Text: James Southall Wilson, “The Personality of Poe,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 67, no. 2, April 1959, 67:131-142

­[page 131, unnumbered:]


YEARS ago I began a public address by calling Edgar Allan Poe the Hamlet of American literature and the phrase pleased the fancy of the newspaper headliners at the time. The dark cloak of mystery in which everything about the man and the artist has been wrapped, and the endless and unsatisfactory efforts to pluck out the stops and sound him to his depths have given some almost self-suggesting aptness to the parallel. But it is too obvious a likeness to be a vital one. Poe is rather the epitome of man. In him were gathered as in one microcosm. the littleness and the magnanimity, the spleen and the generosity, the heights and the depths of man’s nature. To some degree, all that has been said about him was true and nothing that has been said about him was true. He denied the facts of his own life and yet he wrote them plain for all the world to read. He is a contradiction at a hundred points and yet he consistently followed the track of desolating loneliness in fidelity to the cold light of his high north star. This is the strange man of whose personality after a hundred and fifty years I seek to make a synthesis. What betrayed me into the headstrong task was the sense that for years I had been seeking to realize to myself that strange personality. Out of the innumerable reminiscences of men and women who knew him, I have sought to discount the vagaries of old men whose memories played them fanciful tricks, the vanities of old women whose sentimentality whispered foolish lies, and the falsities of obvious fame-seekers who remembered where no memories were. From all that had been written about him, and out of his own writings, taken with the circumstances of their composition when we knew them, and from the composite face made by considering ­[page 132:] all his likenesses in relation to the known facts of the sittings, out of these we may try to invoke the manhood of Edgar Poe and to enter through the doorway thus constructed into the inner and spiritual self until we feel that we know the man. But how little we know those of our own household. How then shall I speak with authority of this man whom I have never seen and with whom only three people whom I have known were personally acquainted? Or suppose I have read aright this dark-hued chameleon of genius, how can I make you see as I sometimes think I feel, the baffling contradictions of his life and character?

At least let us start with a simple and direct approach as we would with a living man of familiar human reality. The earlier biographers, I feel, needlessly confused the issue with moral partisanship. Griswold(1) and Woodberry(2) shrank from him as from, in the one case, an enemy who offended a hypocritical Puritanism of pretense, and in the other, as from a morally offensive acquaintance who outraged the honest scrupulousness of a poetically sensitive taste. Ingram,(3) his first notable biographer, an Englishman, whitewashed his life to make the man the impeccable personality that he felt a great poet should be, and Dr. Harrison(4) sublimated him with rhetoric to fit a Victorian frame constructed for a blameless genius. The newer biographers have ridden different horses but often they have driven them no less hard. They bring Freudian formulae into the equations of which the man and his destinies must be forced. Strange symbols of frustrated desires and dream-haunting visions of dead women are made to spell out the story of his unmerciful disaster. Even Hervey Allen’s brilliant and interesting biography(5) has not escaped the easy complexities of the so-called psychological method. Fifty years from now Freudian biography will be as outmoded as the partisanship of moral hostility and sentimental advocacy has become today. Professor Quinn has perhaps most objectively told the life history of Edgar Poe.(6)


We are studying the humanity of a great artist. We are concerned only with such facts as we can be convinced are true in our effort to understand and to recreate him imaginatively as a man. Whether he was weak or strong ­[page 133:] in will or morals, whether he was a drunkard or used opium, whether he was untrustworthy in his use of words or of money, whether he was harsh or jealous in his attitude towards others, whether he was loving and faithful or lustful and variable in his human relations; all these matters are of first importance in reconstructing and in considering intelligently the life of the man from whom issued words sweeter than honey and phrases sharper than edged swords. But we, I hope, are civilized enough to be able to keep our criticism unmixed from our moralities. As critics and seekers for the truth we judge neither the man nor his creator. We are human and we may pity or admire, for we view humanity; but if a breath of praise or blame blows ever so little upon the mirror to darken or brighten the glass we shall not see the true reflection of a face worthy to awaken in us a cry like Browning’s, “And have you then seen Shelley plain?” We are viewing genius and genius is always peculiar. That we must all the time remember. Mr. Louis Untermeyer closes his inimitable parody of Eddie Guest with a line that explains that gentleman’s popularity:

This thought will please him best:

That ninety million think the same —

Including Eddie Guest.

Conversely it explains why we must not forget that it is its tangency to the norm, that is, its very peculiarity, that makes genius valuable because it is different and therefore rare. We are viewing a changing personality modeled by a shifting life. That too we must remember. It is comfortable to come back to the old friends of our childhood and find some of them unchanged; we enjoy their restful personalities as we would cosy rocking chairs, but we know that the more remarkable a man is the less his picture at twenty is likely to serve as a good likeness at forty. There are traits in the boy Edgar Poe that are recognizable to the end of the chapter but the inner as well as the outer life of Poe was stern drama and rising as he did as an artist, firebright and cloudlike above the confusing circumstances of his life, yet I think never did circumstances play a larger part in the marring and the making of a man of genius.

Back of the understanding of Poe lies the knowledge of the cheap, material, sentimentalized, smugly moralized, narrowly provincial taste and atmosphere of American life in his time; of an inherited frailness of health, perhaps no less mental than physical; of the waif orphaned of the actor mother and the estray father; adopted by a loving but frustrated woman not strong enough to withstand the coarse strength of a husband brutally restrictive ­[page 134:] and as brutally openhanded. The sense of injustice bred of the vagaries of his treatment by Mr. Allan led the youth in his University year now to the charging without permission of expensive garments to his guardian and now to futile efforts of an inexpert novice to gain at the gaming table money to pay those unauthorized debts.

Followed the stormy dismissal of the young man from his foster father’s home; the enlistment, probably following Coleridge’s example, as a private in the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry; then after two years of service, the return, unforgiven, to the Richmond home, to find his foster mother dead; and then after entering the United States Military Academy and learning later how completely Mr. Allan had cast him off, his self-devised dismissal from West Point. Then in the poverty-stricken years, on the verge of starvation, he shared the precarious crusts of his aunt while he committed himself to his destiny as a man of letters, and no less loyally and irretrievably to the fortunes of his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, and her frail lovely daughter, Virginia. Even each change in that checkered career which carved him from Baltimore with a wallet of satirical burlesques, some verses, and a fragment of a poetical drama to his first editor’s desk in Richmond and ran through the editorial rooms of Burton’s and Graham’s Magazines in Philadelphia, and the New York Mirror and the pathetic Broadway Journal of New York; even each of these changes left its sinister modification on his personality as on his face. There are, too, his household and those of his household; his delicate, dependent, childlike wife to whom he was devoted with the tenderness of an older brother but no less with the understanding of a devoted husband, and his remarkable aunt and mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, whose protecting and yet clinging guardianship explains so much that is otherwise baffling on the intimate side of Poe’s character. When Poe drifted into Baltimore in 1831, after he had forced his dismissal from West Point, with the determination to win his way with his pen, it was his aunt who opened her doors to the unpractical young lad of twenty-two. He had been cast off ruthlessly by the man who had taken him as a baby of three and done all that he ignorantly could to unfit him for the poverty to which he abandoned him. The fortunes of that branch of the Poe family were never lower than then. Mrs. David Poe, Edgar’s grandmother, was dying from that incurable frailty, old age, and the little pension that met the absolute necessities of life stopped with her death. Henry Clemm, Mrs. Clemm’s son, was a frail lad, soon to follow his grandmother. Edgar’s brother Henry was a broken young man whose early death drew together the household in the bonds which common sorrow and mutual ­[page 135:] endurance weld so fiercely. Mrs. Clemm, described as she so often was as large and masculine in appearance, was essentially feminine in an old-fashioned way in her sense of values. Her life was spent, in the untrained routine of a woman not taught to work, in battling by every means in her power for the existence of the people she loved. She faced the primitive conditions which actual privative poverty always brings. She met those primitive conditions with primitive emotions. In a large, fine sense, if we must deal with moral values lest what we say about her be misunderstood, she was heroic — asking nothing for herself but a chance to work and work almost as a menial for those she loved. But without fifty cents in the house, she did not stop to consider Poe’s critical opinions when she borrowed money and promised a favorable review. Or in front of an empty cupboard, it did not seem necessary to ask Edgar’s consent to sell the manuscript she had found in the wastebasket. When her daughter was dying she was more likely to think of who would lend her money than of why. She was facing the imminent starvation, pain, and death of her child and she fought with such weapons as she knew. She hesitated from a squeamishness of honor or of taste as little, I imagine, as she would have hesitated to give up life itself, if it had been required in the same cause. Yet it does not change the facts that as the man who gave Poe protection and education as a child twisted his whole youth awry, so the devoted woman who stuck to him through thick and thin in his manhood was a person the least able to give him the moral and spiritual support he lacked.

These are but a few of the factors that helped make Poe what he was; but of course we will not forget that what he was originally is always the most important explanation of itself and what he became. The most brilliant and variously gifted mind that America had yet produced, sensitive and temperamental, as poets’ minds usually are, was born in a body poorly adapted to endure humiliations, privations, and exhausting petty tragedies. His career was marked by accidental misfortunes paralleled only by the disasters produced in vicious circles by the very mental traits that they in part explain.


We have constructed sketchily the frame, now let us examine the picture. Physically Poe is recalled to most of us by the late daguerreotypes taken nearly every one of them after the ravages of a long and prostrating spree, near the end of his life when his countenance already showed the disintegration which was so surely taking place in this old man whose age in years ­[page 136:] was less than forty. I have no doubt that the earlier pictures better reflect the Poe known to those who remembered him before the lonesome latter years. The sharp decline began, I believe, in 1845 when the top of his fame was reached with the popular success of The Raven. But the catastrophic breaking in health and sanity dates from his wife’s death in 1847, two years before his own. As depicted in the earlier portraits and described by those who knew him best, he was a quiet, shy-looking man, nearly always dressed (neatly is the word often used) in well-brushed black; wearing clipped side-whiskers, or clean-shaven, or with a closely trimmed mustache, as fashion suggested; of moderate height — five feet, eight inches, according to the army records — and build, but slight rather than stocky, and with delicately modeled hands and feet; in every detail, his enemies as well as his friends are careful to say, looking the gentleman. The prominent features of his face were his long but well-formed nose and his large rounded brilliant eyes of hazel-grey. So long and dark were his lashes, so deep-set the eyes under the dark brows, so expansive the pupils of the eyes, that not infrequently those who knew him slightly have described them as dark or brown. At least one oil reproduction of a daguerreotype in the Long Island Historical Society, painted by Gabriel Harrison who claimed that he not only knew Poe but that Mrs. Clemm had approved the painting, shows him with brown eyes and wearing a red tie. His mouth was singularly attractive, somewhat thin but freshly red and beautifully bowed, mobile and sensitively expressing his moods. The marked discrepancy between the two sides of his face and the suggestion of a sneer to one side of his mouth are noticeable only during the last few years of his life. His complexion was peculiarly colorless, white almost like marble, except at times (I imagine after the illness that followed intoxication) when it is described as taking on an olive tinge. So James Russell Lowell described his coloring after the only meeting he ever had with him when Lowell’s own description as well as Mrs. Clemm’s frank and positive statement makes us know that he was but half-recovered from a prolonged spree. His forehead was remarkable: it was unusually broad and rounded outward between the temples but in general direction it sloped backward from the brows to the hair. His hair was a dark but lustrous brown and curled over the forehead and about the ears, except when — as he sometimes did, especially, Mrs. Clemm thought, before sitting for a picture — he wet it and so plastered it down. Nothing was remembered so often by mere acquaintances as the flashing, changing beauty of his eyes, once his conversation wakened them ­[page 137:] from a quiet stillness like sleeping pools, and the sweetness of his gentle, exquisitely modulated voice.

This is the normal picture of the man. Over against it may be placed the occasional and often less authenticated descriptions of the man possessed of his demon; wild and violent, rushing pursued by imaginary enemies, or irritably combative and uncontrolled. Poe himself gave the best explanation of these contradictory pictures. The one was his habitual self, almost the only one known to his household and close friends; the other was what he showed to the world when he was drunk, when to superficial natures he seemed to reveal himself more intimately than he did at any other time. “The desire for society,” he wrote on February 29, 1848, “comes upon me only when I have become excited by drink. Then only I go — that is, at these times only I have been in the practice of going among my friends: who seldom, or in fact never, having seen me unless excited, take it for granted that I am always so. Those who really know me, know better.” This, of course, was written by Poe as a defense and might be wholly discounted, if it did not seem the one explanation that reconciles the contrary views of him given by people equally reliable and unquestionably known to him.

There are portraits and daguerreotypes of Poe so unalike that only a careful comparison of the details of facial conformation can convince one that they represent the same man. But they are not more unalike than the pen-pictures of the character of Poe.


It is just as well to remember that there was the young Poe and the older man. There was the reticent Poe among strangers who was also the affable, considerate family man. We cannot imagine the former bursting his gaiters in a contest at leap-frog with a friend at the Fordham cottage. It was the latter who wrote with pathetic gusto of the good things to eat in a cheap New York boarding house. He was encouraging his sick wife’s solicitous mother, stranded in Philadelphia for lack of railway fare. There was also the drunk as well as the sober Poe. No study of Poe’s personality can proceed far without first a conclusion, or at least an assumption, as to his habits in relation to drugs and intoxicants. I cannot here enter into the arguments or the evidence. I am ready to grant anything that can be proved, but for my own part I think that the assumption that Poe ever used habitually opium in any form is unwarranted by trustworthy evidence. That he swallowed laudanum on one occasion with suicidal intention Poe himself stated ­[page 138:] in a letter that until comparatively recently had been printed only in a greatly mutilated and modified form. I have read the words copied from Poe’s letter in Mrs. Richmond’s hand and to me they seem as sincere as anything he ever wrote in his life. Otherwise, I accept Dr. John Carter’s words that had Poe been a drug addict he and other physicians who had attended him could not have been ignorant of the fact. To me it is equally clear that no statement as to Poe’s habits in the use of alcohol can be made as a blanket truth applying to his whole life.

The statement that a single glass of wine changed his entire nature was frequently made by men who had known him. It has also been frequently ridiculed by those who did not know him. A distinguished physician, Dr. Herbert Nash of Norfolk, described to me in 1909 how he had seen Poe on his last visit to Norfolk, after taking a single glass of wine, change in voice, manner and appearance; and he added that though he had through the early part of the evening refused wine, he swallowed the second glass willingly. Dr. Nash agreed with the opinion of a doctor who had attended Poe that an abnormal condition of his brain accounted for Poe’s weakness in respect to alcohol. There were certainly as Poe claimed months — perhaps even years — during which Poe, if he drank at all, did so without as far as I can discover interfering in any way with his work. I have convinced myself that from the summer of 1835 to January 1837, at most three and possibly only two irregularities from intoxication on Poe’s part came to the attention of Thomas W. White, his employer on the Southern Literary Messenger. In the next period, in Philadelphia, the indications to my mind clearly indicate long intervals between illnesses from intoxication. Even in New York, which I think was the time of most frequent lapse, he was never the habitual drunkard but a man driven mad at more or less infrequent intervals; though Poe, supported by later pathologists, contended that it was madness that caused the drinking, not drunkenness the madness.

But more important in the understanding of him than the frequency of his sprees was their effect upon him. His whole nature seemed changed and yet often those who did not know him well did not recognize that he was drunk. The consequence upon him physically was however devastating: he was an ill man for days or even weeks. I have gone into this matter of his drinking because it appears to me the necessary explanation not only of many things that he did but of the inconsistencies in men’s descriptions of him and his personality. Philip drunk confuses our understanding of Philip sober. ­[page 139:]


Poe was by nature and choice an intellectual aristocrat. He was a student at the University of Virginia founded by Thomas Jefferson while that suave revolutionary was yet alive. He might often have met him on its Lawn or been one of the groups that Mr. Jefferson invited to visit him at Monticello. Poe, nonetheless, somewhere in his writings remarked that the greatness of Jefferson ought to cause no man to accept his mistakes. Elsewhere he wrote that the greatest misfortune that could come to a man would be to have an intelligence even a little superior to any of his generation, since the very things which he saw beyond other men would convince them of his insanity. Often he declared that the opinion of a very small group became at last the opinion of the rest of mankind. Yet this aristocrat with a mind fitted to enter into companionship with any man of genius was hectored by the illiterate White, the comedian Burton, and patronized by the kindly promoter Graham, the lumbering bore Colton, and the modishly gifted and shallow N. P. Willis, editors who commanded his services. For close friendship he was thrown upon the resources of the obscure and mediocre L. A. Wilmer and F. W. Thomas. Even in his controversies he was unfortunate. The gentle-natured Longfellow, whom he really not only admired but in his writings did more honest justice than do the younger critics of our day, refused to enter the lists against him, and his foemen were all unworthy of his rapier: Theodore Fay, R. H. Stoddard, Thomas Dunn English, Rufus W. Griswold, whose names are gilded only by his lightning:

“I am a Virginian,” he said, “at least I call myself one.” He had the right, though neither blood nor birth gave it to him. Bred and educated partly in England, partly in Virginia, he was Southern and conservative in manners, religion, and politics. He was chivalrous, courteous, somewhat reticent and punctilious, acting with a formality of manner without a trace of the manners of formality. He was a Democrat and an Episcopalian; though both were inheritances with him rather than creeds. That ought to make a solid Southerner. Yet Southern as he was in all his predelictions and prejudices, in a day when he claimed that no Southerner had a fair chance in literature, never after his brief residence in Baltimore and his novitiate in Richmond, as an editor, was he able to live out of the neighborhood of Philadelphia and New York, the Northern centers of the new magazines. So the paradox of his character may be set forth as a series of contradictions, partly the outcome of his own vexed genius, partly the synthesis ­[page 140:] of his crisscrossed fortune — or misfortune. He was a man of enormous energy and creative fire as his seventeen volumes of writings in poetry, fiction, essays, and critical prose must prove. Sometimes, he says, for days he had moods when he could do nothing. He loved the Gothic splendor of the Arabesque, and the most real home of his manhood was the homely little cottage at Fordham. He was shy and restrained with strangers and yet he had recourse at times to self-advertising that shocked his generation. He was as tender to a fainting printer’s devil as the boy’s mother could have been, sweet as a woman in his solicitude for a dying wife and struggling mother-in-law, generous in his praise of unacknowledged genius, as with Hawthorne, and Lowell, in their earlier years, and on occasion kicked down the steps a young author whom he suspected of filching other men’s wares, pilloried English as the “Autocrat of All the Asses,” “kicked up shinny” with the literary lights of Boston, and turned his ink into vitrol whenever he thought he had been slighted. A man by nature and youthful habit prodigal of money, confident of his genius and the superiority of his gifts, he lived the greater part of his life as a pauper, adopted as an orphan by a stranger who taught him to call him father and drove him penniless from his home at eighteen. Forced to borrow money in small sums to start his Broadway Journal, he was wrecked by a lack of resources and left unable to pay his debts. Often without five dollars between himself and his little family’s starvation, he magnanimously wrote the young Lowell on the failure of the latter’s magazine, releasing the debt owed him for an article, only to be forced a little later to swallow alike his pride and generosity and ask that it be paid. Prizing independence above all things, he sometimes found himself fawning even to his enemies under the whip of necessity. Prompt and active by nature, he was often placed by poverty, intemperance, and unfortunate circumstances in the role of a procrastinator. His chivalry and the gentleness of his disposition caused him to praise more balderdash and sentimental twaddle than he damned, but his hatred of fortune-coddling and logrolling in literature drove him to swash-buckling slashing with his critical broadaxe; and injustice to himself and his work helped fix a sneer on at least two of the authentic pictures that survive him. He constantly misstated facts about himself and changed at will the date of his birth; yet he hated pussyfooting, waged war against false values, and, I am convinced, was neither the unconsciously imaginative nor the maliciously vindictive liar.

There is a greater paradox yet to be noted. At times his life seems willful and capricious, as if he persevered in nothing; as if the man who wrote ­[page 141:] Ligeia, the apotheosis of the power of the will, were himself utterly uncontrolled, undisciplined. He may frequently be quoted against himself and his dicta about authors sometimes cancel each other. Certainly his two years of army service proved that he could conform to discipline, and so long as he served a salaried task, even under the most dullard of employers, he was, except for occasional illnesses caused by drink, regular and controlled. The fact is that nothing is so characteristic of Poe as the tenaciousness of his ideas. The principles of his critical theories, of his working methods, of his plans for a great American journal of criticism and creative literature, shifted in terms, or changed their names, developed and grew clearer in form, but he never changed them fundamentally, never dipped his flag to a lower standard.

Dogged, and pertinacious; to stubbornness, easily elated, quickly discouraged, bitter, kindly, energetic, generous, procrastinating, grasping, proud, fawning, prodigal, impecunious, truthful to his hurt, lying, secretive, shy, publicity-seeking, recklessly bold, humane and loving, cold, pitiless and sneering; all these and more contradictions like them have been said and written of him; and some facet of his coruscating personality has thrown off the light by which each trait appeared as some man’s eye saw it. It little matters now that he offended the moralists of his day till they grew immoral in the bitterness of their denunciation of him. The wonder of his startling genius, the beauty of his melodious and often flawless poetry, the suggestiveness of his criticism, the originality and power of his stories will not be different whatever the man was like. But the significance of his genius gives an interest and importance to the personality of the man that possessed it and to the circumstances that produced or conditioned the manner of its expression. Poe the man was one of millions in the crude America of his day and his behavior as a man was no more important than that of any other one of those millions. But Poe the artist is unique and what affected him concerns all the world of intelligent people.

But should the last of all the Puritans force me to bring moral values to bear where they are irrelevant and find a practical application either in the effort to analyze the man’s personality or to evaluate his acts, to my own satisfaction I could do it triumphantly. Over against the pity of his poverty, the mad devastation that drink wrought upon his diseased mind, the liberties that he sometimes took with words, I should place the splendid loyalty of his devotion to those two women who loved him; the courage, the zeal, the uncompromising fidelity with which he served through poverty, drink, and misrepresentation, the life of an artist in a country where his art was not ­[page 142:] appreciated. Conan Doyle built many tales upon the bare formula of one type of tale that Poe created. Poe scorned to copy himself in his serious work. Each of his tales of analysis has a different theme, though no one would have been quicker than he to see how easily the same tale may be told over with varied incident and changed names. “I could not do that,” Poe wrote of a suggestion about his story, Ligeia, “For I had already written Morella.” For all the pity and irony of his life and personality, to my reading there is more character and as much morality to the story of Poe as may be found in the quiet peace of many good men whose beasts were tamed to an easy yoke.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 131:]

*  Dr. Wilson is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Virginia. This paper was delivered as the annual address to the Virginia Historical Society at its meeting on January 19, 1959, the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 132:]

1.  The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, With a Memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold . . . (New York, 1850-1856).

2.  George E. Woodberry, Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, 1885). [[Revised in 2 volumes, in 1909.]]

3.  John H. Ingram, Edgar Allan Poe, His Life, Letters and Opinions (London, 1880).

4.  James A. Harrison, Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1902-1903).

5.  Hervey Allen, Israfel, the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1926).

6.  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography (New York, 1941).



An earlier form of this lecture was delivered by Dr. Wilson, of the University of Virginia, at the Fifth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, January 19, 1927.

Permission for The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore to reproduce the text was granted by Dr. Nelson Lankford, of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.


[S:1 - VMHB, 1959] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Personality of Poe (J. S. Wilson, 1959)