National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

by Edgar Allan Poe

I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination.


Edgar Allan Poe, 1848 (Courtesy of the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia)

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the stories or poems. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Do a bit of research into literary criticism of “Annabel Lee” and find two brief discussions of the poem, one positive and the other negative. Communicate in detail what each critic has to say about the poem. Which one do you agree with, and why?
  2. Is “To Helen” a love poem? What are the personal qualities of Helen that are most important to the speaker, and what is their significance to him? Explain the poem’s allusions as fully as possible in formulating your responses.
  3. “Sonnet—To Science” may be usefully compared to an earlier nineteenth-century sonnet, William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Discuss the two poems, giving your understanding of each one’s content as fully and specifically as possible. What do they have in common? In what ways do they differ?
  4. Pick any one of the following stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “Ligeia.” Discuss the story’s use of the first-person narrator. What sort of person is he? How relevant is his personality to the actions of the tale? Does the use of this narrator make the story’s events seem more credible, or less so?
  5. Choose one of the following stories from the Poe volume that were not included in the class discussions: “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Masque of the Red Death.” By comparing it with Poe stories that were read and discussed, demonstrate how it is characteristic of his work.
  6. Compare one of Poe’s Dupin stories (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” or “The Purloined Letter”) with a more contemporary detective novel. What similarities do you find between the stories and the detectives, showing Poe’s influence on the author? In what ways do the writers and stories differ?
  7. Poe’s great contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne is also celebrated for the Gothic element in his fiction, especially in such stories as “Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Birthmark.” Compare one of these stories to either “Ligeia” or “The Fall of the House of Usher.” What elements of the Gothic tradition do you find in each tale? Which author, in your view, puts this tradition to more meaningful use?
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