Analyzing the Mind of Edgar Allan Poe Through Word Frequency
Our project focused on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. We took a selection of his works, poetry and prose, and examined the word frequency in each piece. Along with this data, we created a timeline of when each piece was published and what was happening in Poe’s life during those times: https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/edgar-allan-poe-3a8bf716-2208-4925-843f-0557fa004504
Our goal for this project was to analyze the frequency of the words in Poe’s work in order to infer his mindset during writing. We decided to focus on the five most-repeated phrases, as those were the ones most relevant to our analysis.
First, we analyzed each of the works individually:
After reviewing these, we realized that the word repetition in individual works would not be a good metric with which to analyze Poe’s state of mind. Some of the repetitions are character names, for example, and that gives little insight into the author themselves. In cases like “To Helen” and “Sonnet – To Science,” the pieces are so short that no words repeat. We realized that in order to get data that would actually be valuable to us, we would have to count the word frequency throughout all of Poe’s works.
The product of that realization is as follows:
The repeated use of “long” could imply that Poe is fixated on the future; or, perhaps, that he harbors a fear that whatever struggle or circumstance he is facing has no end in sight. Out of the works we examined, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the one that uses “long” the most at twenty-three repetitions. During this time of his life, Poe lived in Philadelphia and edited a literary magazine called The Gentleman’s Magazine. The fact that his previous works were published outside of Philadelphia suggests that Poe struggled with finding an audience where he lived. Poe’s repeated use of the word “long” in his stories, particularly in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” could be a sign that he was beginning to lose hope that his work would ever be published in Philadelphia; that he saw his repeated rejections as a sign of things to come in the future.
The frequency of “letter” in Poe’s works shows a preoccupation with contact between people. Communication is important to Poe as a writer, but especially direct communication with others. By the time many of these works were published, he had already lost many people in his life. Both his birth parents and his adopted parents died when he was young. He was kicked out of university and the army, which meant cutting ties with two communities he had grown close to. By the time Poe reached his thirties, he had lost several of the close relationships he had formed throughout his life. This may be why he focused on letters later in his writing career; letters give people the ability to speak with those who aren’t there. By repeatedly using this word, he may be conveying a desire to communicate with the people he has lost.
The word “night” commonly appears in Poe’s works as well. Night is associated with darkness, danger, sorrow, and death. This is especially prevalent in Poe’s work because the subject matter of his stories and poems are horror and tragedy. Night could symbolize death, a natural preoccupation for Poe given the tragic loss of so many people close to him. The fact that night crops up so much could be a reflection of how Poe thinks of death as inescapable; it continues to appear in Poe’s writing just as it continues to appear in his life.
Another of the frequently used words is “door”. Doors often represent crossing from one place into another, such as others worlds or the afterlife. Given the dark, macabre content of his work, it is likely that Poe also leaned more toward the “afterlife” interpretation. This could be significant due to the numerous people in Poe’s life who died and left him. His biological parents and adoptive parents had both died by this time in his life, so Poe was well acquainted with losing people. In addition, his wife had been ill for years, sometimes perilously so. With his wife’s passing an increasingly likely possibility, Poe likely became caught on the symbolism of doors, fearing that his wife, like so many other people in his life, would end up leaving him as well.
The least frequent word on the list is “eyes,” but is holds some of the most symbolic value. Eyes have symbolized being watched, stalked, and judged. Often they are used to show that someone feels paranoid or anxious. The repeated use of them in Poe’s work suggests that he feels as though he is being persecuted in some way; that he is constantly being watched and judged by those around him. The piece that uses “eyes” the most is “Ligeia.” When this piece was written, Poe was struggling to publish his work. It is possible that, due to his problems with publishing, he felt a growing sense of judgement from the literary world. Paranoia over his status as a writer may then have leaked into his work.
Based on our analysis of the word frequency in Poe’s work, we concluded that Poe is preoccupied with death and loss as a result of the tragedies he experienced throughout his life.
Analyzing Word Count and Looking at Timelines
Our project focused on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Of his works, we looked at four of Poe’s short stories and four of his poems. The four short stories we looked at were “Ligeia,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Purloined Letter”. The poems we looked at were “Sonnet – To Science,” “To Helen,” “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee”. These pieces were chosen due to their inclusion in the Bedford anthology. Our goal was to measure word frequency in Poe’s prose and poetic pieces and analyze the results in an attempt to understand his state of mind. We also decided to put together a timeline of when Poe published these pieces and some of the events that were happening in his life in that period.
We started by reading and annotating each of our chosen works. We split up the pieces so that each person read two short stories and two poems. We considered word choice, tone, subject matter, and other literary elements while reading these pieces.
After reading the pieces, we began to analyze the word frequency of Poe’s work. We did this using Voyant, a free text-mining tool that allows you to copy and paste your own text. It then measures how often each word is used. It lists the five most commonly used words and how often they appear. It also creates a word cloud, which shows word frequency by displaying the more frequently used words larger than the others. First, we plugged each piece into Voyant individually and measured the word frequency of those pieces by themselves. Then we put in all of the text from his poems to get the combined word frequency of his poetic work. After that, we put in all of the text from his short stories to get the combined word frequency of his prose. Once both of those were completed, we decided to plug in all of the text from his poems and his prose to get the overall view of word frequency for those eight pieces. We recorded our findings in a single document, counting only the five most frequent words for each piece.
After that, we decided to start building a timeline of Poe’s life around when he wrote and published the pieces we were analyzing. The challenge we encountered in doing this was that Edgar Allan Poe’s life had been commonly mistold. The author of what was, for a long time, the definitive biography of Poe was an enemy of his, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold’s portrayal of Poe as an incestuous, untrustworthy, and disturbed alcoholic has been found to be highly exaggerated, if not wholly inaccurate. However, this portrayal of Poe is the widely accepted one, and many biographers have used Griswold’s account as a source for their own accounts. Therefore, the challenge lay in getting a source that actually portrayed Poe in a factual, unbiased light. We found that source on the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, a biography published in 1941 by Arthur Hobson Quinn, which does not use Griswold’s book as a source. Once we had that biography, we looked through the chapters to find information about Poe’s life around the times he published the eight chosen works. After gathering that information, we used Timetoast, a free online timeline maker, to create a biographical timeline of those publications.
Once those elements were completed, we could begin analyzing our findings. We discovered that looking at his works individually would not be the most effective way to achieve our goal. Certain short poems, such as “Sonnet – To Science” and “To Helen” were so short that there was no repetition whatsoever. Other oft-repeated words were character names, such as in “Ligeia,” which likely had little analytic significance. This is why we chose to combine the text of all his works in Voyant, so as to find the most frequently used words in the body of that selected work. Our results were that long, letter, night, door, and eyes appeared the most often. We theorized about the importance and possible meanings of each word, using the biographical timeline to aid in our thinking. We eventually came to the conclusion that the most commonly used words in Poe’s body of work show a preoccupation with death and paranoia about losing the people close to him. Once our analysis was complete, we compiled our findings—including our visual data such as the top five word frequency findings and a link to our timeline—into a PDF with said analysis.