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[Text: Nathaniel Parker Willis, “Letter About Edgar Poe,” Home Journal (New York), October 30, 1858, p. 2, cols. 3-4.]


[page 2, column 3:]

LETTER ABOUT EDGAR POE.


Idlewild, October 17, 1858.
DEAR MORRIS: —

    The splendid volume you sent me, (The Poems of EDGAR POE, published by our friend Redfield, with taste and costliness so suited to the rare gems of which it is the setting.) has vividly re opened to me one of the long closed chamber of that Past so trying to both of us. In our harassing and exhausting days of “Daily” Editorship, POE, for a time, you remember, was our assistant — the constant and industrious occupant of a desk in our office. The light shining from this volume — genius, of a diamond-lustre, which I think wholly unsurpassed justifies fully to me, now, the estimate I then formed from the presence of the man. Of the poems, it would be to me the delicious alchymy of love to write a criticism. They are among the few that I delight to read to a friend, for a feast in an hour of idleness. But it is of the once living man-as here pictured in the biography prefacing the book-that I wish to make a remark or two which shall stand for your voice and mine.

    Of the ably written, but (in its impression) erroneous biography, which is placed at the beginning of the volume, I will quote the opening paragraph: —

    “It would be well for all poets if nothing more were known of their lives than what they themselves infuse into their poetry. Too close a knowledge of the weaknesses and errors of the inspired children of Parnassus cannot but impair, in some degree, the delicate aroma of their songs. The inner life of the poet, the secrets of his inspiration, the mysterious processes by which his pearls of thought are produced, can never be made known and the accidents of his daily life have but little more interest than those which fall to common men. Under all circumstances the poet is a mystery, and the utterances of his fancy are but the drapery of the veiled statue which still leaves the figure itself unknown. A dissection of the song-bird gives us no insight into the secret of his melodious notes. Some of the great modern poets have had their whole lives exposed, with minute accuracy; but in what are we the wiser for the knowledge we have obtained of them? We only know they lived and suffered like other men, and their inspirations are still a cause of wonder and delight. the subtle secret of their power is still hidden from our search; and though we know more of the daily habits of the men we know no more of the hidden power of the poet. But there is still a yearning to know how the men lived whose genius has charmed and instructed us, and a vague feeling exists, that in probing the lives of poets, we may learn something of the art by which they produced their works. * * * *

    “Of all the poets whose lives have been a puzzle and a mystery to the world, there is no one more difficult to be understood than EDGAR ALLAN POE. It is impossible to carry in the mind a double idea of a man, and to believe him to be both a saint and a fiend; yet such is the embarrassment felt by those who have first read the poems of this strange being, and then read any of the biographies of him which pretend to anything like an accurate account of his life. Like his own ‘Raven,’ he is, to his readers, ‘bird or fiend,’ they know not which. But a close study of his works will reveal the fact — which may serve, in some degree, to remove this embarrassment — that there is nowhere discoverable in them a consciousness of moral responsibility. They are full of the subtleties of passion, of grief, despair, and longing; but they contain nothing that indicates a sense of moral rectitude. They are the productions of one whose religion was a worship of the Beautiful, and who knew no beauty but that which was purely sensuous. There were but two kinds of beauty for him, and they were Form and Color. He revelled in an ideal world of perfect shows, and was made wretched by any imperfections of art. The Leonore whose loss he deplored was a being fair to the eye, a beautiful creature, like Undine, without a soul. With this key to the character of the poet, there is no difficulty in fully comprehending the strange inconsistencies, the basenesses and nobleness, which his wayward life exhibited.

    “Some of the biographers of Poe have been harshly judged for the view given of his character, and it has naturally been supposed that private pique has led to the exaggeration of his personal defects. But such imputations are unjust: a truthful delineation of his career would give a darker hue to his character than it has received from any of his biographers. In fact, he has been more fortunate than most poets in his historians. Lowell and Willis have sketched him with gentleness and a reverent feeling for his genius; and Griswold, his literary executor, in his fuller biography, has generously suppressed much that he might have given. This is neither the proper time nor place to write a full history of this unhappy genius; those who scan his marvellous poems closely may find therein the man, for it is not possible for the true poet to veil himself from his readers. What he writes he is.”

    The biographer then gives a brief memoir, of which the following passage is intended to picture truly his connection with us. Poe, he says, “was soon installed as editor of ‘Graham’s Magazine,’ As a matter of course he quarrelled with Graham, and then went to New-York, where he engaged as a sub-editor on the ‘Mirror.’ * * * But he did not long remain at this employment, which was wholly unsuited to him, and he left the ‘Mirror’ without quarrelling with the proprietors.”

    I do not think that the casual reader would get, from this passage, (in which there is no positive incorrectness) an impression which at all corresponds to the picture left, by the same period, in your remembrance and mine. POE came to us quite incidentally — neither of us, if I remember rightly, having been personally acquainted with him till that time — and his position towards us, and connection with us, of course unaffected by claims of previous friendship, were a fair average of his general intercourse and impression. As he was a man who never smiled, and never said a propitiatory or deprecating word, we were not likely to have been seized with any sudden partiality or wayward caprice in his favor.

    I should preface my avowal of an almost reverence for the man, as I knew him, by reminding the reader of the strange double, common to the presence and magnetism of a man of genius, and the almost totally different estimate which may be thus formed of the same individual, by two strangers or acquaintances of equal intellectual acumen and discrimination. The mysterious electricity of mind, where it is negative, is more apt to be entirely antipodal in poets than in men equally gifted in other ways. The nature of the poet is wholly unrevealed to those upon whom his electric influence is lost or amounts to an antagonism. What could be more different than are often the two honest opinions, entertained by good judges, of the nature of the same gifted man?

    It was rather a step downward, after being the chief editor of several monthlies, as Poe had been, to come into the office of a daily journal as a mechanical paragraphist. It was his business to sit at a desk, in a corner of the editorial room, ready to be called upon for any of the miscellaneous work of the moment — announcing news, condensing statements, answering correspondents, noticing amusement — everything but the writing of a “leader,” or constructing any article upon which his peculiar idiosyncrasy of mind could be impressed. Yet you remember how absolutely and how good-humoredly ready he was for any suggestion, how punctually and industriously reliable, in the following out of the wish once expressed, how cheerful and present-minded in his work when he might excusably have been so listless and abstracted. We loved the man for the entireness of fidelity with which he served us — himself, or any vanity of his own, so utterly put aside. When he left us we were very reluctant to part with him, but we could not object, as it was to better his fortunes. He was to take the lead in another periodical.

    But, on one of the pages of the splendid volume before me, is the key to an inner chamber of the heart of that gifted man. There is the SONNET TO HIS WIFE’S MOTHER; and, in my opinion, the exquisite beauty of the relationship between the two — EDGAR POE and Mrs. CLEMM, the sainted woman who so devoted her entire existence to a tender care and worship of her [column 4:] unhappy boy — will embalm him in the poetical heart-memory of mankind. Let me here recall the picture, which I have already drawn of her and her affection — writing of them at the time of his death: —

    “But there is another, more touching and far more forcible, evidence that there was goodness in Edgar A. Poe. To reveal it, we are obliged to venture upon the lifting of the veil which sacredly covers grief and refinement in poverty; but we think it may be excused if so we can brighten the memory of the poet, even were there not a more needed and immediate service which it may render to the nearest link broken by his death.

    “Our first knowledge of Mr. Poe’s removal to this city was by a call which we received from a lady who introduced herself to us as the mother of his wife. She was in search of employment for him, and she excused her errand by mentioning that he was ill, that her daughter was a confirmed invalid, and that their circumstances were such as compelled her taking it upon herself, The countenance of this lady, made beautiful and saintly with an evidently complete giving up of her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness, her gentle and mournful voice urging its plea, her long-forgotten but habitually and unconsciously refined manners, and her appealing and yet appreciative mention of the claims and abilities of her son, disclosed at once the presence of one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity can be. It was a hard fate that she was watching over, Mr. Poe wrote with fastidious difficulty, and in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid. He was always in pecuniary difficulty, and, with his sick wife, frequently in want of the merest necessaries of life. Winter after winter, for years, the most touching sight to us, in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly and insufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or an article on some literary subject, to sell — sometimes simply pleading in a broken voice that he was ill, and begging for him — mentioning nothing but that ‘he was ill,’ whatever might be the reason for his writing nothing ; and never, amid all her tears and recitals of distress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride in his genius and good intentions. Her daughter died, a year and a half since, but she did not desert him. She continued his ministering angel — living with him, caring for him, guarding him against exposure, and, when he was carried away by temptation, amid grief and the loneliness of feelings unreplied to, and awoke from his self-abandonment prostrated in destitution and suffering, begging for him still. If woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does not a devotion like this — pure, disinterested, and holy as the watch of an invisible spirit — say for him who inspired it?

    “We have a letter before us, written by this lady, Mrs. Clemm, on the morning in which she heard of the death of this object of her untiring care. It is merely a request that we would call upon her; but we will copy a few of its words, sacred as its privacy is, to warrant the truth of the picture we have drawn above, and add force to the appeal we wish to make for her: —

    * *  “I have this morning heard of the death of my darling Eddie. * * * Can you give me any circumstances or particulars? * * Oh ! do not desert your poor friend in this bitter affliction. * * Ask Mr. —— to come, as I must deliver a message to him from my poor Eddie. * * I need not ask you to notice his death and to speak well of him. I know you will. But say what an affectionate son he was to me, his poor desolate mother.”

    “To hedge round a grave with respect, what choice is there between the relinquished wealth and honors of the world and the story of such a woman’s unrewarded devotion! Risking what we do, in delicacy, by making it public, we feel — other reasons aside — that it betters the world to make known that there are such ministrations to its erring and gifted. What we have said will speak to some hearts. There are those who will be glad to know how the lamp, whose light of poetry has beamed on their far-away recognition, was watched over with care and pain — that they may send to her, who is more darkened than they by its extinction, some token of their sympathy. She is destitute and alone. If any, far or near, will send to us what may aid and cheer her through the remainder of her life, we will joyfully place it in her hands.” *

    And now let me add, to so touching a picture, the Sonnet from this beautiful volume, addressed to his mother-in-law, which so embalms her for immortality in his genius: —
 

“Because I feel, that, in the heavens above, 
  The angels, whispering to one another, 
Can find, among their burning terms of love, 
  None so devotional as that of ‘Mother,’ 
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you —
  You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you 
  In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother, my own mother, who died early, 
  Was but the mother of myself; but you 
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
  And thus are dearer than the mother I knew 
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.”

    The reader of this sonnet, who has the volume in his hand, turns back to look musingly upon the features of the poet in whom resided such inspiration. But, though exceedingly well engraved, and valuable, for the recalling of his features to those who knew them with the angel shining through, the picture is from a daguerreotype; and taken, by the superficial sunshine, at a moment when the dark spirit contorted the lineaments. It gives no idea of the beauty of EDGAR POE. The exquisitely chiselled features, the habitual but intellectual melancholy, the clear pallor of the complexion, and the calm eye, like the molten stillness of a slumbering volcano, composed a countenance of which this picture is but the skeleton. After reading “the Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Leonore” and “Annabel Lee,” the luxuriast in poetry will better conceive what his face might have been.

    It has been one of our privileges, my dear Morris — it is one of the usually unreckoned and outside privileges of our present day’s toilsome profession — to be thought guides and wardens to that “Fountain of Egeria” at which gifted hearts long to be unburthened. The young poet, the genius unappreciated, the crushed hope or ambition, over which the juggernaut of the world has driven its hard wheel — these and like sufferers are apt to come to us with their tears or their story. We stand at the public ear. We can reach the vague and undefined throne before which they desire to be heard.

    I have always esteemed it an interesting privilege, I say, to be thus able to read, nearly, truly and confidingly, the hearts of the less common of mankind. Weak-voiced for themselves, as the most gifted are often likeliest to be, it is a great happiness to know them first, and speak for them to the world — to urge their claims, and strengthen their confidence, and reverently to grade and establish their deservings. There is much to counterbalance it, it is true; for there are (oh how many!) mistaken and false claimants, for whom the kindness of truthful discouragement seems both cruel and certain to be misunderstood. But the happier side of it — the first recognising, appreciating and assuring to itself modest and true genius — is, I have always thought, to “walk with angels.” With the monotony of assured and established social intercourse; the dulness of similitude in men unmistakably classed, labelled and acknowledged; the hardness and shallowness of commonplace character and feeling; it is indeed, (the exceptional privilege I speak of) a relief — an inner knowledge of other and better minds and hearts, by which life, this our daily life, so apt to be stale and weary, is inexpressibly enriched.!

    I have thus torn a leaf out of your experience and mine, my dear Morris — a little too autobiographically, perhaps you will say, considering that I was speaking for two — but POE was one of our “boys.” We both loved him. He was re-baptized, and adopted, over our inkstand of appreciation and admiration. It is hard to hear his name sounded anew, even by such a trumpet of fame as this superb volume, without giving our accent to the echo.

Closing somewhat in haste, I remain

Yours as ever, N. P. W.


    * We have been grieved lately to learn that this appeal should be made as urgently to-day as when it was first written. Mrs. Clemm is still living and in need. It may touch some distant heart to have repeated it now, and we again say that we will most gladly receive and forward to her any tribute which poetic appreciation of “her boy” and of herself may thus bring to us. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of column 4.]]


[Poe worked for the New York Mirror in late 1844 and early 1845, leaving to assume an editorial role at the Broadway Journal. The paragraphs quoted from an article written "at the time of his death" are from Willis's "The Death of Edgar Poe," Home Journal, October 20, 1849.]

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[S:0 - HJ, 1858]