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Edgar Allan Poe probably didn’t commit suicide, says computer textual analysis

Edgar Allan Poe probably didn’t commit suicide, says computer textual analysis
[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Contemporary textual analysis has weighed in on the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Lancaster University recently pumped his writings (specifically 309 letters, 49 poems, and 63 short stories) through an algorithm that identifies linguistic markers of depression and suicidal cognition.

Poe died in a hospital in 1849 at age 40, after spending several days in an apparent delirium. His contemporary and translator Charles Baudelaire famously speculated that his death was “almost a suicide, a suicide prepared for a long time.”

Coauthor Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University, says, “My hunch is that he was indeed spiraling into a depression toward the end of his life, but that he didn’t kill himself.” The researchers did, however, find several likely depressive episodes earlier in his life, including one following the death of his wife.

The algorithm searched for cues of depression including frequent use of negative emotion words (bad, sad, angry), few happy words (good, terrific), and fewer plural pronouns (we, our, us). Past research shows that these markers spike in the lead up to suicides, and are most accurately found in casual letters—but of course most research has focused on modern writing, not Victorian-era poetry. That said, suicidal poets have long attracted the attentions of textual researchers.

Poe was a known for bouts of financial insecurity, heavy drinking, and depression (in his own words: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity”). The study, in the Journal of Affective Disorders, is called “Deep into that darkness peering.”

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