Text: Edward M. Alfriend, “Unpublished Recollections of Edgar Allan Poe, “ Literary Era (Philadelphia), vol. III, no. 8, August 1901, pp. 489-491


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­[page 489, unnumbered:]

UNPUBLISHED RECOLLECTIONS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE

By Edward M. Alfriend

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Life has many satires stranger than fiction, but none more impressive than that contained in the fact that John Allan, the proud rich merchant who adopted Edgar Allan Poe, sleeps his last sleep in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery, at Richmond, his riches scattered to the winds, and his name kept in memory only by the genius of the son of the poor players who died in abject poverty in Richmond and left their children to poverty.

Mr. Allan was a man of liberal education, and took the deepest interest in all Poe’s literary efforts and ambitions. Indeed, I have been told by old citizens of Richmond that he loved Poe most tenderly, and treated him as his son and the heir to his fortune. An old friend of Mr. Allan’s told me that he often witnessed the association between Poe, when a boy, and Mr. Allan, and that it was most admirable in its affection. Mr. Allan made Poe his companion, walked with him, read with him, and took him with him wherever he went.

Mr. Allan once said to the gentleman to whom I have referred, in speaking of Poe, “Edgar is wayward and impulsive, but that is to be expected, for he has genius, and genius is always wayward. He will some day fill the world with his fame.” The house in which Mr. Allan and Edgar Poe lived in Richmond, Va., has been pulled down. It was a large, manorial looking house, with an extensive lawn in front of it, and was situated at the corner of Fifth and Main streets.

Mr. Allan was twice married. His first wife was living when he adopted Poe, and she was devotedly attached to him, treating him at all times as her own son. The relations between her and Poe were always those of the tenderest affection, and Poe was most happy in his life with her. He always spoke of her in the most loving terms, said she was the best of women, [column 2:] and said that in her death he had sustained the greatest loss of his life; that she had given him a mother’s love, and he gave back to her the love of a son. In speaking to my father of her, Poe said, “In Mrs. Allan’s death died the happiness of my life.” Poe always visited her grave, when in Richmond, and was often seen to weep bitterly while standing by it.

Poe’s nature was very sensitive, his mental organism very delicate, and, like Keats, he would weep bitterly over a pathetic story when told or read to him. I have heard Mr. Archibald Plasants, an old citizen of Richmond, say that one night, when he was visiting Mr. John Allan, some one read Hood’s “Bridge of Sighs,” and Poe, then a well-grown boy, wept bitterly during the reading. Mr. Allan said to him that Poe was always thus affected by a pathetic story. Later in life, Poe and my father became friends, and I have heard my father testify to the same quality in him.

An effort has been made to put the responsibility of the separation of Poe from Mr. Allan on the second Mrs. Allan. This effort was wholly calumnious. Mrs. Allan never saw Poe but twice in her life, and Poe had not lived under Mr. Allan’s roof for two years prior to her marriage to Allan. The two occasions upon which Mrs. Allan saw Poe were as follows:

During the last days of Allan’s life he was confined to his room by illness. There was a ring at the door-bell one day, and Mrs. Allan answered it. She saw, on opening the door, a man of remarkable appearance, whom she did not even know. The man was Poe. He asked for Mr. Allan, but did not give his name. Mrs. Allan told him that her husband was too ill to see any one. He forced himself past her, and, being familiar with the house, went up to Mr. Allan’s chamber. As soon as Poe entered the chamber Mr. Allan ­[page 490:] raised his cane and threatened to strike him if he came within his reach, and ordered him out of his house. Poe withdrew, and that was the last time Mr. Allan and Poe ever met. The second time Mrs. Allan saw him was after the death of Mr. Allan. She was sitting at the chamber window, saw Poe enter the gate and approach the house, and sent a servant down to say that she would not see him.

Mrs. Allan said that after her marriage Mr. Allan and she never talked of Poe. As Mr. Allan had separated from Poe before his marriage with the second Mrs. Allan, it was impossible for her to have been in any way a factor in the separation. Mrs. Allan’s own language on the subject to a personal friend was, “I never influenced Mr. Allan against him in the slightest degree. Indeed, I would not have interposed or advised concerning him. Poe was never spoken of between us.”

I knew the second Mrs. Allan well; all three of her sons were my friends, and I was a constant visitor at her house after the death of her husband. She was a refined, educated woman, with a kind heart, and in every sense a lady, peculiarly gentle and incapable of wrong to anyone. The separation was Poe’s fault, and Poe’s only. All of Mr. Allan’s old personal friends in Richmond testify to this.

Poe married in 1835 his cousin, Virginia Clemm, but his first love was Elizabeth [[Elmira]] Royster, of Richmond. He knew Miss Royster as a little girl, and grew up loving her. Her father was always opposed to Poe marrying his daughter, but she always loved Poe, and Poe loved her with equal devotion. Miss Royster afterwards married a Mr. Shelton, whom I knew well. She told me all about her relations with Poe, and her love for him. She more than once said to me, “I married another man, but the love of my life was Edgar Poe. I never loved anyone else.”

She never wearied of talking of him. She told me that when Poe left Richmond, before her marriage to Mr. Shelton, she and Poe were engaged to be married; that her father intercepted their letters, and both Poe and she became convinced that each had forgotten the other, and that she, urged by her father, and in a spirit of [column 2:] spite, determined to marry Mr. Shelton; that Poe returned to Richmond on the day of the night of her marriage, came to her home while the wedding party was going on, not knowing of her marriage, approached her, and asked her to dance with him; — she then told him of her marriage, and he was so grief-stricken that he left the house at once, and she did not dance again that evening; but Poe remained long enough for each to tell the other the story of the intercepted letters and for each to learn of the other’s love and loyalty. Poe’s wife died, and Mrs. Shelton became a widow. Poe resumed his attentions and became again engaged to her, and was engaged to her when he died, on the 7th of October, 1849.

Mrs. Shelton also told me that Poe informed her over and over again that she was the “Lost Lenore” of the Raven; she also said Poe told her that she inspired his poem “Annabel Lee.” She said that he often read “The Raven” to her, and she described the fire, the pathos, the intensity with which he did it, saying, “When Edgar” (she always spoke of him as “Edgar”) “read ‘The Raven,’ he became so wildly excited that he frightened me, and when I remonstrated with him he replied he could not help it — that it set his brain on fire.”

Mrs. Shelton was beyond middle age when I knew her; but I had any acquaintances who had known her in her youth, and they all concurred in describing her as a beautiful girl. I knew her many years before her death, and my father, the late Thomas M. Alfriend, of Richmond, was an intimate friend and a constant visitor at her house. When I knew Mrs. Shelton she had a lovely, almost saintly face. Her eyes were a deep blue, her hair dark brown, touched with grey, her nose thin and patrician, her forehead high and well developed, her chin finely modeled, projecting and firm, and her cheeks round and full. Her voice was very low, soft and sweet, her manners exquisitely refined, and intellectually she was a woman of education and force of character. Her distinguishing qualities were gentleness and womanliness. She was just the woman in which such a perturbed spirit as that of Poe would have sought rest and found it. ­[page 491:]

Poe told my father, who was his intimate friend, that of all the English poets he preferred Shelley, and he was especially fond of repeating Shelley’s “Lines to an Indian Air,” which Poe said was “the most exquisite pant of the very soul of passion.” My father often said of him that he always found him intellectually the most fascinating and he ever knew, and always a loveable, charming companion, except when he was under the influence of liquor, when he would become coarse, gross, and vulgar. He also said of him that he had fits of the deepest gloom; and on one occasion, when talking to him, Poe suddenly turned to him with his lustrous eyes full of anguish, and said, “I believe God gave me a spark of genius, but he quenched it in misery.”

In private conversation Poe was very brilliant, though sometimes erratic; he would often in a single epigrammatic sentence describe a character. There was in Richmond an eccentric journalist of whom Poe said to my father: “Brilliant, yes, but so erratic that you might as well attempt to make an astronomical observation suspended from the tail of a comet as to follow him.”

Poe, like Thackeray, was extremely fond of children, and was most joyous and happy in his intercourse with them. My father said that he would romp with them by the hour, and in their childish sports he would become himself a child again. Once he took in his arms a little girl, then about three years of age, with whom he had been playing, and said, his great eyes beaming with happiness, “I do not wonder that Christ said, of such as these is the Kingdom of Heaven! Oh! that the human race could always in this world continue as pure and innocent as this little girl.”

Poe’s love of nature amounted to a passion. He said to my father: “Nature rests me, I always find a calm with nature that I seek in vain everywhere else, and no matter how great my perturbation, she never fails to bring me peace.” There are several islands in the James River, between Richmond and Manchester, and amid beds of great granite rocks, over which the river leaps and bounds; some of the scenes of the locality are more picturesque even than the rapids of Niagara [column 2:] River. Poe was a frequenter of these islands, always going there alone and spending hours amid wild and beautiful localities, musing with nature.

As a boy he was fond of all outdoor sports, and it is a well-authenticated fact that he once swam from the end of an island in the James River, just below what is known as Mayo’s Bridge, to a point called Warwick. The distance being five or six miles, his companions accompanied him in a boat. I knew an old gentleman in Richmond who testified to the performance of this feat by Poe.

Poe had a great love for music. He said to a gentleman in Richmond, now dead, “Poetry finds its highest development in union with music. The old bards illustrated that.” He also declared that he did not believe in the poëta nascitur, non fit, principle; but avowed that any man of good mind, fair education and imagination could write poetry, if he tried. He did not believe in inspiration, but said that poetry should be written with mathematical precision. He declared that such a thing as a long poem did not exist, and said to my father that “Paradise Lost” was a series of short poems, and that Milton’s great learning, instead of helping him in composition, enslaved his mind and injured his work, and that this was shown by his borrowing imagery and incidents from Greek and Latin authors and firing his imagination with them. He said, “If, like Burns, he had trusted to the spontaneity of his own genius, his work would have been greater.”

Poe had an idolatrous love of Shakespeare. He read and re-read his plays. He said to my father, “If all the dramatists of antiquity, Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plautus, Terence, were combined in one, they would not be worthy to touch the hem of his garment.” In the same conversation he said that Shakespeare in “King Lear” had taken fact after fact, and incident after incident, from the story of Œdipus, as given by Sophocles.

These recollections may throw a little additional light on that child of genius whose peculiarities often made him a mystery to those about him, and who was often misunderstood.


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Notes:

Although T. O. Mabbott considered this article to be an important one (see Poems, 1969, 1:589), it is also highly problematic. A good deal of this reminiscence appears to be taken from the recollections of Thomas H. Ellis. In particular, it seems strange that Alfriend asserts that Poe was alone at fault for his difficutlies with Allan, citing as evidence “All of Mr. Allan’s old personal friends in Richmond testify to this,” but one would presume that they would take Allan’s side, and their likely bias in favor of their friend hardly constitutes plausible proof.

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[S:1 - LEM, 1901] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Unpublished Recollections of Edgar Allan Poe (E. M. Alfriend, 1901)