[Although Gill did provide some new information, including the first publication of Poe's correct birth date, he is not entirely reliable in other details and interpretations. For example, Poe was on his way to New York rather than St. Louis when he died in Baltimore. The evident source of much of what Gill relates was Thomas Cotrell Clarke, who had collected material with the hope of publishing a biographical defence of Poe. Page 362 is the full-page illustration by Mr. Fredericks. Page 363 is the unnumbered blank back of this illustration.]
SOME NEW FACTS ABOUT
EDGAR A. POE.
BY WILLIAM F. GILL.
FOR more than a quarter of a century, the American public, while crowning with laurels the genius of Edgar A. Poe, has lived on, indolently oblivious of the true story of his life.
Carping criticism has gloated over the doubtful record of follies and excesses ascribed to him by malignant enemies like Griswold, while the man, as he actually lived, is known only to the few. But as truth gradually displaces falsehood, we shall come to understand more correctly the true proportions of that marred and broken individuality, that nature so sensitively organized and so rarely developed under circumstances so exceptionally perilous and perverting.
While we lament the mutilation of the Venus de Milo, do we not devotedly worship the magnificent fragment that remains; and should the missing members ever be found and restored, would not the completed statue possess a pungency of interest which might have been lacking, had the dismemberment never taken place?
Perhaps, then, the facts in the history of Edgar A. Poe having been shorn of their fair proportions by the unkind fate that
[page 360:]placed his biography in such hands as those into which it originally fell, any new reminiscences of the poet’s life may be of interest at the present time, when a permanent tribute to the poet is about to be offered to his memory, in the city of his adoption.* As I write, there is before me a portrait of the poet, a daguerrotype [[sic]] taken from life in 1848, -- just one year previous to his untimely death. The picture is, artistically, one of those abominations -- a “full-face” sitting -- for which inartistic artisans have been and will be execrated for all time. There was, fortunately, too much in Edgar Poe’s face for even such a presentation to spoil. The massive brow towers grandly above eyes that echo, in the indescribable mournfulness of their expression, the sad plaint of a broken heart, as their gaze meeting mine seems to say, “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted - nevermore ! “The soul-hunger and utter despair of the man are not suggested simply by the portrait; its characteristics are positive, prominent, and predominant. The lips are compressed, and every line of the face bespeaks, not the temporary, prostration of an overtasked mind and body, not the after effects of some reckless revel, but the awful shadow of some heavy woe, out of which the doomed victim shall never more emerge. It is not a pleasant picture, like the idealized engravings of the poet in his younger days, with which we are familiar; but it is a picture that in a single glance speaks more convincingly of the aspirations of the poet and of his blighted life, than tomes of biographies, or galleries of engravings.
* The monument recently completed at Baltimore, and erected over Poe’s grave in that city. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 360.]]
No person, gifted with ordinary human feeling, could look upon this mute presentment of the dead poet without experiencing
[page 361:]a heart-throb of sympathy for the unfortunate, but noble-minded subject. It will, perhaps, be inferred, that I do not agree with those reviewers of Poe who ascribe the composition of “The Raven” to pure invention. Indeed I do not agree with these writers; for, on the authority of one of Poe’s most intimate friends, one who knew him throughout his prosperity and his adversity, in sickness and in health, -- I know that none of Poe’s romances were more fictitious than his personal’ romances about himself and his writings. None knew this better than his few intimate friends who allude to the fact as a matter of course; and his own analysis of “The Raven” is, confessedly, as thorough a specimen of plausible fabrication as is his famous story of “The Facts in the Case of Monsieur de Valdemar.”
Poe was abnormally sensitive, as well as phenomenally imaginative; and, like all persons of a morbid mental condition, lie resented the slightest approach from the world at large, and from practical people in particular, to the special subject that possessed his mind.
“The Raven” was written from the depths of his very soul; like the picture of Parrhasius, wrought from a mental agony almost superhuman in its exquisite torture.
His overwrought imagination and intensity of mental anguish thus seeking and finding a needed outlet, what more natural than that the reaction, coming, as it must come, after any such paroxysm of the emotional powers, should, in his cooler moments, have prompted him to seek the concealment of the actual motive of “ The Raven,” by fencing it about with the impregnable wall of fiction, -- the building of which he understood so well? Is not this another specimen of speculative analysis, it may be asked? No! For it is based upon the testimony of living witnesses,
[page 364:]familiar with the smallest details of the poet’s life, and cognizant of his wildest flights in the realms of imagination. From one of these -- a lady who knew the poet intimately in his later years -- I gather that Poe’s own reading of the poem in private was in accordance with the view taken in this article, and utterly at variance with the reading of the piece as a mere composition.
Poe would, undoubtedly, have suffered a fresh and poignant anguish had he lived longer, in the matter-of-fact recitations of this wonderful poem by elocutionists who have so long vainly struggled to interpret its inner meaning. I have indeed heard Mr. Longfellow say, in speaking of his own poems, that, as a general thing, it was torture to him to hear them read by professional elocutionists.
He mentioned, as an instance, the reading of his “Excelsior,” to which he was once invited; where the elocutionist, by the aid of a confederate and a trap-door above the stage, attempted to simulate the effect of the increasing distance of the voice of the hero. Fancy the effect upon the poet, when the “trap,” by an inadvertent slip, suddenly came down with a loud thud, after one of the especially exciting verses.
Apropos of Longfellow, Poe was at heart a deep admirer of his contemporary, notwithstanding the controversy in which he was led to say some sharp things about the Boston bard, which he undoubtedly regretted.
In his review of “Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America,” speaking of the comparative standing of Bryant and Longfellow, Poe writes, “Is Bryant a better poet than Longfellow? Certainly not, for in Longfellow’s pages, the spirit of poetry, ideality, walks abroad, while Bryant’s sole merit is tolerable versification and fine marches of description. Longfellow is unquestionably the best poet in America.”
It is not, perhaps, a matter of vital importance, but the place
[page 365:]of Poe’s birth, which has by common consent been assigned as Baltimore, was, in fact, Boston. I gathered from the records of the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, that Poe was born in January, 1809, and from other evidence, substantially, as positive, the authority upon which the statement, that Poe was born in Boston, is made. So little is known of Poe while he was a student at this same University of Virginia, that a bit of testimony that has come to me from a school-fellow of the poet at this college, -- Mr. Wm. Wertenbaker, who afterwards became its secretary, -- may perhaps be worth the reading in this place: --
“Edgar A. Poe was a student of the University of Virginia during the second session, which commenced Feb. 1, 1821, and terminated Dec. 15 of the same year. He signed the matriculation book on the 16th of February, and remained in good standing as a student till the session closed.
“He was born on the 19th of January, 1809, being a little under seventeen when he entered the institution. He belonged to the school of ancient and modern languages, and, as I was myself a member of the latter, I can testify that he was tolerably regular in attendance, and a very successful student, having obtained distinction in it in the final examination, -- the highest a student could then obtain, the present regulation in regard to degrees not having been at the time adopted.
“On one occasion Prof. Blakerman requested his Italian class to render into English verse a portion of the lesson in Tasso, assigned for the next lecture. Mr. Poe was the only one who complied with the request. He was highly complimented by the professor for his performance. Although I had a passing acquaintance with Mr. Poe from an early period of the session, it was not till near its close that I had any social intercourse with him.
“After spending an evening together at a private house, he invited me to his room. It was a cold night in December, and his fire having gone nearly out, by the aid of some candle ends and the wreck of a table he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him. On this occasion he spoke with regret of the amount of money he had wasted, and the debts he had contracted.
“In a biographical sketch of Mr. Poe I have seen it stated that he was at one time expelled from the University, but that he afterwards returned and graduated with the highest honors. This is entirely a mistake. He spent but one session at the University, and at no time did he fall under the cen sure of the faculty. He was not at that time addicted to drinking, but had an ungovernable passion for card-playing. Mr. Poe was older than his biographer represents him. ‘His age, I have no doubt, was correctly entered on the matriculation book.”
In a brief note accompanying the statement of the secretary, Mr. Wertenbaker, the president of the University, Dr. S. Maupin, writes : --
“Mr. Wertenbaker’s statement is full upon all the points specified, and is worthy of entire confidence. I may add that there. is nothing in the faculty records to the prejudice of Mr. Poe.
“He appears to have been a successful student, having obtained distinctions in Latin and French at the closing examination of 1826. He never formally graduated here, no provision for conferring degrees of any kind having been made at the time he was a student here.”
Poe seems to have been an apt scholar, and it is a matter of regret that his literary development was so summarily arrested by his guardian’s determination to educate him for the army. Poe’s last days at West Point were memorable in that during this time one of his first volumes of poems was published. Indeed, several verses were written by the young poet at this time that have never seen the light in any collection of his works yet published.
One of these original bits of verse was called forth by his determination to get away from West Point. Hearing of the birth of a child to Mrs. Allan, his foster-father’s second wife,
[page 367:]he made up his mind that his heirship was at an end, and that, at all events, he would make himself independent. He had aspirations beyond those of a man of wealth and leisure, and was only too ready to throw off the galling yoke of dependence.
As he considered the army no place for a poor man, he determined to resign. At West Point it is necessary, in order to achieve such a step, to obtain permission from the parent or guardian. For this permission, Poe wrote to Mr. Allan, who flatly refused it; this refusal Mr. Poe represented to Col. Thayer, the superintendent of the “Post,” who declined interfering with the rules, or to accept the resignation. This was about the period that Poland made the desperate and unfortunate struggle for independence, against the combined powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia, which terminated in the capitulation of War saw, and the annihilation of the kingdom. All the cadet’s former chivalric vigor had now returned, and with increased vigor. He burned to be a participant ill the affray. But to do this, it was doubly necessary to leave West Point. There was one resource yet left him; this he took. He positively refused to do duty of any kind, disobeyed all orders, and, keeping closely to his quarters, amused himself with caricaturing and pasquinading the professors. There was a gentleman named Joseph Locke, who had made himself especially obnoxious, through his pertinacity in reporting the pranks of the cadets. At West Point a report is no every-day matter, but a very serious thing. Each “report” counts a certain number against the offender, is charged to his account, and, when the whole exceeds a stated sum, he is liable to dismissal. Mr. Poe at this time, it seems, wrote a lengthy and audacious lampoon against this Mr. Locke, of which the following are the only stanzas preserved: --
“As for Locke, he is all in my eye,
May the devil right soon for his soul call.
He never was known to lie
In bed at a reveille roll-call.
“John Locke was a notable name,
Joe Locke is a greater; in short,
The former was well known to fame,
But the latter’s well known to report.”
The result of this was just what Poe intended it should be. For some time Colonel Thayer, to whose good offices the young cadet had been personally recommended by General Scott, overlooked these misdemeanors. But, at length, the matter becoming too serious, charges were instituted against Poe for “neglect of duty, and disobedience of orders” (nothing was said about the lampoons, and he was tried by a court-martial. There were innumerable specifications, to all of which, byway of saving time, lie pleaded guilty, although some of them were thoroughly absurd. In a word, he was cashiered nem. con., and went on his way rejoicing.
But not, however, to Poland. The capitulation had been effected, and that unfortunate country was no more. He repaired to Baltimore, where, shortly afterwards, he learned of the death of his foster-father, Mr. Allan, who had left him nothing. His young widow even refused him possession of his private library -- a valuable one.
One of Poe’s more important literary engagements was with Burton’s “Gentleman’s Magazine.”
Some idea of the characteristics of the poet at this stage of his career are suggested by the following letter addressed to Mr. T. C. Clarke, editor of the “Museum,” published in Philadelphia by Mr. C. Alexander, one of the publishers of [page 369:] the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” and founder of the “Saturday Evening Post.”“PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 20th, 1850.“MY DEAR SIR : -- I very cheerfully reply to your request made in reference to our friend, Edgar Allan Poe.
“I well remember his connection with the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ of which Mr. Burton was editor, and myself the publisher, at the period referred to in connection with Mr. Poe.
“The absence of the principal editor on professional duties left the matter frequently in the hands of Mr. Poe, whose unfortunate failing may have occasioned some disappointment in the preparation of a particular article expected from him, but never interfering with the regular publication of the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ as its monthly issue was never interrupted, upon any occasion, either from Mr. Poe’s deficiency, or from any other cause, during my publication of it, embracing the whole time of Mr. Poe’s connection with it. That Mr. Poe had faults, seriously detrimental to his own interests, none, of course, will deny. They were, unfortunately, too well known in the literary circles of Philadelphia, were there any disposition to conceal them. But he alone was the sufferer, and not those who received the benefit of his pre-eminent talents ; however irregular his habits, or uncertain his contributions may occasionally have been.
“I had long and familiar intercourse with him, and very cheerfully embrace the opportunity which you now offer of bearing testimony to the uniform gentleness of disposition, and kindness of heart, which distinguished Mr. Poe, in all my intercourse with him. With all his faults, he was a gentleman, which is more than can be said of some who have undertaken the ungracious task of blacking the reputation which Mr. Poe, of all others, esteemed ‘the precious jewel of his soul.’
“To MR. T. C. CLARKE.”
So little of the interior life of Poe has ever been given to the world, that, as giving an unfamiliar picture of the atmosphere of Poe’s domestic life, I wish to introduce an interesting reminiscence
[page 370:]of the poet from Mr. William Gowans, a well-known publisher and bookseller of New York city, who died a few months since. In one of his annual catalogues this gentleman writes of Poe as follows :” The characters drawn of Poe by his various biographers and critics may with safety be pronounced an excess of exaggeration; but this is not to be much wondered at, when it is taken into consideration that these men were rivals either as poets or prose writers, and it is well known that such are generally as jealous of each other as are the ladies who are handsome, or those who desire to be considered possessed of the coveted quality. It is an old truism, and as true as it is old, that in the midst of councils there is safety.’ I, therefore, will also show you my opinion of this gifted but unfortunate man. It maybe estimated as worth little, but it has this merit. It comes from an eye and ear witness, and this, it must be remembered, is the very highest of legal evidence.
“For eight months, or more, one house contained us, one table fed us. During that time I saw much of him, and had an opportunity of conversing with him often, and I must say, I never saw him in the least affected by liquor, nor knew him to descend to any kind of vice, while he was one of the most courteous, gentlemanly, and intelligent companions I have ever met during my journeyings and haltings through divers divisions of the globe; besides, he had an extra inducement to be a good man, as well as a good husband, for he had a wife of matchless beauty and loveliness.
“Her eyes could match those of any houri, and her face defy the genius of Canova to imitate. She had a temper and disposition of surpassing sweetness, and seemed, withal, as much devoted to him and his every interest as a young mother is to her first-born.
“During this time he wrote the ‘Adventure of Arthur Gordon Pym.’ This was the most unsuccessful of all his writings. Although published by the influential house of Harper and Brothers, who have the means of distributing a single edition of any book in a week, still it did not sell.
“Poe had a remarkably pleasing and prepossessing countenance, -- what the ladies would call decidedly handsome.”
I am under the impression that the slight allusion by Dr. Griswold to the great dream of Poe’s literary career, the founding of a monthly magazine of which he should have the control, is the only mention that is to be found in any biography of Poe of his projected enterprise -- a monthly to be called “The Stylus.”
This enterprise was started during Poe’s residence in Philadelphia, in 1843, and formed the most ambitious, as well as the most elaborate, of the many similar attempts made by the poet to realize his dream. Every preparation was made, including contracts with leading writers and artists. The full prospectus of the magazine was printed and circulated, and an appropriate emblematical device with motto, designed by Poe himself, was engraved for the title-page. I append an abstract from the original prospectus, prepared by Poe, prefaced by a copy of the original heading of the circular: --
A MONTHLY JOURNAL OF GENERAL, LITERATURE,
TO BE EDITED BY
EDGAR A. POE,
And Published in the City of Philadelphia by
CLARKE AND POE.
-------- unbending that all men
Of thy form Truth may say, “Lo! this is writ
With the antique iron pen.”-- Launcelot Canning.
The prospectus was quite elaborate, comprising an amount of copy about equivalent to a solid page of “Harper.” -- “It has become obvious (reads the prospectus) that the period has at length arrived when a journal of the character here proposed is demanded and will be sustained. The late movements on the great question of International copyright are but an index of the universal disgust excited by what is quaintly termed the cheap literature of the day; -- as if that which is utterly worth less can be cheap at any price under the sun. ‘The Stylus’ will include about one hundred royal octavo pages in single column per month, forming two thick volumes per year. In its mechanical appearance, in its typography, paper and binding, it will far surpass all American journals of its kind. Engravings when used will be in the highest style of the Art, but are
[page 373:]promised only in obvious illustration of the text, and in strict keeping with the magazine character.
“Upon application to the proprietors by any agent who may desire the work, or any other individual who may feel interested, a specimen sheet will be forwarded. As, for many reasons, it is inexpedient to commence a journal of this kind at any other period than the beginning or the middle of the year, the first number of ‘The Stylus’ will not be regularly issued until the first of July, 1843. It will enlist the loftiest talent, but employ it not always in the loftiest, at least not always in the most pompous or Puritanical way.
“It will aim at affording a fair and not dishonorable field for the true intellect of the land, without reference to the mere prestige of celebrated names. It will support the general interests of the Republic of Letters, and insist upon regarding the world at large as the sole proper audience for the author. It will resist the dictation of our Foreign Reviews. It will eschew the stilted dulness of our own quarterlies, and while it may, if necessary, be no less learned, will deem it wiser to be less anonymous, and more difficult to be dishonest than they.
“It shall be, in fact, the chief purpose of ‘The Stylus,’ to become known as a journal wherein may be found at all times, upon all subjects within its legitimate reach, a sincere and a fearless opinion. It shall be a leading object to assert in precept, and to maintain in practice, the rights, while in effect it demonstrates the advantages, of an absolutely independent criticism, -- a criticism, self-sustained; guiding itself only by the purest rules of Art, analyzing and urging those rules, as it applies to them, holding itself aloof from all personal bias, and acknowledging no fear save that of outraging Right.”
With this abstract, I give a fac-simile from Poe’s own handwriting,
[page 374:]of an agreement drawn up by him, as the only existing evidence on record of the legal business capacity of the poet. This unique document is especially interesting, as indicating the grade of commercial equivalents then existing for the fruits of artistic labor. The amount which was to have been paid the artist, then, as now, the foremost in his line, is almost ludicrous, as compared with the prices received at the present time by such an artist. It is not probable that Mr. Darley would put a design on the wood now, for less than fifty dollars, and the advance in prices paid for literary work is even greater.
Poe received but ten dollars for “The Raven,” while Longfellow, for his recent poem, “The Hanging of the Crane,” first published in the “New York Ledger,” could not have received less than five hundred, from the publishers of that journal; and the poem is not much longer than “ The Raven.”
It has been very generally believed that Poe’s last journey, ending in his death at Baltimore, was made simply in fulfilment of an engagement to lecture at Richmond. From the following letter, I infer that the more important object of the promised consummation of his cherished enterprise of a monthly magazine, formed the object of his journey: --“OQUAWKA, ILL., Aug. 21, 1849.“EDGAR A. POE, Esq: --
“My dear Sir, -- Yours of the 7th inst. was received last night, and I hasten to reply. I am truly glad to hear that you are recovering your health, and trust it will soon be fully restored. You cannot enter into the joint publication of a $3 magazine with ‘your heart in the work.’ Well, what say you to this? --
“In publishing a $5 magazine, of 96 pp., monthly, -- page same size as Graham’s, -- in bourgeois, of brevier (instead of long primer and brevier, as first proposed), it would be necessary for me to make an outlay of at least $1,100 (this amount including a supply of paper for three months for 2,000 copies).
[page 377:]Now, if you are sure that, as you before thought, 1,000 subscribers can be obtained who will pay upon receipt of the first number, then you may consider me pledged to be with you in the undertaking.
“If this proposition meets your approval, you may immediately commence your journey to St. Louis -- making easy stages through the South, and operating on your way -- so as to reach that city by the middle of October (say the 15th), keeping me advised of your progress, as you proceed, by letter, say every two weeks. I will meet you at St. Louis by the time mentioned, at which time I shall be more at leisure than before, and can then settle on arrangements. You may associate my name with your own in the matter, the same as if I had met you in person.
“Adopt your own title. I leave this matter to you, as belonging peculiarly to your department. (Remember, however, published simultaneously at New York and St. Louis.) The first number can be issued in July -- it is now too late to do it in January, and it would not be advisable to commence at any time other than the beginning or the middle of the year. I will try to be at St. Louis on the 15th of October, if your answer to this be favorable, until which time I bid you God-speed, and beg leave to sign myself,
“P. S. -- I send this via St. Louis and Vincennes, and will make a duplicate via Chicago to-morrow.”
“Most truly yours,
“ED. H. N. PATTERSON.
Yours, E. H. N. P.”Poe died on the 7th of October, 1849, at Baltimore, en route for the South. Is it not probable, then, that he was on the way to meet this appointment at St. Louis, a week later?
The subject of Poe’s alleged intemperance is one that has given rise to an amount of righteous condemnation that would have overwhelmed and obliterated the reputation of an ordinary writer.
Mr. N. P. Willis writes: “We heard, from one who knew him well (what should be stated in all mention of his lamentable irregularities, that with a single glass of wine his whole
[page 378:]nature was reversed; the demon became uppermost, and, although none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane.”
On this point Mr. Thomas C. Latto writes: “Whatever his lapses might have been, whatever he might say of himself, (Burns was equally incautious, and equally garrulous in his aberrations), the American poet was never a sot; yet the charge has been made against him again and again.”
One of the most respected clergymen in Massachusetts, who knew Poe well during the later years of the poet’s life, most emphatically assured me, in a recent conversation, that Poe was not a drunkard. “Why (he said, I, the most innocent of divinity students at the time (1847), while walking with Poe, and feeling thirsty, pressed him to take a glass of wine with me. He declined, but finally compromised by taking a glass of ale with me. Almost instantly a great change came over him. Previously engaged in an indescribably eloquent conversation, he became as if paralyzed, and with compressed lips, and-fixed, glaring eyes, returned, without uttering a word, to the house which we were visiting. For hours, the strange spell hung over him. He seemed a changed being, as if stricken by some peculiar phase of insanity.”
I mention this as an act of simple justice to the poet, and to make apparent the falsity of the accounts on record of Poe’s orgies and protracted indulgences.
He never drank, never could have drank, to excess. His fault, then, was not in his excessive indulgence in intoxicating drinks, but in his exceptional susceptibility to the influence of liquor.
There is no evidence that his weakness was in the insatiable craving for stimulants, common to drunkards. When he drank, at times, it was simply with the innocent intent, common to the
[page 379:]large majority of mankind who are able to take a single glass with impunity, of exchanging a social pledge with a friend or companion. Nature had made him an unfortunate exception, and will it not be generally admitted that any inherited or constitutional weakness is less amenable to reason, than one which is merely the result of an artificial or acquired taste?
Poe, it would seem, never resorted to liquor, even for the pardonable necessity of stimulating his literary inspirations. Such a sequence was impossible to his indulgence in what is to many a fortunate and desirable support.
When engaged in writing, his sensitive organization rendered any stimulant stronger than coffee fatal to his work, and even that pleasant and comparatively innocent beverage could be taken but sparingly by him. One of the causes of his isolation from society, in the later years of his life was his sensitiveness to his exceptional weakness, which placed him in an awkward position, from his native courtesy, when obliged, for self-protection, to decline even touching a single glass of wine.
The lack of all moral sense has been so universally imputed to Poe by his biographers, that the following passages from a letter by the poet, in which he speaks for himself upon this subject, may be worthy of consideration in this place: --“Oct. 18th.. . . . . Of what avail to me in my deadly grief are your enthusiastic words of mere admiration? You do not love me, or you would have felt too thorough a sympathy with the sensitiveness of my nature to have so wounded me as you have done with this terrible passage of your letter, -- How often I have heard men and even women say of you, “He has great intellectual power, but no principle, no moral sense.”’ Is it possible that such expressions as these could have been repeated to me -- to me -- by one whom I love ? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[page 380:]And you ask me why such opinions exist. You will feel remorse for the question, when I say to you that until the moment when those horrible words first met my eye, I would not have believed it possible that any such opinions could have existed at all; but that they do exist breaks my heart in separating us forever. I love you too truly ever to have offered you my hand, ever to have sought your love, had I known my name to be so stained as your expressions imply. It is altogether in vain that I tax my memory or my conscience. There is no oath which seems to me so sacred as that sworn by the all-divine love I bear you. By this love, then, and by the God who reigns in heaven, I swear to you that my soul is incapable of dishonor; that with the exception of occasional follies and excesses, which I bitterly lament, but to which I have been driven, and which are hourly committed by others without attracting any notice whatever, I can call to mind no act of my life which would bring a blush to my cheek or to yours. If I have erred at all in this regard, it has been on the side of what the world would call a Quixotic sense of the honorable, of the chivalrous. The indulgence of this sense has been the true voluptuousness of my life. It was for this species of luxury that in early youth I deliberately threw away a large fortune rather than endure a trivial wrong. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ah, how profound is my love for you, since it forces me into these egotisms, for which you will inevitably despise me !
“But grant that what you urge were even true, do you not feel in your inmost heart of hearts that the soul-love, of which the world speaks so often, and so idly, is, in this instance at least, but the veriest, the most absolute of realities ?
“Ah, I could weep, I could almost be angry with you for the unwarranted wrong you offer to the purity, to the sacred reality of my affection.
. . . .Referring to another passage in the letter quoted above, the poet writes : --
“ ‘May God forever shield you from the agony which these words occasion me!’
“You will never know, you can never picture to yourself the hopeless, rayless despair with which I now trace these words. . . . . .
“Nevertheless, I must now speak to you the truth or nothing. . . . . But alas ! for nearly three years I have been ill, poor, living out of the world, and thus, as I now painfully see, have afforded opportunity to my enemies to slander me in private society, without my knowledge, and thus with impunity.
“Although much may, however (and I now see must), have been said to my discredit during my retirement, those few who, knowing me well, have been steadfastly my friends, permitted nothing to reach my ears, unless in one instance, where the accusation was of such character that I could appeal to a court of justice for redress.
“I replied to the charge fully in a public newspaper, suing the ‘Mirror’ (in which the scandal appeared), obtaining a verdict and recovering such an amount of damages as for the time to completely break up that journal. And you ask why men so misjudge me, why I have enemies.
“If your knowledge of my character and of my career does not afford you an answer to the query, at least it does not become me to suggest the answer. Let it suffice that I have had the audacity to remain poor, that I might preserve my independence; that, nevertheless, in letters, to a certain extent and in certain regards, I have been successful; that I have been a critic, an unscrupulously honest, and no doubt in many cases, a bitter one.
“That I have uniformly attacked, where I attacked at all, those who stood highest in power and influence, and that, whether in literature or in society, I have seldom refrained from expressing either directly or indirectly, the pure contempt with which the pretensions of ignorance, arrogance, or imbecility inspire me. And you who know all this, you ask me why I have enemies. Ah, I have a hundred friends for every individual enemy, but has it ever occurred to you, that you do not live among my friends ?
“Had you read my criticisms generally, you would see why all those whom you know best, know me least and are my enemies. Do you not remember with how deep a sigh I said to you in --, ‘My heart is heavy, for I see that your friends are not my own’ ? . . . . . . . . . . . Forgive me best and beloved --, if there is bitterness in my tone. Towards you there is no room in my soul for any other sentiment than devotion. It is fate only which I accuse. -- It is my own unhappy nature.”
Further on in this letter, the poet draws this picture of his ideal home: --
“I suffered my imagination to stray with you, and with the few who love us both, to the banks of some quiet river in some lovely valley of our land. Here, not too far secluded from the world, we exercised a taste controlled by no conventionalities, but the sworn slave of a Natural Art, in the building for
[page 382:]ourselves a cottage which no human being could ever pass without an ejaculation of wonder at its strange, weird, and incomprehensible, yet simple beauty. Oh, the sweet and gorgeous, but not often rare flowers in which we half buried it -- the grandeur of the magnolias and tulip-trees which stood guarding it -- the luxurious velvet of its lawn -- the lustre of the rivulet that ran by its very door -- the tasteful yet quiet comfort of its interior -- the music -- the books -- the unostentatious pictures -- and, above all, the love, the love, that threw an unfailing glory over the whole ! -- Alas ! all is now a dream.”
Personally, Poe’s characteristics were marked by delicacy, gentleness, refinement and simplicity. Like other “geniuses,” he was radically eccentric or “notional” in his way, but never in any offensive degree.
He dressed, invariably, in black cloth; never varying this costume except by occasionally substituting a velvet for his usual cloth waistcoat. He was acutely sensitive to the “ frou-frou” or rustling of the silk dresses, worn by his lady friends, and would beg of them never to wear silk, but to put on “ stuff” dresses, which made no noise, and hung in soft, graceful folds about the form. In a mixed company of people, unfamiliar to him, he was almost invariably very reserved; while when alone, with those near and dear to him, his conversation often partook of an eloquence that the most brilliant of his writings but dimly suggest. After the death of his wife, Virginia, his imaginative powers became more and more extravagant -- so much so that he found it impossible to sleep without the presence of some friend by his bedside when he sought slumber. Mrs. Clemm, his ever devoted friend and comforter, more frequently fulfilled the office of watcher. The poet, after retiring, would summon her, and while she stroked his broad brow he would indulge his wild flights of fancy to the Aidenn of his dreams. He never spoke nor moved in these moments, unless the hand was withdrawn
[page 383:]from his forehead, then he would say, with childish näiveté, “No, no, not yet!” -- while he lay with half-closed eyes.
The mother, or friend, would stay by him until he was fairly asleep, then gently leave him. He rarely awoke from troubled sleep, when his slumbers were thus preluded, as he desired; but if, through accident or necessity, he was obliged to seek sleep with no sweet soothings, save the weird conjurings of his own strange fancies, he was invariably distraught and wretchedly uncomfortable.
One of his letters to a lady friend gives an expression of his taste in the novel literature of the time in which lie lived. Speaking of the book (“Percy Ranthorpe,” by Mrs. Gore, he writes, “I have lately read it with deep interest, and derived great consolation from it. It relates to the career of a literary man, and gives a just view of the aims and of the true dignity of the literary character.”
Poe’s idea of a competency is frankly expressed in a letter to the same friend, in which he writes freely of his business plans. “I have now,” he writes, “an engagement with every leading magazine in America. I have only to keep up my spirits, to keep out of pecuniary troubles. The least price I get is five dollars per Graham page, and I can easily manage to earn seven dollars a day.”
One of the saddest pictures of Poe’s later days, when the dark mantle of a blighting sorrow was enshrouding him, is afforded in an account which is gathered from an old-time associate of the poet, of his last visit to Philadelphia. The picture is none the less sad in that some of the poet’s happiest hours had been passed in his cosey little home in that city, years before, with his charming and devoted child-wife, Virginia.
During this visit, which was made only a short time previous
[page 384:]to his death in Baltimore, Poe was an inmate of the hospitable mansion of the artist and publisher, Mr. J. Sartain, widely known as the proprietor of “Sartain’s Magazine,” whose kindness the poet had frequently shared. Fortunate, indeed, would it have been for Poe, had he met with this stanch friend on first reaching the city at this time. Had he fallen into his protecting hands earlier, instead of meeting with reckless associates, ready as in old times to tempt him to the indulgence inevitably fatal to him, how different might have been his fate! But it was ordained otherwise. When he finally reached the residence of his kind friend, Poe was in a highly excited condition, almost distracted indeed. His mind seemed bewildered and oppressed with the dread of some fearful conspiracy against his life, nor could the arguments or entreaties of his friend convince him that some deadly foe was not at that very moment in pursuit of him. He begged for a razor for the purpose of removing the mustache from his lip, in order, as he suggested, that lie might disguise his appearance, and thus baffle his pursuers. But, unwilling to place such an instrument in his hands, he was prevailed upon to allow his host to effect the desired change, upon which he imagined his safety depended. The condition of Poe’s mind was such, that Mr. Sartain, after persuading him to lie down, remained watching with him through the night, with anxious solicitude, unwilling to lose sight of the unfortunate sufferer for a moment. The following night Poe insisted upon going out. He turned his steps towards the river Schuylkill, accompanied, however, by his devoted friend, whose apprehension was strengthened by the vehemence with which, without cessation, he poured forth, in the rich, musical tones for which lie was distinguished, the fervid imageries of his brilliant but over-excited imagination. The all absorbing theme which still [page 385:] retained possession of his mind was the fearful conspiracy that threatened his destruction. Vainly his friend endeavored to re assure and persuade him. He rushed on with unwearied steps, threading different streets, his companion striving to lead him homewards, but still in vain.
Towards midnight they reached Fairmount, and ascended the steps leading to the summit, -- Poe all the while giving free scope to the conversational powers, for which he was always remarkable, insisting upon the imminence of his peril, and pleading with touching eloquence for protection.
In the darkness of the night, the solemn stillness, only broken by the even fall of the water below, in peaceful contrast with the wild disorder of the unhappy poet’s brain, he seemed a personification of the subject of his own “Raven,”
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
He did not recover from this intense excitement until, subsequently escaping from the house, he wandered out into the neighborhood of the city, and, throwing himself down in the open air in a pleasant field, his shattered nerves found a comfortless but sorely needed repose.
He awoke refreshed; but, like Cassio, “remembered a mass of things, but nothing distinctly.”
All that he could recall to mind were the entreaties and persuasions of some “guardian angel” who had sought to dissuade him from a frightful purpose. He recalled the kind remonstrances, but nothing more, -- not even the identity of the friend to whose kind offices he had been indebted. The next day his friend parted with him, and, as fate ordained, forever. This, the sad, closing scene of Poe’s career in the city where much, if not
[page 386:]most, of his fairest fame had been gained, was the prelude to his most unhappy death but a short time afterwards, in Baltimore. The circumstance of his unfortunate temptation by his thoughtless associates in Philadelphia was,* unquestionably, the indirect cause of his final and fatal illness. For months previous, Poe had been carefully abstemious, and the sudden and fearful change, from the most careful and tender nursing to the most reckless exposure to the damp and cold of an out-of-doors bed, produced immediate effects, planting the insidious seeds that flowered into deadly bloom, with the aid of his later unfortunate exposure when in the hands of the Baltimore roughs, who took possession of the hapless victim, while suffering from a similar attack to that which had possessed him in Philadelphia.
We are prone to accept the most obvious explanation of an event as the true explanation or cause of that event. The lesson of experience teaches us that the most obvious analyses are, as a rule, the most deceptive. It is commonly believed, for instance, that Edgar Poe died from the effects of dissipation which, gradu ally, from long continuance, undermined his constitution. I do not believe that his death is to be assigned to any such positive and debasing cause. For many years of his lifetime, spite of all accounts to the contrary, he lived happy and comfortable in a charming home, with a companion that realized his delicate and refined ideal. The shadow of the destroying angel’s hand that first cast its blight upon this companion was the one great, unlooked-for sorrow that he could not, would not, accept unrepiningly.
From the moment of his wife’s death, he waged unequal battle with a relentless fate. Knowing his need, the balance and support afforded by the interchange of spiritual sympathy with a congenial mind, he was ever deprived of the possible gratification [page 387:] of this want by the peculiar construction of his mental organism.
The Upas of his morbid imagination, no longer controlled by the healthful restraints of the pure, domestic atmosphere that his child-wife had thrown around him, turned, like a poisonous blight, about him, enervating his nobler energies, and, spite of his reason, blasting the healthier aspirations of his genius.
Poe may be regarded as a man who lived and died, never entirely understood,- one who, sensitive, to a degree altogether incomprehensible to practical minds, yet was so unfortunate as to live among the practical-minded only, and at a time when temperament, as such, was essentially omitted in society’s estimate of a man. It was Poe’s misfortune that his temperament was totally at variance with the spirit of the age in which lie lived.
In a certain sphere of thought his ideas were altogether in advance of those of the people with whom he was associated. The world at large was never responsive to him in any significant degree. It could admire or despise him. It could not sympathize with him, or appreciate him.
The nineteenth century, generous as it has been in the production of geniuses, has been none too prolific in these rare creations. Many of them, alas! now live only in memory and in their works.
It behooves us then to preserve their memories and their works free from calumny. The veil of calumny has heavily clouded the memory of Edgar Allan Poe.
May I then be permitted to hope, that, from the reminiscences which my researches, which claim not to be adequate or complete, have evolved, some rays of light may find their way through the oppressive gloom that has shut out from view much
[page 388:]of the fairer side of the poet’s life? I have not indeed found all the missing parts, needed to make of the mutilated statue a symmetrical whole; but, possibly, from some of the facts contained in this rambling paper, may be gathered suggestions at least of a fairer form than fame had hitherto given to the personal character of EDGAR A. POE.
* Mr. Fredericks has in the limning from thus daguerrotype [[sic]] succeeded admirably in reproducing the better points, while modifying the defects apparent in the original. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 363 -- to accompany the illustration.]]
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[S:0 - LL, 1876]