Text: John W. Ostrom, “The Letters of Poe: Quest and Answer,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1967


­ [page 1:]

The Letters of POE:  
  Quest and Answer

John Ostrom


FOR 25 YEARS I have been close to Poe. In fact, there were times when I could feel Edgar breathing over my shoulder. He never divulged any secrets to me — none, at least, that the scientists would confirm. But during our years together I have had a few hunches.

The Greeks used to say, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Then they obligingly rolled out the purple carpet for the unsuspecting victim to walk on.

Today I would like to share with you some of the quests I followed while editing Poe’s letters, and some answers I found along the way. Most of my findings are based upon fact; a few are hunches — I am sure you will know the difference.

If I err egregiously against the gods — and for some people Poe is now enshrined among them — I shall join Agamemnon, though I am not sure whether I should take a subway to Dante’s Inferno or a jet to the Isles of the Blest.

Do you have any idea how many letters Poe wrote, how many were written to him, how many are extant and available in libraries and private collections, how many are lost, and how many are still undiscovered in cookie jars in cellars or forgotten trunks in attics? [column 2:]

On August 14, 1817, John Allan or his wife, Poe’s foster parents, wrote from Cheltenham, England, to Edgar in London. Between then and September 18, 1849, when Poe wrote his last three letters, all from Richmond, the total known correspondence includes 878 letters. Of these, 369 by Poe are extant and are printed in the new edition of The Letters of Poe. About one hundred other Poe letters remain unlocated. Many of these lost items were written when he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s, Graham’s and the Broadway Journal; some solicited subscriptions for his proposed Penn and Stylus magazines; still others were covering letters for his own contributions to current periodicals. Undoubtedly most of these letters quickly found their way into the editor’s wastebasket.

Only a few of Poe’s many letters to feminine correspondents have survived, and an indeterminate number to male acquaintances have never come to light.

A number of letters from women who admired him and from women who did not were consigned to the flames by Mrs. Clemm, his aunt and mother-in-law, after his death.

Concerning letters to Poe, one amazing fact appears. Of all letters known to have been written to him by women, only 15 (possibly 17) exist today in manuscript or printed form, and these, with the exception of one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, are from ­[page 2:] relatively unimportant people like Miss Talley, Mrs. Ellet, Mrs. Fuller, Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Mowatt, and Mrs. Sigourney. Not a single line has been preserved from Annie Richmond, Helen Whitman, or Mrs. Clemm, or even his wife Virginia.

Indeed, it is remarkable that so many of Poe’s own letters have been preserved, especially when we consider that many were to little-known people and that complimentary closes, signatures, and sections of text were often cut off and distributed as mementoes to autograph hunters.

The original letters we do have were fortunately saved among the papers of such families as Allan, Chivers, Duyckinck, Eveleth, Griswold, Lowell, Annie Richmond, Snodgrass, F. W. Thomas, Mrs. Whitman, and Willis. Eventually these items, in groups or as fugitive pieces, became the basis of the excellent collections in such libraries as Boston Public, Harvard, Huntington, Morgan, New York Public, the Valentine Museum, University of Texas, University of Virginia, as well as Johns Hopkins, Peabody, and Enoch Pratt here in Baltimore.

There have also been four distinguished private collectors of Poe letters in recent years: William H. Koester of this city; Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., of Indianapolis; Henry Bradley Martin of New York; and Col. Richard Gimbel of New Haven. The last two have the largest private collections today, and are still actively engaged in adding to their holdings. Mr. Lilly, who made a special hobby of acquiring Poe’s letters to Sarah Helen Whitman, donated his great library of Poeana to the Lilly Library of Indiana University in 1957. Of the four, Mr. Koester had the largest collection, and without his generous cooperation the original edition of The Letters of Poe and the present revised edition could never have been completed. I regret, as you must, that his magnificent Poe library could not have remained here in Baltimore close to the famous writer who made it possible. However, it is now part of the Miriam Lutcher Stark Library at the University of Texas.

The desire to possess something written in Poe’s own hand, began at least by 1839, gained considerable momentum during the last two years of his life, and then subsided for half a century. On Christmas Day, 1839, Joseph Boyd of Cincinnati requested a hand-copy of one of Poe’s poems, and Poe sent his [column 2:] sonnet “Silence.” A year later, Richard Henry Stoddard also asked for a copy of one of Poe’s poems, and received a holograph of “To Zante”; Poe’s full letter containing the poem has only recently come to light. In 1848 and later, not only Mrs. Whitman, but also Annie Richmond and others, often cut off Poe’s signature as a gift for admiring friends; Mrs. Whitman even excised segments of the text of a letter to supply the demand. Mrs. Clemm and probably Poe’s sister Rosalie disposed of his autograph and even whole letters, often for a price. Rosalie told a correspondent in California who wrote her after Poe’s death for an autograph: “I am sorry to say I have none. If I had . . . I could certainly dispose of them, for I am very poor.” Actually, there are no known letters from Poe to his sister, and only one from Rosalie to him is supported by any tangible evidence.

The business of buying and selling Poe letters was under way at least by 1896. During the past 70 years such auction galleries as Bangs and Company, Libbie, Anderson, Dodd Mead, Merwin-Clayton, Parke-Bernet, Swann, and Sotheby’s in London, and private dealers like Goodspeed, Rosenbach, and Fleming have sold many a Poe letter. Since 1949, however, few letters have changed hands; in fact, in 1965 and through the summer of 1966 none are cited in the records of American Book-Prices Current, which lists sales at prominent galleries. Such records, of course, do not account for acquisitions by individual collectors through private dealers. The Koester library was handled in this way. Letters sold by private transaction may be lost to the public for many years, for most dealers, like lawyers, protect their clients.

Mr. Koester’s library of Poeana is a case in point. In January, 1966, I began a revision of The Letters. I learned from Richard Hart that Mr. Koester had died and that no one in Baltimore seemed to know what was to become of the Poe material in his collection. I made inquiries of Mr. Koester’s son, and some time later heard from a private dealer that the collection had been sold to an institution but its name could not be revealed until September. I should write to him at that time. But I had a June first deadline and could not wait. Much to my wife’s consternation I went into complete stupor for several days. I asked myself, Where were there people wealthy enough to buy this magnificent collection and ­[page 3:] donate it to a library? The arrival of my small quarterly dividend from an oil company immediately suggested Texas.

It seemed a good hunch, especially when, two days later, a library friend of mine mentioned having been in New York and having dinner with a dealer who had just returned from Texas. The dealer mentioned was the one Mr. Koester had often told me bought manuscripts for him. I wrote to the University of Texas. No reply. Later Richard Hart wrote me that a rumor here in Baltimore associated the Koester collection with the state of Texas. That was enough! I wrote again to the University of Texas and asked point blank if it had recently acquired a Poe library from the East. No reply. Two weeks passed. I telephoned the librarian, explained my problem and stressed my deadline. I promised secrecy until fall — the revision would not be out before then. The librarian — about $5 worth later — told me to have hope. I hoped for two more weeks. At last, one evening, my telephone rang.

“Mr. Ostrom?”


“This is long distance. Texas is calling.”

I waited.

“Mr. Ostrom? I have good news for you. Mr. Koester’s Poe material is coming to the Stark Library of the University of Texas.”

Mutilations and Manipulations

Continued acquisition of Poe letters, in whole or in parts, may attest to his fame, but manipulations with ink or scissors have rendered a few originals almost unrecognizable. Today there are signatures without letters, and letters without signatures, segments without heading or complimentary close, sections of one letter coupled with a signature from another; there are fragments of one letter properly dated and identified, and a transcribed portion of the same letter to be found on the envelope of another letter. The sacrificial offerings of the excisionist on the altar of hero-worship has become an Olympian problem for any editor of the Poe canon.

Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, the poetess of Providence, who for a few weeks late in 1848 considered marrying Poe, was probably the worst offender in the mutilations of Poe’s letters. She not only inked out whole lines in [column 2:] his letters and sent Poe’s biographer incomplete texts, but also cut off signatures and cut out middle sections as souvenirs for friends.

For example, after Poe’s death Mrs. Whitman gave a friend the manuscript of Poe’s letter dated November 14, 1848 (unfortunately the friend later lost it). Presumably, she first made a full copy for herself. In 1874 she sent only a part of this copy to Ingram, Poe’s English biographer, and it is this fragmentary text that has been printed in the biographies and in the first edition of The Letters. Two sentences from Poe’s letter were not sent to Ingram, but at some indeterminate time Mrs. Whitman wrote them on the envelope of Poe’s letter to her, dated November 24. Apparently, as she transcribed these sentences she inked out the postal cancellation on the envelope, wrote above it “November 14” as if the transcribed sentences were from the earlier letter. These original sentences, recently identified by Professor Robbins of Indiana University, are now made a part of the original text and are included in the revision of The Letters. However, the original postscript in which, according to another source, Poe thanked the friend for recent kindnesses was not on the envelope of November 24, was not sent to Ingram, and must be presumed lost. Mrs. Whitman’s copy of the letter is also lost. Manipulations such as these are designed by the Weird Sisters to turn an editor’s hair gray!

Thomas W. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger created a different kind of problem. In the January, 1835, number of the Messenger appeared an article that referred to a long swim made by an “E— P—” in the James River at Richmond. In the May issue the editor printed an unsigned paragraph, saying that it was by the swimmer alluded to in the January article; the paragraph supports this comment. The paragraph could therefore have been written by Poe. But where did White get it? In the Huntington Library is a one-page letter from Poe to White, docketed by White, April 30, 1835. The upper part of the manuscript is missing — in fact, the space needed for six lines of Poe’s script and for about the same number of words that appear in the paragraph printed in the May issue. White, upon receiving Poe’s letter and finding his comment on the article printed in January, merely cut off the first paragraph and sent it to the printer; the rest of the ­[page 4:] manuscript found its way, a century later, into the manuscript division of the Huntington Library.

All of you are familiar with xerox and photostatic copies of materials. Usually they are wholly trustworthy and save scholars many miles of travel. But let me tell you about one that wasn’t.

In his letter to John Allan, June 25, 1829, Poe says he was robbed while asleep in Beltzhoover’s Hotel here in Baltimore. A photo of the manuscript shows a blank line where some writing originally existed. Dr. Quinn printed the letter from a photo of the manuscript and left the line blank, later identifying the robber as “James Mosher Poe” from a subsequent letter. A close examination of the manuscript, however, shows that the line is blank only because someone pasted a strip of paper over the original words. A nosy editor peeking surreptitiously beneath that paper finds that Poe originally identified the robber as “A cousin of my own (Edward Mosher)” — that is, Edward Mosher Poe, son of Jacob Poe. [*]

Bibliographic Problem

Sometimes nosiness is not enough, and an editor needs the expert aid of Monsieur D. Auguste Dupin. Suppose, for instance, you found lying before you, as I did recently, an unpublished manuscript-fragment of a letter without name, inside address, or anything in the text to identify the addressee; moreover, the letter was signed only with the initials “E A P.” To complicate matters, the last line, “May God forever bless you,” and the initials were apparently written with a finer pen point than that used for the rest of the letter and seemed to be on a strip of paper pasted to the preceding portion of the manuscript. Yet both sections of the letter were unquestionably by Poe. To make a proper identification so that the letter may be edited, what does one do? In addition to all other procedures, he probably plays a hunch. I had to, and went on from there. The result, if correct, was a pleasant surprise: the fragment was a rare extant portion of a new letter from Poe to Annie Richmond, dated March 1 (?), 1849.

Every bibliographical problem is a challenge to an editor, and each one he solves [column 2:] gives him a particular satisfaction. Perhaps my most interesting quest and most conclusive answer involved a Griswold forgery, though I did not realize it at first. In the Boston Public Library was the manuscript of Poe’s letter to Rufus Griswold, dated March 29, 1841 by a strange hand. Poe himself had not dated the letter, and the month in the postal cancellation had been obliterated by ink. On the back of the page appeared a partial address: “R. W. G-r-i-s-w / B-o-.” The letter had obviously been cut in two. Poe biographers had accepted the docketed date and assumed that the letter was complete. [Perhaps they had used a photostatic copy of only the text of the letter.]

In the second paragraph Poe says: “I send you the above memo.” This was apparently taken to refer to his comments on “The Haunted Palace” in the first paragraph. But somehow the reference always seemed to me to be ambiguous.

Later, while working at the Poe Shrine in Richmond I came upon a long paragraph-fragment in Poe’s handwriting. It was headed “memo” and gave certain autobiographical data. I noticed that it had been cut off a longer sheet. When I turned it over, I read, also in Poe’s hand: “l-d, Esqre / o-s-t-o-n / Mass.” Here then must be the severed portion of the Poe to Griswold letter in the Boston Public Library. Putting photostatic copies of the two fragments together confirmed it. Thus a marriage of holographs was forthwith consummated — by proxy.

Having mated the two pieces, I thought I was done, but as I began editing the letter I realized that the date — March 29 — had to be wrong. It should have been May instead. I wrote the Chief of Manuscripts at the Boston Public and asked him to check the date on the manuscript-letter. He replied politely but firmly that he had and his findings were confirmed by Quinn in his biography of Poe, page 351. I wrote again, saying apologetically that Dr. Quinn could be wrong, and included a bit of bait — just enough to tantalize the librarian. Weeks passed. Just as I was about to give up, along came a letter from the Chief of Manuscripts. The library was very sorry for the delay and the inconvenience. Yes, the date on the manuscript was wrong. The letter-fragment had been taken to Boston police headquarters, subjected to microscope and ultraviolet light, and the careful scrutiny ­[page 5:] of a handwriting expert. The correct date — hidden under the obliteration of ink — was May 29. Please, would I tell them how I knew. I tried to, and then added that the other half of their letter was in the Poe Shrine, Richmond.

From what has been said about the mutilations of Poe letters you can easily see the problems faced by biographers like Ingram, Woodberry, Harrison, and even Quinn.

Perhaps you would be interested in a comment or two on the nature of Poe’s signatures and the price his letters bring to those interested in collecting them.

Poe used a variety of signatures. Twice he used the pseudonym E. S. T. Grey — in his first letter to Mrs. Whitman, September, 1848, and in his last letter to Mrs. Clemm, September, 1849, when he told her to use it in writing to him in Philadelphia. Most often he signed himself Edgar A. Poe. He used Edgar thirteen times, Edgar Allan Poe eleven, E-d-d-y seven, and E-d-d-i-e only once. He never signed himself Edgar Poe. Collectors have prized most highly his full name of Edgar Allan Poe; you might think they would prefer instead his single use of E-d-d-i-e, especially when it was used in his last letter to Annie Richmond. Perhaps Mr. Koester felt this way, for that last letter was in his private collection.

Value of an Original

What would you guess to be the value of an original manuscript letter from Poe to J. P. Kennedy, P. P. Cooke, Washington Irving, or an unknown correspondent like Timotheus Whackemwell? $5? $50? $500? or more?

Let me give you some representative figures. In 1896 one letter brought at auction only $20; in 1929 it sold for $1200. In the early 1930’s two very short letters, significant primarily because they carried the full signature of Edgar Allan Poe, sold together for about $200; in 1949 a Paris dealer offered them to a private collector for $10,000, which was refused. Eight years later a New York dealer went to Paris, bought them at a much lower price and subsequently advertised them in the New York Times for $5000. They were ultimately sold to the same private collector who had turned down the Paris offer. Very recently a Poe to Irving letter brought a reported price of £2000 in England (about [column 2:] $5600). And in 1901 Poe’s letter of August 9, 1846 to P. P. Cooke sold for $210; the same letter in 1929 brought a reported $19,500, a record price for an American literary letter.

On the basis of a representative selection of letters sold during the past 70 years at prominent auction galleries (excluding a few single high-priced items, and private exchanges of which there are no records), an average price before 1900 seems to have been about $50; between 1900-1930, about $250; between 1930-1940, about $400; between 1940-1950, about $600; and since 1950, with fewer letters available, nearly $2500.

Other than the famous letters of Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman, purchased with other memorabilia in the early 1930’s for $50,000, probably the most valuable group of letters would be those of Poe to Mrs. Annie Richmond. Of the ten (possibly eleven) extant in printed form, only two (possibly three) are known to exist in manuscript; the remaining originals are probably lost. Undoubtedly the most prized item in the whole Poe correspondence (to me, at least), would be the manuscript of Poe’s letter to his wife Virginia, June 12, 1846. It exists only in printed form and is a fragment at that. The manuscript has never come to light since Ingram used it (if, indeed, he actually had the original instead of a copy) nearly a century ago. Only one autograph sentence from Poe to Virginia exists today; it is, in effect, a complete letter in miniature, beginning with a salutation and ending with a signature — but it is buried in Poe’s letter to Mrs. Clemm, August 29, 1835. The manuscript of this letter is most properly preserved here in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where may also be found the only extant piece of writing from Virginia to Poe, her valentine dated February 14, 1846.

Fancy prices brought by Poe’s autograph letters have occasionally encouraged forgers to ply their trade. One of them, especially adept in imitating Poe’s handwriting and ingenious in pricing his commodity, used to create a letter, authentic paper, watermarks and all, take it to the chief of the manuscript division of a large city library, and offer it for $50.

“We knew — and he knew that we knew — it was forged,” the librarian told me.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“We bought it, of course.”

I was a bit dumbfounded, I confess. “But, ­[page 6:] why? When you knew it was a forgery?”

He looked at me through shaggy brows and a Puckish smile: “To get it off the market,” he said.


ONCE THE POE correspondence is established and Poe’s letters are in hand, of what value are they? For me, they provide the kaleidoscope of his life, the forum of his thoughts, the inner sanctum of hopes and despairs. In the letters we see the man as he is.

In the spectrum of his days and nights, biographers have referred to several “lost periods” in Poe’s life prior to 1840. The letters help establish the end dates of these periods. No known correspondence exists between December 29, 1831 and April 12, 1833, nor between May 4, 1833 and November, 1834. He was probably living with Mrs. Clemm here in Baltimore, though on the written testimony of Poe himself some people believe he was in Europe, especially in France and Russia. No letter of these periods supports or refutes either contention; yet the very absence of extant letters suggests he could have been abroad. In those days trans-Atlantic passage required 35 days, and each “lost” period was longer than the time for a round trip with stopover.

Poe’s last “lost” period has long been identified as extending from February, 1837, to September, 1838. However, a letter from Poe in New York, dated May 27, 1837, to Professor Anthon of Columbia University fixed the earlier limit of this period, and his letter of September 4, 1838, from Philadelphia to N. C. Brooks of Baltimore established the later limit. Furthermore, within this period, if we accept the memory of William Gowans, one of Mrs. Clemm’s boarders, Poe could have left New York for Philadelphia in October, 1837. Quinn, however, says that Poe moved his family sometime in the summer of 1838. Recently a letter from Poe to Paulding, dated at Philadelphia, July 19, 1838, has come to light and puts Poe in that city at least by that date. Thus the Poe correspondence can help provide the limits of lost periods when other sources fail.

Poe’s letter to Paulding is valuable for another reason. One sentence shows his desperate [column 2:] financial straits and Grub Street existence: “Could I obtain the most unimportant Clerkship in your gift — any thing, by sea or land [Paulding was the newly appointed Secretary of the Navy] — to relieve me from the miserable life of literary drudgery to which I, now, with a breaking heart, submit, for which neither my temper nor my abilities have fitted me, I would never again repine at any dispensation of God.”

During his lifetime Poe lived at more than a score of addresses. A new one turned up recently on a fragment containing Poe’s complimentary close and autograph — the rest of the letter is missing. But on this cutting also appears: “Please address 154 Greenwich St.” The fragment is dated March 20, 1845. Quinn suggests that Poe left the Brennan Farm in New York and moved to 195 East Broadway about May, 1845. The fragment suggests that he made an intermediate stop.

Importance of Letters

Poe’s letters are important to biographers and critics for the biographical and bibliographical data they provide. For an adequate understanding of the man within, the emotions behind the horrific photographs with which we are confronted, the letters sound not only the grace notes, such as they are, but also the full diapason of the major pitch of his soul.

I should like to comment briefly on both of these.

Do you ever think of Poe laughing? — a good old Falstaffian belly-laugh, or perhaps the laugh of Meredith’s Comic Spirit, or even the fleeting pleasure of Frans Hals’ Cavalier? Brief passages in two or three letters reveal that he could smile Puckishly now and then.

Philip Cooke once wrote to Poe that a profession, marriage, and his child’s croup had dulled for him any edge of romance. Poe replied, September, 1839: “It makes me laugh to hear you speaking about ‘romantic young persons’ as of a race with whom, for the future, you have nothing to do. You need not attempt to shake off, or to banter off, Romance. It is an evil you will never get rid of to the end of your days. It is a part of yourself — a portion of your soul. Age will only mellow it a little, and give it a holier tone.” Thus spake Edgar Poe, old married man of three years and five months. ­[page 7:]

In another letter, dated July, 1842, Poe confesses to his cousin Mrs. Tutt a bit of tenderness toward Virginia and hides it behind an exclamation point. He thanks her for sending “my dear little wife” some Jew’s Beer, and then adds: “About ten days ago I was obliged to go on to New York on business. . . [Virginia] began to fret . . . because she did not hear from me twice a day . . . What it is to be pestered with a wife!”

A reading of Poe’s letters leads to many challenging quests, answers to which often depend upon who goes the journey. One of these ended for me with a hunch. It took root in my mind and has persisted ever since Poe got close enough to breathe over my shoulder.

For over a century now some people have perpetuated the idea that Poe was a dope addict and degenerate drunkard. His letter of November, 1848, to Mrs. Annie Richmond proved, to me at least, that he knew little enough about the potency of laudanum. However, evidence of his drinking was ample enough, but what intrigued me, in the face of his admissions, was the extent and cause of his aberrations.

You can read in his 1836 letter to John Kennedy that he “fought the enemy”; and to Snodgrass in 1841: “At no time in my life was I ever what men call intemperate. . . My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions.” Two years later, his friend Thomas wrote on an envelope of one of Poe’s letters: “I have seen a great deal of Poe, and it was his excessive, and at times, marked sensibility which forced him into his ‘frolics,’ rather than any marked appetite for drink, but if he took but one glass of weak wine or beer or cider the Rubicon of the cup was passed with him, and it almost always ended in excess and sickness. But he fought against the propensity as hard as ever Coleridge fought against it.”

Then in January, 1848, just a year after Virginia’s death, Poe wrote Eveleth, a young medical friend in Maine: “Six years ago a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again . . . and again in about a year . . . and [column 2:] again — again — again . . . I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity . . . I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.”

Note that last statement: “. . . my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.” Now leap ahead with me to July 7, 1849 — three months before his death — when Poe wrote to Mrs. Clemm from Philadelphia: “I was never really insane, except on occasions where my heart was touched . . . I have been taken to prison once since I came here for getting drunk; but . . . it was about Virginia.”

Here in the simplest, most transparent prose Edgar Poe ever wrote he confessed the Fate that beset him, the tragic motif that plagued him during the last two years of his life.

He had tried to circumvent destiny. From February, 1847, to September, 1848, was a period for him of bitter distress of mind and body. Perhaps acting on the advice of Mrs. Shew who had advised him after his wife’s death to find the love and care of a good woman, Poe contrived a romance with Sarah Helen Whitman. In January, 1849, it came to an end. Subsequently, according to many people, he turned his matrimonial intentions upon Mrs. Annie L. Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts.

I have never believed that Poe loved Mrs. Whitman. I question whether Poe would have married her. As for his romance with Annie Richmond, his frenetic, confessional, ardent protestations of affection seem to me evidence of Poe’s continuing need of the companionship and love of his wife Virginia. It is not mere coincidence that during the most ardent period of his association with Annie he wrote “Annabel Lee.”

In the last months of his life Poe walked under skies “ashen and sober . . . in a ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.” Almost every path he took led to the vault of the dead Ulalume. For his grief he sought forgetfulness in the form of drink; for his loneliness, companionship with three women. He talked of marriage with two of them: but at the last moment he retreated, certainly from one, perhaps from both. Of the third, he wrote Mrs. Clemm: “I must be somewhere where I can see Annie”; he was hopefully and desperately ­[page 8:] grasping at straws, for of all the women he knew Annie Richmond came closest to his dead Virginia, not as wife, but as warm, sympathetic, and adoring companion.

Yet neither nepenthe or surcease was to be granted Poe. Personally, I doubt that Virginia ever really left him. I think Poe knew it too. Life was for the living and had to be endured. Periodically frustrations, reverses, and great stifling loneliness churned up memories of happier days. It was then Poe’s heart was touched . . . then that insanity came. And then came drink and the confessed cause of it all — unvoiced on many occasions, but clearly stated once to Mrs. Clemm: “It was about Virginia.”

No one knows why Poe at the last returned to Baltimore. The lone soul that walks in the wolds of the world may be driven by forces imperceptible to man. For Poe there had once been another Baltimore, a Virginia Clemm, and an Edgar Poe. There had been happiness and love and companionship. Then struggle, some success, and long periods of [column 2:] recurrent illness. Finally death. And ultimately desperate attempts to resolve the growing loneliness — perhaps at the very last the simple need for what once had been.

Earlier Poe had tried to express his thoughts in “Ulalume,” but form and the poetic sentiment had not fused into perfect accord. Perfection came later when he voiced, not thoughts, but deepest feeling. Poe, like the Greek, could not escape Destiny, and his was an indissoluble union with Virginia. He said it best in “Annabel Lee”:

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea —

In her tomb by the sounding sea.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Ostrom of Wittenberg University at Forty-fifth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, October 81, 1967.

© 1967 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

It should perhaps be noted that the value of original Poe letters has greately increased since Dr. Ostrom delivered this lecture.


[S:1 - CCEPE, 1967] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Letters of Poe: Quest and Answer (J. W. Ostrom, 1967)