[Notes: Among many errors, Poe could not have gone to meet Thomas W. White in Richmond in 1849 since that gentleman had died in 1843. Instead, the name of the editor at the time of Poe’s visit was John Rueben Thompson. The testimony of the person who claimed to have shared Poe’s time in the “coop” is considered a creation of news-hungry journalists. The near-parodic imitation of Poe's "Raven" is known as "The Streets of Baltimore," and its author Elizabeth Doten, a spiritualist who published several collections of "received" poems, including others supposedly from Poe.]
SOME MEMORIALS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE.
BY CLARA DARGAN MACLEAN
SEVERAL years ago it was my privilege to spend one perfect Autumn afternoon in Poe’s home at Fordham; to climb to the attic chamber, so small and dark, where he invoked the spirits of the air; to sit with a sense of profound melancholy in the room where Virginia passed away, the pet cat nestled in her death-frozen bosom; to commune through long, entranced hours with the mingled souls of these twin immortals on the lichened knoll where together they had lived
“Sweet Summer moons and starlit nights”;
she, the hectic flushing her wan cheeks, but ever unselfishly cheerful; and he, the embodiment of pure posey, struggling in the net of untoward circumstances,
“With the lost star of seven
Feeling sad brotherhood.”
I saw and felt and lived it all – the beauty of earth and sky, the thrill of conscious power, the unspeakable sadness, the sense of fateful failure
[page 458:]as overpowering and unavoidable as the Kismet of the Mohammedan or the dread Necessity of Greek tragedy.
But deeply interesting as were these scenes, there was another spot even more so, “thither,” as Thekla says, “where he lies buried”; the place where this great genius passed from death to Life, from time to eternity, from a sickening sense of incompleteness to an ever-blooming immortality of fame.
It was with this conviction that I undertook the pilgrimage while visiting Baltimore some months ago. My purpose was, first, to see the portrait said to be the best extant, and the only one acknowledged by his relatives to give a just conception of that fascinating yet baffling personality; second, to investigate any relics or letters, if such were possible; third, to find the room in which he died; and, finally, to stand by the grave where, “after life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.” The undertaking has been amply rewarded in the accumulation of a number of facts of which the general public is unaware, and which, it is believed, will be not unwelcome to the many admirers of this wonderful yet unhappy genius.
The first was comparatively easy of accomplishment, though the elegant drawing-room in which the picture hangs is not accessible to idle curiosity or the conventional relic-hunter. It is a copy of a photograph found in Augusta, Ga., during the war, said to be made from one belonging to John R. Thompson, of Richmond, and was evidently taken in the prime of the strangely troubled life which lapsed from the heyday of a careless, exuberant youth to the toils and responsibilities of middle age without a period of transition. Poe can never be said to have had a young manhood. As he crossed the threshold, fraught to most with anticipation and a gradual strengthening of the new-fledged pinions, he was suddenly dropped from a warm-lined and luxuriant nest upon the bleak and barren ledge of a selfish world. It is not strange that the wings were broken, the plumage draggled and torn of this child of the air. In this portrait the brightness of hope is past; the grand brow and hazel-gray eyes are luminous only with the glow of an immortal fire that was already consuming the dross of an earthly nature which weighted the aspiring soul. What wonder that those eyes attracted men and women alike, for through those windows looked the real Poe, belied by the exquisite sneer of the expressive mouth, and utterly wronged by the heavy lines of cheek and chin. The photograph, a life-size bust, has been so tinted as to seem a pastel or water-color painting, and the artist was directed in his work by personal recollections of those relatives who could verify each
[column 2:]detail. Several foregone conclusions, therefore, in my own mind were hereby entirely refuted, and the popular ideal of a dark-browed, black-haired, sentimental-looking poet, with eyes of “grayish violet” (the true Celtic color, says one), is here not only corrected but happily destroyed. In this picture the hair is of a rich reddish-brown, and waves above the broad brow like a coronet; the mouth is shadowed by a closely cut mustache, and the collar and cravat of the conventional mode of the day, for Poe never affected either the fop or the vaurien in his dress; in this respect s in so many others, proving his altitude above the rhymesters of his time, some of whom still survive to deride and defame the dead.
The portrait is handsomely framed, and hangs in a fine light by which the colors are well brought out. It is regarded with great pride by the owner, one of the nearest blood-relations, and is a countenance that would haunt the beholder even if unaware of the original, so lifelike, so vivid, so magnetic.
To see the few relics left of the lonely pair (whose wedded life was in itself a poem) is a favor which is granted to few, and, therefore, the more deeply appreciated. They were left to her grandniece by Mrs. Clemm, the mother of Virginia, who died at the Church Home in 1871. Upon the wall of the chamber there (just over the mantel, the old nurse remembers), hung the picture of her darling dead one, ever in sight of the devoted mother; and her life was so absolutely theirs, that all its spring went out when “Eddie” followed his Ulalume whose pathetic face is here depicted. There is a tradition that the portrait was taken when she lay upon her little white bed in the Fordham cottage, and the Death-angel had set his seal upon the pure forehead over which the dusky hair is parted Madonna-wise. The eyes – full-lidded – are closed; the sweet mouth droops as if in sadness, not pain. It is an intensely interesting picture, whether genuine or not, and Mrs. Clemm certainly so considered it, though it may be the face of the lost Lenore, which, Mrs. Osgood says, hung over Poe’s desk in New York, and was the inspiration of that world-famed poem.
When Ingram was brining out his “Life” he offered every inducement to get a copy of the portrait for his book, but in vain, as is also the case in the present instance. The owner regards it as a sacred trust, in which the curious public has no part, and can have no interest. But it is to be regretted that a sketch is not possible of this “counterfeit presentment” of one who, whether as Ulalume, the lost Lenore, or the beautiful Anabel Lee, has an individuality exquisitly distinct as that of Leonora d’Este or Dante’s Beatrice.
As I gazed with misty eyes upon this pathetic
[page 459:]face I held in my hand a heavy coil of dark-brown hair – Virginia’s own! Upon these lustrous strands had rested the fingers which struck the lyre of Israfel as he soared
“Beyond the pale-faced moon into the empyrean.”
To him she was rudder and plummet and anchor – all that typifies hope, faith, salvation; and when she left him he was shipwrecked. How often this braid – of all relics the most purely personal – was drenched with agonizing tears from eyes not unused to weep, which
-- “had gazed into the hollow
And hopeless vale of Dis,”
and yet saw beyond the stars with the rapt vision of an illumined seer!
I turned away from a contemplation so absorbing to the letters beside these mementos. They are written in a chirography like copper-plate, every punctuation-point clear as imprint, every word and expression the transcript of a radiant intelligence and an earnest nature. They are addressed to the writer’s paternal uncles, Neilson and George Poe, and are entirely private, breathing that gentle manliness and refined dignity which characterized the writer at all times, even when maddened by poverty and persecution or dazed with suffering. These letters are printed in Woodbury’s [[Woodberry’s]] “Life.”
One touching little souvenir remained – a valentine written by Virginia to her husband on February 14th, 1846 – the year before she died. It is evidently original, and though crude, bears witness not only of tender devotion but of the romantic attachment of a maiden heart which a married life of ten years had left unchanged. To the student of human experience this would seem an incontrovertible testimony to the oft-repeated statement, which even his enemies fail to overthrow, that Poe was a model husband, a man who never forfeited in the slightest degree the respect and affection of those nearest to him – his wife and her mother.
There was also in this collection a package of letters written by Mrs. Whitman to Mrs. Clemm, but of these I can say nothing. Already has sufficient notoriety been given to this unhappy intimacy, which all Poe’s family and friends deeply deprecated.
The “kindly refuge” to which he was borne that sad day of his “immemorial year” was the Washington Hospital, in East Baltimore, now the Episcopal Church Home. The building itself was easily found, but to locate the apartment where he lay those few lingering, agonizing days was said to be a somewhat difficult undertaking. Sister Margaret, an aged attendant who was in the building at its conversion into the Home, avers that Mrs. Clemm believed the corner room occupied by her on the second was only removed two doors from that in which her “dear Eddie” died, and to which she often repaired to indulge the grief that, during all the twenty-two years of her survival, was ever as poignant and present as at the first dreadful announcement. It seems a strange yet fitting coincidence that this fond and faithful woman should spend her last days in the same building endeared by his death, and pass away under the roof that had sheltered him, a dearer idol, if possible, than her own daughter. “She never mentioned him but with tears,” said the old nurse, “and yet she continually talked of him.”
The presiding matron, Miss Sudler, told me the following incident in regard to the identification of the room in which Poe died, which will be conclusive to all candid inquirers: “A few years since Dr. Moran, who was the physician on duty when Poe was brought to the hospital, came to the newly habilitated Home, in which many repairs and changes had taken place, for the express purpose of locating the apartment where the tragedy occurred – now of world-wide interest, then a matter of everyday indifference. He ran up several flights of the old stairs to the third story, crossed the gallery (formerly a lecture-room) which now surrounds the chapel, and opened a door. ‘This is the place,’ he said, and stood a few minutes looking around and pondering deeply.” He had come to deliver a lecture on this thrilling theme, and no doubt was refreshing his memory with the circumstances which here occurred more than a quarter of a century before, but as vivid in their intense dramatic interest as ever to all humanity.
And here I stood in the prosaic midday, any association entirely destroyed by a late conversion of the apartment into the landing-place of a private stairway – the passing of nurses and voices of children breaking in upon the stillness – but so overwhelmed with the reality of the past as to be utterly oblivious of the present. Over this very threshold he had been lifted, white, limp, unconscious. In that corner he had lain, his death-dim eyes opening at length upon these walls which had echoed the despairing cry, “Is there no ransom for the deathless soul?” And here – alas! alas! – the deathless soul took its flight, and through that door was borne the coffin containing the poor, pitiful, broken body.
To the tomb where it was carried is a long way. The Poes, who were influential and wealthy, owned a lot in the Westminster Churchyard at the corner of Green and Fayette Streets; and here, restored after long wandering to the midst of his own family, as it were, the alien found at last a resting-place.
The octogenarian sexton, who lives like an Old Mortality in the basement of the church, is very cheerful and communicative, being withal somewhat of a poet himself, he informed me; a statement confirmed by the gift of a small pamphlet containing the lucubrations of “James Robinson.” He was pottering about amidst the débris of what seemed a century of underground life when I came through the wicket in rear of the building and called attention to my errand.
“Is it to find Poe’s grave ye’ve come?” he asked, with strong accent. “Sure, who should know it better than meself, who helped to put him there?”
Then going back to fasten the decrepit door, himself still more decrepit, and bending nearly double over his stout staff, he led the way through the catacomb under the great stone church – mysterious and chilling and musty but not repulsive – out into the May sunlight, across the daisy-jeweled sward heavy yet with morning dew, and pointed to the cenotaph of marble in the corner at the intersection of the streets, protected therefrom by a high iron fence. Detail and description are unnecessary, all having been set forth in columns of the daily press at the time of its dedication with elaborate and suitable ceremonies, November 17th, 1875 The monument was erected by the combined effort of the teachers of Baltimore, headed by Miss Sara S. Rice, the remains being transferred to this more conspicuous spot from the family lot in rear of the church.
Thither the old man now led, first plucking for me some lilies-of-the-valley which grew in profusion near by, waving their perfumed bells in the Spring air, fit emblems of the love and beauty and purity reposing beneath. The place where the poet’s body was first laid is now occupied by a thick growth of gooseberry-bushes planted by the thoughtful sexton “to mark the sacred ground,” he said, “so that nobody else should ever be buried there.” He had also preserved with jealous care the remains of a plain granite shaft which stood at the head of the grave, and showed them to me.
“Yes, I helped to take up the body,” he went on, with welcome garrulity. “The coffin was all gone but a few fragments, and there was nothing of the man but the skeleton and some hair on the skull. Such a skull! A reporter who stood by said to me it looked like Shakespeare’s, so broad at the temples and so high on top. And
[column 2:]he offered me fifty dollars for a tooth – they were all perfect; but I was on my honor, and I wouldn’t have touched a piece of that frame for all the money in the universe.”
He would have rambled on, but I left him and went back to stand silent awhile over the bed of earth where the three so dear to each other sleep side by side. Mrs. Clemm was buried here in 1971; and the body of Virginia, brought from Fordham, where it had lain in the Valentine vault for thirty-seven years, placed beside them on the seventy-sixth anniversary of Poe’s birth, January 19th, 1885. At this ceremony, most solemn and impressive, there were present besides the officiating minister, Rev. J. S. B. Hodges, rector of St. Paul’s, and many friends and relatives of the family, Hon. Luther Marsh, President of the Park Commission, New York, and [[William]] Fearing Gill, the biographer of Poe, and the first to locate the time and place of his birth. “It is a remarkable incident that Mr. Dennis Valentine, who officiated at the sepulture of Virginia Poe in 1848, should deliver her relics to Mr. Gill in Person, and that George Spence, who conducted the burial of Poe in 1848, and afterward his re-interment under the monument in 1875, should also, as the official sexton of the Westminster Church, be called upon to witness the last rites offered to all that remains of his wife now that she is laid at his side after a long separation.”
And thus these three, bound in the closest ties of blood, are in death at last united as they were ever – a trinity of souls – in the cruel battle of life which they bore together for so many years.
[page 461:]“In their lives they were lovely together, and in death they were not divided.”
Before leaving these memories there is one period of Poe’s life to which allusion must be made., and which is often quoted as a final verdict in condemning him for a dissipated and reckless man – that of his sojourn at the University of Virginia. During a somewhat protracted stay in Charlottesville I made close inquiry of all who sifting an immense amount of undependable tradition, find that he was no worse than the average alumnus of that day, when escapades of all kinds, from calathumps to champagne suppers, were not only in vogue, but accepted as evidences of a young man’s spirit and daring. The “melancholy days” of work and want, of fierce fights between want and poverty – those implacable and ever-associated enemies – had not yet come upon this spoiled darling of fortune, whose indulgent guardian furnished him with unlimited supplies of money, and who had no premonition of the evil to come – no vision of the cruel fate awaiting him that would have seared the sight of a braver soul. So he went on living the long, bright days with an intensity that, at least, stored his experience with memories on which to draw in hours of anguish, when his pen – dipped, as it were, in his
[column 2:]very heart’s blood – must portray the terrible contrasts of life in order to supply the ever-empty purse, and from his own sad story to make a meager meal.
Poe was never dissipated in the gross sense of the word. Mr. E. C. Stedman, the eminent critic, speaks thus in his “Poets of America”: “He was not an habitual drunkard; a single glass made him the easy prey of any coarse or pitiless hands into which he might fall. He was a man inebriate when sober, his brain surging with emotion, and a stimulant that only served to steady common men bewildered him. . . . His mature years were a battle with inherited taint, and there were long periods in which he was the victor. . . . The wonder is that the sensitive, feminine spirit, worshiping beauty and abhorrent of ugliness and pain, combating with pride and diseased appetite, did not sooner yield, was not utterly overcome at the outset of these experiences. . . . . Near the close of the struggle he made a brace effort, and never was so earnest and resolved, never so much his own master, as just before the end.” (Oh, the pity of those words!) Such a verdict as this is worthy of acceptation, and must be conclusive with every sincere and candid mind.
A reminiscent article of peculiar interest, written by one who knew Poe intimately in his latter
[page 462:]days, appeared in the New York Times, in 1888. “Poe had his offs and ons, declares this chronicler. “He was not a steady drinker. Appreciation was his thirst. Often he found it in the society of intellectual women, who visited himself and wife in the city. Ordinarily grave and silent among them he could be chatty and witty. Craving excitement apart from his labor, he sought the companionship of his guild downtown, and he found that, too, in a little store in Nassau Street, between Ann and Beekman, where gathered a few elevated literary minds, reinforced by a sprinkling of actors like Peter Cunningham, John Brougham, Oliver Raymond, Tom Johnston and John Nickinson. It ws not a dramshop, but it dispensed various kinds of nervine, and it had facilities for adding emphasis to what ‘the Governor of North Carolina once said to the Governor of South Carolina.’ Far from being in the line of promotion as a sot, Poe lacked mental storage for deep draughts or many. His nerves were always at too high a key for him to guzzle like a Garganua. For him to sip was to go through almost at the outset. When bent on looseness it did not take him long to get tight. It was a wise move that carried him to Fordham. Probably it was Mrs. Clemm’s idea. Access to the city was expensive, but easy enough, for the Harlem Railroad, which the year before had been opened to White Plains, was drawing its big cars (not near so long as the engine and tender of today) by horses from near Fourth Avenue and Thirtieth Street to Tryon Row and Centre Street; but to offset this there was no groggery in the village, although liquor could be bought at the solitary grocery-store. Another offset were the fine intellects in St. John’s College, which Archbishop Hughes that year turned over to the Jesuits. Poe went often to the college. One priest is still there who knew him well, had a keen appreciation of his intelligence and gentility, believed that he struggled hard against his crowning vice, and testifies that he was a sober man during his closing years in Fordham. The order has clergymen much older in years than Father Doucet; but his long priestly and didactic service has made him extremely old physically, and the hundreds of former pupils of his scattered throughout the States, Canada and Cuba, who bear him in kindly remembrance, will regret to hear that this earnest studious man, who once read nearly all the time, has so taxed his eyes that now he can scarcely read at all.
“In the Winter of 1846-47 there were two souls in Fordham on the brink. She who crossed to the happier shore was buried in January in a private vault attached to the little Protestant church near by. Poe had been warned, but not summoned. He remained at the cottage until the
[column 2:]Autumn of 1849. He had tried to lecture and to give readings meanwhile, but was not successful. It was easy to miss a hit. The literary men of that period had a craze for experiments of this sort, and three public buildings were kept pretty well filled (on the platforms) by lecturers. One was Clinton Hall, on the corner of Theatre Alley, where Temple Court now rears itself; another was the Coliseum, four or five doors above Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre; and the third was the Society Library Rooms, Broadway and Leonard Street. The pens that talked in those days are all rusty, with the possible sole exception of that of Charles A. Dana, who, on one or two occasions, some months after Poe had gleaned wisdom from failure, held audiences at the Coliseum as if in the hollow of his hand. A pet project of Poe’s, second in intensity only to his rapt struggle with the problem of the Cosmos, took him Southward, but he had to wade through barrooms before he reached the sheltering arms of T. W. White, in Richmond. His purpose was to issue a periodical entitled the Stylus, to be published simultaneously at the North and in the South, beginning in July 1850. At last reaching Richmond, he donned sackcloth, took the pledge, lectured on temperance, and engaged himself to marry an acquaintance of his youth, who had wearied of widowhood. He sent Aunt Maria word that he would start to bring her to Richmond. She was getting ready to leave the cottage on October 8th, when she saw Mrs. Cromwell crossing the road with a newspaper in her hands. Not a word was spoken. The waiting woman could read the ‘thing of evil’ in the paper without seeing a line of it ‘Eddie’s dead!’ she cried. ‘They’ve killed my boy!’ ”
Finally, as to the generally accepted idea that Poe died of a debauch, it is now a well-established fact that he was the victim of a foul political conspiracy, which in those days of fraud and force was considered entirely justifiable by men of fierce passions and lawless lives. Arriving in the city on the eve of an election, he was seized, with a number of others, penned in a well-guarded room, and then dragged from one precinct to another, and forced to vote under different names. One of these victims thus writes from his home in San Francisco, after going into some detail as to his intimacy with Poe, and their being together at the “Widow Meagher’s” oyster-house, a favorite resort for printers and Bohemians, where cards and conversation ruled: “He had been away for three or four months, and privately told me he was on his way North to get ready for his wedding in Richmond. It was drinking all round and repeat, till the crowd was pretty jolly. When three or four of us started uptown we were
[page 463:]nabbed by a gang of men who were on the lookout for voters to ‘coop.’ Our coop was in the rear of the engine-house on Calvert Street. The next day we were voted at thirty-one different places, it being as much a man’s life was worth to rebel. Poe was so badly drugged that, after he was carried on two or three rounds, the gand said it was no use to vote a dead man any longer, so they shoved him into a cab and sent him to a hospital to get him out of the way. I saw him to shoved into the cab myself.” This is a bare outline, the story in full being given in the No Name magazine, in the Spring of 1890.
With this pitiful picture before us – the fragile, sensitive organization, “all touch, all eye, all ear,” subjected to degrading force, the exquisitely balanced brain that a few drops of alcohol hurled from its poise into an abyss of madness, the strong yet womanly soul fluttering like a bright-winged Psyche in the awful storm of that dread night – we may faintly conceive the circumstances under which he “sank beneath Life’s burdens in the streets of Baltimore.”
Surely the fight was over, and the victory won even in this seeming defeat. The long contest with diseased and, no doubt, inherited appetite; the courageous yet sadly futile struggle against poverty and malignity – all is ended now; and it is permitted us to hope, yes, and to believe, that in a sphere more congenial, and amid an environment more gracious, this aspiring and starlike soul may attain to the life it craved.
The appended poem came into my hands most opportunely. It appeared about thirty years ago in a New York paper, purporting to be dictated to a spiritualistic medium by the dead poet. The verses are indeed suggestive of their accredited author in their imagery, alliteration, onomatopoeia and music of rhythm. To Poe’s unique poem they may not unworthily stand as a complement. If the real author had any conception of its value, he (or she), might have given to the world a name worthy to be inscribed, in this instance at least, upon the page of fame beside that of the illustrious subject here so effectively impersonated:
“Woman weak and woman mortal, through thy spirit’s open portal
I would read the Runic record of mine earthly being o’er –
I would feel that fire returning which within my soul was burning
When my star was quenched in darkness, set to rise on earth no more.
When I sank beneath Life’s burdens in the streets of Baltimore.
“Ah, those memories sore and saddening! Ah, that night of anguish maddening!
When my lone heart suffered shipwreck on a demon-haunted shore –
When the fiends grew wild with laughter, and the silence following after
Was more awful and appalling than the cannon’s deadly roar –
Than the tramp of mighty armies thro’ the streets of Baltimore.
“Like a fiery serpent crawling, like a maelstrom madly boiling,
Did this Phlegethon of fury sweep my shuddering spirit o’er,
Rushing onward – blindly reeling – tortured by intensest feeling
Like Prometheus when the vultures thro’ his quivering vitals tore –
Swift I fled from death and darkness thro’ the streets of Baltimore.
“No one near to save or love me, no kind face to watch above me,
Though I heard the sound of footsteps like the waves upon the shore –
Beating – beating – beating – beating – now advancing – now retreating –
With a dull and dreary rhythm, with a long, continuous roar –
Heard the sound of human footsteps in the streets of Baltimore.
“There at length they found me lying, weak and ‘wildered, sick and dying,
And my shattered wreck of being to a kindly refuge bore;
But my woe was past enduring, and my soul cast off its mooring,
Crying as I floated onward, ‘I am of the earth no more!
I have forfeited Life’s blessing in the streets of Baltimore!’
“Where wast thou, O Power Eternal, when the fiery fiend infernal
Beat me with his burning fasces till I sank to rise no more?
Oh! was all my lifelong error crowded in that night of terror?
Did my sin find expiation which to judgment went before,
Summoned to a dread tribunal in the streets of Baltimore?
“Nay, with deep, delirious pleasure I had drained my life’s full measure,
Till the fatal, fiery serpent fed upon my being’s core;
Then with force and fire volcanic, summoning a strength Titanic,
Did I burst the bonds that bound me – battered down my being’s door –
Fled, and left my shattered dwelling to the dust of Baltimore!”
~~~ End of Text ~~~
[S:0 - FLPM, 1891]