[Mrs. Weiss is quite consistent in her error of Iris for Stylus as the name of Poe's projected magazine, repeating the same mistake in other recollections. There was a magazine called The Iris in 1842, but aside from reprinting his "Masque of the Red Death," from Graham's Magazine, Poe was not connected with that short-lived journal.]
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EDGAR ALLAN POE
BY MRS. WEISS
One of the most cherished of my youthful remembrances is that of my brief acquaintance with Edgar A. Poe.
Years before, when I was a little child, just able to read and to enjoy the sound of rhyme, I found, in a stray number of the Southern Literary Messenger, some verses, commencing:
“Lo! the ring is on my hand,
And the wreath is on my brow.”
The musical rhythm took possession of my childish fancy; and for days following, and at intervals long after, it haunted me with a dreamy music then instinctively associated in my mind with the sound of the stream near my old country-house; the stream down in that damp, gloomy, moss-green hollow, where many an hour I had sat, a “small wee thing” of six years, listening to the dreamy murmur of the woods and the waters. I learned some years after, that these verses had been written by Edgar Allan Poe; and ever since, his poetry has been associated in my mind with that still stream, by the lonely, gloomy, echoing dell, so like
“The dank tarn of Auber,
In the misty mid-region of Weir,
The ghoul-haunted woodlands of Weir.”
As I grew older and read more, Edgar A. Poe became to my imagination a glorious but shadowy ideal -- a being apart from the ordinary type and nature of humanity. I knew and loved Longfellow, Bryant, and others; but I could realize them as men; while Poe seemed an abstract of humanity -- a something but half mortal, and strangely enough became associated in my mind with the grand but terrible image of Milton’s Lucifer. I was not more than ten years old when the strange idea impressed itself upon me.
At length a time came when I, still a mere child, learned that this great being had actually read my verses, and had uttered words of praise, and made a flattering prophecy concerning me, and that all this was in print. And then he wrote a kind and courteous, and equally flattering letter, which I have still among my most cherished mementoes of the past. And finally, it was as Mrs. Osgood remarks, in describing her own introduction to Poe, “almost with a feeling of awe” that I learned that he was in the immediate neighborhood of my own home, and proposed to call upon me.
We lived then in our own sweet cottage-home in Virginia, and this was in August, when the place was a bower of vines and roses, and cool, deep shadows brooded about the house and through the pleasant rooms; and the corn-fields that summer waved in their rich and luxuriant beauty almost up to the door, like a miniature forest, shutting us in from the world with a delightful sense of quiet seclusion. I remember it all, because he noticed and enjoyed it.
How well, too, I remember my introduction to the great poet! A shy and diffident girl toward strangers, it was blushing, and almost trembling that I entered the parlor where he awaited me, accompanied by his sister, Miss Rosalie Poe, the adopted daughter of Mrs. McKenzie [[Mackenzie]], a near neighbor of ours. As he rose to meet me, my first impression was that he was a gentleman -- pre-eminently a gentleman -- for nothing could surpass the polish, courtesy and refinement of his whole manner and appearance, both then and whenever afterward I saw him. This, I said, was the impression produced at the first glance, as I entered; but when he advanced, and I stood face to face with him, my sole idea was of his eyes. Such eyes -- large, deep, and luminous, with a strange depth and light -- and yet, withal, I thought was a something of subtlety in their expression. I have never seen other such eyes.
I had but little conversation with the poet on this our first interview. As I observed, I was shy and retiring, and shrank rather into the background, leaving my mother and sister to entertain him, while I was quite content to steal a glance now and then at the poet, or to observe the wonderful play of his countenance. There was at one moment a singular softness and gentleness in his expression; while the next, the eyes would assume a cold, icy look, and his thick mustache curl with as near approach to a sneer as his perfect good-breeding would admit; and this last was when speaking of certain persons whom I knew he accounted his enemies. On the other hand, I was struck with the warmth and apparent depth of feeling and gratitude with which he spoke of the kind reception he had met with from certain former friends and acquaintances in Richmond, chief among whom were Mr. Robert Sully, the artist, (nephew of Mr. Thomas Sully) and Mrs. Julia Cabell,* sister of Mrs. General Scott. Mr. Sully, though himself, not professing to have many friends for whom he entertained any great regard, spoke always very affectionately of Poe. Many of Mr. Poe’s evenings, while in this visit to Richmond, were spent at Mr. Sully’s house, in the society of himself and his accomplished sisters, whose musical talents were of an uncommonly high order. Mr. Sully himself, unlike Poe, who was enthusiastic upon the subject, possessed no taste for music. Nor if he had, could he have enjoyed his sisters’ performances -- being, like his more celebrated uncle, quite deaf. And, by-the-by, it is rather singular to observe in how many cases this peculiar infirmity is the heritage of artists. Raphael, Reynolds, deafness in a greater or less degree is by no
[column 2:]Vandyke [[Van Dyke]], and several others of the profession were thus afflicted; and among living artists means uncommon. It would be natural to consider that a person deprived of the sense of hearing would be apt to seek pleasure in that of sight, yet in most of these cases the talent for painting had been developed many years before the infirmity showed itself. We can but consider it in the light of a benevolent compensation of Providence.
In the two months of his stay in Richmond, Mr. Poe used often to walk out to our home and pass a social evening. He professed to greatly enjoy these visits, and we were always glad to welcome him. At first, we -- my sister and myself -- stood rather in awe of the poet; but his easy, winning manners soon inspired us with greater confidence; and, before long, I found myself conversing with him with a freedom and confidence which I rarely used with any other person. I used to wonder how he could leave the gay company in the parlor and come and pass nearly the whole evening in conversation with me and one or two others who would, from time to time, join us in the little library.
A very pleasant and exclusive little circle would often thus be formed, in which the poet would be the chief talker, his conversation ranging
“From gay to grave, from lively to severe.”
Yet I confess that I never saw in him any trace of that bitterness, gloom, and misanthropy of which he has so often been accused. On the contrary, whatsoever he may have been at other times and in other scenes, he was always, when with us, gentle, warm-hearted, and cheerful, even to gayety. One very striking trait, which we all observed, was his gratitude for any little attention, kindness, or evidence of sympathy. He seemed never to forget a kindness, as his enemies say he never forgot an injury. Certainly, Mr. Poe appeared a happy and most amiable man, on those pleasant ‘evenings at our home. He seemed to enjoy everything -- the company, the music, the pure, sweet breath of the country, the flowers, and even the collation of fruit, etc., which always followed tea. I have seen him arrange and rearrange in groups, with an artist’s eye, the rich peaches and luscious grapes which were placed before us, remarking upon the beauty and richness of form and color; nor did he seem the less to enjoy the eating, pressing the grapes slowly, one by one, as he talked, frankly confessing his enjoyment of their flavor, somewhat to the disappointment of a very sentimental and ethereal young lady, who seemed to be of the opinion that poets should have been born without any such gross materialism as a relish for eating.
I remember it was upon one of these occasions that we induced him to recite “The Raven.” There were one or two among us whose natural levity and lack of anything resembling poetic sentiment induced them to anticipate this performance as rather a bore; yet at the very first words, slowly and solemnly pronounced
“Once, upon a midnight dreary”
even they were “chained to silence,” and the whole company, excepting myself, listened, with suspended breath, until the last “Nevermore!” was pronounced. I say with the exception of myself; for, aware that it was but an artificial exhibition, often rehearsed, with every look, gesture, and intonation carefully studied, I preferred watching the effect upon the company-thus turning from art to nature. Not a hand was moved, not even a fan stirred on that sultry evening, while, in slow, solemn tones, and with his eyes changing with a wonderful play of expression from eager hope to gloomy despair, from tenderness to wild fierceness to suit the words, he recited that marvelous poem. But little gesture was used. He depended for effect, as he once observed to me, principally upon the eyes and voice. In speaking of “The Raven,” he also remarked: “Not one in a thousand of the best readers can read aloud that poem as I wish and intend it to be read. They cannot get the music out of it.” I afterward heard him recite the poem in a public lecture, “The Rationale of Poetry,” which he gave while in Richmond. The audience was never large, but always very select, consisting of the elite of the city, for Poe was the fashion just at this time. On the occasion on which I attended one of these lectures, the poet’s sister, Miss Poe, was of our part -- a quiet, quaint, unassuming person, whom we all liked, though with not a trace of her gifted brother’s genius and personal beauty. She was very proud of “Edgar,” and, at the lecture, I observed how frequently she glanced around to note the effect of her brother’s eloquence upon the audience; and, indeed, it was such as to satisfy even her. The assembly was refined, so there was no applause; only a breathless silence and stillness during the delivery, and a gentle stir, with approving glances and smiles exchanged at its close, marked their appreciation of the lecture and the lecturer. At its close, but few left the hall, nearly all lingering to obtain a word with or a nearer view of the poet; and I remember how, gracefully evading those who would have detained him as he passed, he descended from the platform and made his way directly to my sister and myself, accompanying us to the door as we let. Indeed, upon all occasions on which I met him in public, his graceful and chivalric courtesy was marked, even so far as standing with his head uncovered while exchanging a few words on the street. I hear often of his expressing gratitude for my mother’s kindness and hospitality; and he remarked to Mrs. McKenzie, our mutual friend, and a lady greatly beloved
[column 3:]and esteemed by all who knew her, that the purest and happiest hours he had known for years were those he had spent in my mother’s and her own family. “I feel,” he said, “as if every visit made me a better and a happier man, and reconciled me more to my fellow-creatures.” It is with extreme gratification that I have ever remembered this declaration, and reflected that it has been in my power to brighten a few hours of a life generally so lonely and unhappy. But Mr. Poe knew well that in our home he was always appreciated and welcomed. Our very servants regarded him with a species of blind admiration and awe, as a “great poet,” though it is doubtful whether the idea of a poet was very clear to their minds; and on one occasion, a member of our family overheard “Uncle Dick” thus discoursing to the sable society of the kitchen:
“Well, for once in my life I’se been igstinguished! I’s waited upon the great Mr. Poe, the pote, at tea, and picked up his pockethanddkecher, and wiped the dust off his boots when he fust come, and he said ‘thanky, my man!’ Them dusty roads ain’t fit for potes to walk on. A pote ought’er have a chariot and four, and me to drive ’em.”
On occasion of Mr. Poe’s parlor-recitation of “The Raven,” these sable admirers formed part of the audience, gazing in at the parlor-windows from the piazza; and I recollect that, upon catching sight of their staring white eyes and glittering teeth through the darkness without, I was forcibly reminded of the adage concerning the sublime and the ridiculous. The negroes, as is well known, are extremely susceptible to the influence of all musical and harmonious sounds; and this most musical poem, most musically and solemnly recited, produced upon them an effect which did not soon wear away. Some days after, my maid came with a petition from the cook and waiter that “young misses” would be so good as to read “The Raven” for them, and to this reading they all came, and listened with the most solemn attention, firmly believing that every word of the poem was “a true story.” One youth inquired “if that ar raven was raly a gwine to live forever?” and wondered that Mr. Poe “did not take a broomstick and get him off dat door and out of the room, in no time!” These criticisms and expressions of sympathy, afterward repeated to the poet, seemed to afford him much pleasure.
Mr. Poe loved to walk in the quiet groves and byroads of our neighborhood.
Just opposite us was the Hermitage, the former seat of the Mayo family -- one of those old and aristocratic country-mansions for which Virginia is distinguished. The grove near the house was now a favorite haunt of the poet, as it had been in his childhood a favorite playground, for Mr. Allan, who had adopted him, was nearly connected with the Mayos, and here Poe had spent many a holiday-time.
He told me so, as one sweet autumn -- evening we stood on the broad lawn in front of the almost ruined mansion; and spoke of the gay scenes he remembered there, when the Misses Mayo, afterward Mrs. General Scott and Mrs. Julia Cabell, were blooming belles, and many of the since most distinguished citizens of Richmond were boys with himself. As he looked upon the old house, with its vacant windows; upon the large garden, with its tangled and neglected box-hedges and moss-grown shrubbery, an expression of gloom, the first I had seen in him, settled upon his face.
I asked him if he would like to be a boy again? He shook his head, with a smile.
“No; no past for me, however happy -- and my boyhood was not a happy one. Progression for me -- the future and its revelations!”
He observed, a moment or two after, that beyond a few brief and evanescent seasons, “blossoms which had never come to fruit,” he had known no happiness.
“They will tell you that it has been my own fault; but I say that it was the fault of destiny. I have been a waif upon life’s stream, with never a prayer granted or a hope fulfilled!”
This was the only occasion on which I saw in him a shade of that gloom and bitterness of spirit generally ascribed to him as a prevailing characteristic. At all other times he appeared as one who was quietly though thoroughly enjoying himself.
Mr. Poe’s lodgings were at the Swan Hotel, an old frame building -- in the earlier days of Richmond one of the two fashionable hotels of the city.
Here he was taken ill, and his sister visited him every day; we never failing to send, by a servant accompanying her, a bouquet and a basket of his favorite grapes from our own greenhouse and vineyard. It was a great pleasure to my sister and myself to arrange these, and to receive in return his pleasant messages and acknowledgements. He more than once begged that my mother and ourselves would go to see him, as he was “still an invalid, and very lonely.” Some of these flowers he carefully pressed between the leaves of a favorite book, and there they were found after his death, with some memoranda in pencil.
I mention these slight circumstances merely as evidences of the purer and gentler nature of one to whom his enemies ascribed only bitterness, misanthropy, and all unlovable traits.
Mr. Poe spoke much to me of literature, and of the contemporaneous literati of this country; and I must confess that his opinions, thus candidly expressed to me, did not always accord with those found in his published criticisms.
[column 4:]And indeed, upon one occasion, when I had ventured modestly to differ from him in his published estimate of a popular writer, he remarked:
“Your critique is perfectly correct. You must not form your opinion of me by my opinions as expressed in the magazines. A critic’s judgment is necessarily and in a great degree modified by circumstances -- personal friendship, etc. Of the faults of my enemies I can speak frankly in print, but not so of those of my friends.”
He could never, he said, severely criticise the writings of a woman. He spoke always with warm regard and admiration of Mrs. Osgood and Miss Lynch; yet thought Margaret Fuller the “greatest” female writer which this country had produced.
“She should have written more,” he said. “She has not done justice to her really noble intellect.” For the rest: “No other American woman had written anything much worth preserving.”
After several weeks of this pleasant acquaintance with Mr. Poe, I was one day called to the deathbed of one of my young friends. On the way I met Mr. Poe, who, without knowing my errand, observed, handing me a paper:
I promised you a copy of “Annie” (a poem then just published, and which I had not yet seen). He turned back with us, observing:
“I was on my way to bid you good-bye for a short time. I leave to-morrow for New York; hope to be back in a week or two; and shall bring you a very select library of my own books not to be had here, and which I want you to read. In the meantime, will you read one which I shall leave you, and annotate as you read? I love myself to read a book thus marked. It brings the minds of both readers, as it were, into contact, and adds a double interest to the work.”
On further conversation, he observed:
“Things look brighter for me at this moment than for years past. My friends are kind, and my paper (the Iris [[Stylus]], which he purposed establishing) must succeed. I am sure of it. I hope to be more prosperous, and intend to be a better man in future.”
He seemed indeed very cheerful and hopeful; and I can never forget how he looked as he stood in the ruddy sunset, the breeze blowing back his hair from his fine forehead, and his eyes glowing with their peculiarly brilliant light. A moment after, however, this light faded, and it was almost sadly that he bade us good-bye.
“I hate,” he said, “to return to New York after having been so happy here. Think kindly of me sometimes. I hope to see you again very soon.”
After parting, he turned back, waved his hand, and stood for some time looking after us.
His sister, who was with us, said:
“How handsome Edgar looked! and I never saw him in such good spirits. I so hope that he is going to be happy at last!”
That night, as the clock struck twelve, watching in a room adjoining that in which lay the lifeless form of the mother of my friend, I read “To Annie.”
“Thank heaven! ‘tis over, the crisis is past, The fever called living is ended at last.”
Every one who has seen this wild and weird poem must remember the effect produced; but read, thus, at midnight, alone, and in the very presence of the dead, the impression upon my mind has never been erased. To this day, that strange poem, the still death-chamber, the solemn midnight hour, and the last sad look at the poet, with the mysterious presentiment which at the moment fell so gloomily upon my spirit, that I should never again see him -- all these are associated and remembered as a strange, sad dream.
And I never did again see him. Scarcely a week after, a paper was placed in my hand containing the news of his death -- his most sad and awful death -- in Baltimore. And this was upon the very day on which he had said that he would probably be back.
What the faults were of Mr. Poe’s character, I can judge only from what I have read. As I knew him, he was a most amiable man, a gentleman in all respects; refined, considerate, generous, and warm-hearted; with many noble aspirations and impulses, probably not expressed to many as freely as to me and the few who could understand him. For young as I was, I felt instinctively how much of good and noble there was in that nature; while his genius won my admiration and respect, and his loneliness and friendlessness my warm interest, as must ever be the case in the hearts of the young.
I have in my possession a miniature crayon portrait of Edgar A. Poe, copied by myself, most carefully, from a daguerreotype taken a few days before he left Richmond. It is pronounced a perfect likeness of the poet, and among the cherished mementoes of my friends there are but few which I prize beyond it.
* Author of “Facts and Fiction” and a number of musical compositions. ED. W. R.
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