 1830. Edgar also court-martialed out of West point in 1830.

Edgar Allan Poe moved to Baltimore, Maryland to live with his aunt Maria Clemm and Maria’s eight year old daughter Virginia. Edgar’s brother Henry also lived with Maria Clemm. Henry had been in ill health due in part with problems related to alcoholism. Henry died not long after Edgar moved in.

In August 1885, Edgar moved back to Richmond, Virginia to accept a job as assistant editor at a periodical but he was fired for drunkenness after only a few weeks. In September, Edgar returned to Baltimore and secretly married his young cousin Virginia. He was 22 and she claimed to be 21 but was actually only 13 years old. They went to Richmond and Edgar was able to get his job as assistant editor back.

Throughout this time, Edgar Allan Poe had been steadily writing. He had published poems and also self-published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). His job as assistant editor at Southern Literary Messenger was the “start of his career as a respected critic and essayist.” His caustic reviews would eventually earn him the nickname “Tomahawk Man”. Edgar continued to write. In 1838, his only completed novel was published, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In 1841, “what some consider to be the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published.” Edgar also moved to several other journals and even announced his intentions to start his own journal (although he never did).

But by 1842, his wife Virginia was showing the first signs of illness and Edgar was stressed and drinking more and more.

Edgar Allan Poe became editor of, and then sole owner of, the Broadway Journal. In 1845, his poem The Raven was published and was a “popular sensation” although Edgar was paid only nine dollars for it. In 1846, his Broadway Journal failed and Edgar and Virginia moved to a small cottage in the Bronx, NY. Virginia died there of consumption (tuberculosis) on January 30, 1847.

Edgar turned more and more to alcohol and his behavior became increasingly erratic after his wife’s death. He attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman but she broke off the engagement due to his drinking and behavior. Edgar then returned to Richmond, Virginia and, in 1848, he became engaged to a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster.

Then, on October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. There are conflicting reports as to whether he was delirious or unconscious. He was taken to Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday October 7, 1849. The exact cause of his death remains a mystery because Edgar was “never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own.”

Even after his death, Edgar’s misfortunes did not end. On the day of his death, a nasty obituary appeared in the New York Tribune written by “Ludwig”. The obituary began:

  • “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

“Ludwig” was soon as identified as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor and critic with a longtime grudge against Edgar going back to 1842. Griswold somehow managed to become Edgar’s literary executor and set about trying to destroy Edgar’s reputation after death. Griswold even wrote a biographical article claiming Edgar was a depraved, drunk, drug-addicted madman. Many of his claims were denounced and exposed as distorted half-truths or outright lies and forgeries but the damage was done. The reading public thrilled to the idea of Edgar Allan Poe as an “evil” man who wrote strange and unusual tales.

“A Predicament” and its companion piece “How to Write A Blackwood Article” both written by Edgar Allan Poe were originally published in the November 1838 edition of the American Museum. The short story, “A Predicament” was originally titled “The Scythe of Time”. The mock essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article” was originally titled “The Psyche Zenobia.” The titles were changed when Edgar published the two in his collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840.

“A Predicament” is such a strange story that I really think a reader should read both pieces to try to understand what Edgar Allan Poe is saying. “A Predicament” is a humorous horror story about a young woman named Signora Psyche Zenobia and the strange situation she gets herself into. Signora Psyche Zenobia (don’t call her Suky Snobbs!) and her servant and her tiny little five inch tall poodle are out for a walk one afternoon. Psyche Zenobia is full of oblivious contradictions:

  • “It was a quiet and still afternoon when I strolled forth in the goodly city of Edina. The confusion and bustle in the streets were terrible.”
  • Her servant Pompey “was three feet in height (I like to be particular) and about seventy, or perhaps, eighty, years of age.”

They make a strange group. Psyche Zenobia is a “commanding” figure dressed in a “crimson satin dress, with a sky-blue Arabian mantelet. And the dress had trimmings of green agraffas, and seven graceful flounces of the orange-colored auricula.” Pompey, the servant, is three feet tall, bow-legged, and fat and wearing an overcoat so large and long that he has to hold “it up out of the dirt with both hands”. And Diana the dog is only five inches tall but has a large head and a tail that was “cut off exceedingly close, gave an air of injured innocence to the interesting animal which rendered her a favorite with all”.

Psychic Zenobia suddenly spots a tall Gothic church and simply must go inside. Once there, she simply must climb the clock tower. Upon spying a square opening at the top of the clock tower, she absolutely must stick her head through it. And that is how she ends up in her untimely “predicament”.

I felt the story had a rather dreamlike, not-quite-in-the-real-world feel to it. Psychic Zenobia wanders about pondering life. She aimlessly climbs the clock tower staircase. She finds the staircase to be endless but does not really feel any hurry to actually get on with life. Even when she finds herself in a strange “predicament” she does not realize her danger or take any effort to save herself until it is too late. Even facing  the inevitable, she feels no rush of fear, no panicky rush of time. In fact, even as the pressure from the clock hand is causing her eyes to pop out, our heroine is just sort of wondering how she will ever manage without her eyes. Then – pop! – there goes an eye. And wouldn’t you know it, it has an “insolent air of independence and contempt with which it regarded” poor Psyche Zenobia.

Here are a few lines from “A Predicament” that I enjoyed:

  • “On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church – a Gothic cathedral – vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky.”
  • “If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there in thy two letters!”
  • While climbing the endless clock tower stairs “I could not help surmising that the upper end of the continuous spiral ladder had been accidentally, or perhaps designedly, removed.”
  • Psyche Zenobia realizes her danger, “I perceived, to my extreme horror. That the huge, glittering scimitar-like minute-hand of the clock had, in the course of its hourly revolution, descended upon my neck. There was, I knew, not a second to be lost. I pulled back at once – but it was too late.”
  • After “twenty-five minutes past five” when the “predicament” is over, Psyche Zenobia continues. “There was nothing new to prevent my getting down from my elevation, and I did so. What it was that Pompey saw so very peculiar in my appearance I have never yet been able to find out.”

I read “How to Write a Blackwood Article” after reading “A Predicament”. Some readers may get more out of the two pieces if they read “Blackwood Article” first because it appears to take place just before “A Predicament”. But since I read “A Predicament” first I had a whole different view of the story that changed significantly after reading “How to Write a Blackwood Article”. This “mock essay” is a “satirical “how-to” essay on formulaic horror stories typically printed in the Scottish Blackwood’s Magazine and others”.

I actually felt I “knew” the Signora Psyche Zenobia better after reading “How to Write a Blackwood Article”. I also had several “ah-ha!” moments when I suddenly realized what Psyche Zenobia really meant or why she seemingly randomly said or did some things – not so random after all. So some readers may prefer my reading order (“A Predicament” first then “How to Write a Blackwood Article”) in order to enjoy some of those surprise revelations. Other readers may prefer a more “timely” order.

Here are a few lines from “How to Write a Blackwood Article” that I enjoyed”

  • Psyche Zenobia and her friends wanted “initials” after their names so Dr. Moneypenny made the title for them – “at any rate we always add to our names the initials P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H. – that is to say, Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange. Tea, Total, Young, Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical, Association, To, Civilize, Humanity.”
  • “Dr. Moneypenny will have it that our initials give our true character – but for my life I can’t see what he means.”
  • Mr. Blackwood explains how to write “intensities” – “The matter stands thus: In the first place your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib. And, mark me, Miss Psyche Zenobia!” he continued, after a pause, with the most expressive energy and solemnity of manner, “mark me!—that pen—must—never be mended! Herein, madam, lies the secret, the soul, of intensity.”
  • Mr. Blackwood gives an example – “Let me see. There was ‘The Dead Alive,’ a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman’s sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body—full of tastes, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin.”
  • More advice from Mr. Blackwood – “That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote the paper—but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper, over a rummer of Hollands and water, ‘hot, without sugar.”
  • Still more advice – “Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet.”
  • And – “The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before.”
  • Then how to actually write – “The words must be all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar, which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to think.”
  • Psyche Zenobia sets out to put Mr. Blackwood’s advice to good use – “It was my primary object upon quitting Mr. Blackwood, to get into some immediate difficulty, pursuant to his advice, and with this view I spent the greater part of the day in wandering about Edinburgh, seeking for desperate adventures—adventures adequate to the intensity of my feelings, and adapted to the vast character of the article I intended to write.”

Overall, “A Predicament” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article” by Edgar Allan Poe are both very short; it took less than an hour to finish both. The writing flows quickly and the tales are both full of humor (although it sometimes is not completely clear exactly who the humor is aimed at). I really feel readers need to read both the short story and the mock essay to get the full impact. There are some images of horror in “A Predicament” but they have a strange quality and once readers know the full story they become even more unusual. Some young readers may be confused at times and may find some scenes disturbing. But I felt the elements of horror were pretty mild compared to many current images.

Of course the very best thing about both “A Predicament” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, both by Edgar Allan Poe, is that they are FREE in the Public Domain.

Unfortunately LibriVox does not have audio books of either tale.
The Internet Archive does not have either tale available in any version.

Fortunately, Feedbooks has both tales available:
Please click this link to download and read “A Predicament” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Please click this link to download and read “How to Write a Blackwood Article” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Project Gutenberg has both tales available in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe – Volume 4 by Edgar Allan Poe. Please click here to download and read.

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