Text: Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss, “The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe,” Scribner’s Magazine, March 1878, pp. 707-716


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WHEN I was about seven years of age, it was my habit to peruse eagerly every scrap of literature that fell in my way. In this manner I had read “The Children of the Abbey,” “Pike’s Expeditions,” “Buck’s Theology,” “Castle of Otranto,” and the “Spectator,” with other prose works of equally dissimilar character, but as yet the world of poetry was an unknown world to me.

One day I came across an old number of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” containing the well-known ballad beginning:

“Lo, the ring is on my hand,

And the wreath is on my brow.”

Whatever may be my present opinion of this poem, no words can describe the charm which it exercised over my childish fancy. The music of it was a keen delight, the mystery of it, which I could in no wise fathom, was a subtle fascination, and its sadness a pain which “touched my soul with pity”; for that it was an authentic history, an actual experience of Edgar A. Poe, it never occurred to me to doubt.

Who was Edgar A. Poe? My idea of him was then, and for years after, as other [column 2:] productions of his pen met my eye, that of a mysterious being in human shape, yet gifted with a power more than human; a something of weird beauty and despairing sadness, touched with a vague suspicion of evil which inspired in me a sense of dread, mingled with compassion. To this feeling was added in time one akin to horror, upon my reading the sketch of the “Pest” family, every word of which I received as truth; and the picture of the awful Pests seated in their coffins around the festal board, and of their subsequent wild flight with their winding-sheets streaming behind them, long haunted me with an unspeakable horror.

Who was Edgar A. Poe? I at length inquired of my mother. With wondering interest I learned that he was a gentleman of Richmond, and that he had resided in the very house which I had visited the day before. Thenceforth this house with its massive portico, in which Edgar Poe had played when a child, and the trees on the lawn which he had climbed, were to me objects of solemn and mysterious interest.

This house was that of Mr. Allan, who ­[page 708:] had adopted Poe when a child. It is still to be seen at the corner of Main and Fifth streets, unchanged, with the exception of a modern addition. Opposite, in old times, stood the large frame mansion, surrounded by piazzas, of Mrs. Jane Mackenzie, who adopted Poe’s sister, Rosalie. On the right of Mr. Allan’s there yet stands a tall brick house (now occupied by the Rev. Moses Hoge) which was at the time of which I speak the residence of Major James Gibbon. These three families occupied a first social position, and were on terms of mutual intimacy, and from them and others I have heard many anecdotes of Edgar Poe’s youth and childhood. Passing over these for the present, I will proceed to speak of the time when I myself became acquainted with him.

In 1849 I was residing at our suburban home near Richmond, Virginia, in the immediate neighborhood of Duncan’s Lodge, then the residence of Mrs. Mackenzie. Being intimate with the family (of which Mr. Poe’s sister was a member), we had been for years accustomed to hear him constantly and familiarly spoken of Mrs. Mackenzie had always been fond of him, and he, like his sister, was accustomed to call her “Ma,” and to confide in her as in a mother.

I remember Miss Poe describing to us her visits to her brother at Fordham, then informing us of the death of his wife, and, afterward, mentioning a vague rumor of his engagement to Mrs. Whitman, and finally announcing with great delight that Edgar was coming on a visit to his friends in Richmond.

It was in July that he arrived. He first took a room at the American Hotel, but soon changed his quarters to the Old Swan Tavern — a long, low, antiquated building which had been in its day the fashionable hotel of Richmond. Poe remarked that he had a quadruple motive in choosing it — it was cheap, well kept in “the old Virginia style,” associated with many pleasant memories of his youth, and, lastly and chiefly, nearest Duncan’s Lodge, where most of his time was passed.

It was a day or two after his arrival that Poe, accompanied by his sister, called on us. He had, some time previous, in a critique on Griswold’s “American Female Poets,” taken flattering notice of my early poems, which had recently appeared in the “Southern Literary Messenger;” and now, on learning from Mrs. Mackenzie that I resided in the neighborhood, he had desired [column 2:] an introduction. The remembrance of that first meeting with the poet is still as vividly impressed upon my mind as though it had been but yesterday. A shy and dreamy girl, scarcely more than a child, I had all my life taken an interest in those strange stories and poems of Edgar Poe; and now, with my old childish impression of their author scarcely worn off, I regarded the meeting with an eager, yet shrinking anticipation. As I entered the parlor, Poe was seated near an open window, quietly conversing. His attitude was easy and graceful, with one arm lightly resting upon the back of his chair. His dark curling hair was thrown back from his broad forehead — a style in which he habitually wore it. At sight of him, the impression produced upon me was of a refined, high-bred, and chivalrous gentleman. I use this word “chivalrous” as exactly descriptive of something in his whole personnel, distinct from either polish or high-breeding, and which, though instantly apparent, was yet an effect too subtle to be described. He rose on my entrance, and, other visitors being present, stood with one hand resting on the back of his chair, awaiting my greeting. So dignified was his manner, so reserved his expression, that I experienced an involuntary recoil, until I turned to him and saw his eyes suddenly brighten as I offered my hand; a barrier seemed to melt between us, and I felt that we were no longer strangers.

I am thus minute in my account of my first meeting with Poe, because I would illustrate, if possible, the manner peculiar to him, and also the indescribable charm, I might almost say magnetism, which his eyes possessed above any others that I have ever seen. It was this mysterious influence, I am inclined to think, which often, so powerfully at first sight, attracted strangers to him (vide Mr. Kennedy’s account); and this it was, undoubtedly, which Mrs. Osgood on her first interview with him experienced, but scarcely understood.

From this time I saw Poe constantly, especially during the last weeks of his stay in Richmond. From his sister also, and from intimate common friends, we knew all concerning him, so that about this portion of his life there is no reserve and no mystery.

It would be better, indeed, for his fair name, could a veil be drawn over certain dark spots which disfigure this otherwise unusually pure and happy phase of his life. On these, I prefer to touch as lightly as ­[page 709:] possible. I know that he strove against the evil; but his will was weak; and having once yielded, in however slight a degree, said his friends, he seemed to lose all control over himself; and twice during his visit to Richmond, his life was thus seriously endangered. Yet, though I heard something of these things, I did not then, nor until long after, fully understand them. It was his own request that I should not be informed of his weakness; and he was scrupulously careful never to appear in our presence, except when he was, as he expressed it, “entirely himself.”

And as himself — that is, as he appeared to me in my own home and in society, — Poe was pre-eminently a gentleman. This was apparent in everything about him, even to the least detail. He dressed always in black, and with faultless taste and simplicity. An indescribable refinement pervaded all that he did and said. His general bearing in society, especially toward strangers, was quiet, dignified and somewhat reserved, even at times unconsciously approaching hauteur. He rarely smiled and never laughed. When pleased, nothing could exceed the charm of his manner, — to his own sex cordial, to ladies, marked by a sort of chivalrous, respectful courtesy.

I was surprised to find that the poet was not the melancholy person I had unconsciously pictured. On the contrary, he appeared, except on one occasion, invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood. He seemed quietly amused by the light-hearted chat of the young people about him, and often joined them in humorous repartee, sometimes tinged with a playful sarcasm. Yet he preferred to sit quietly, and listen and observe. Nothing escaped his keen observation. He was extremely fastidious in his idea of feminine requirements, and himself lamented that at slight things in women he was apt to be repelled and disgusted, even against his better judgment. Though in the social evenings with us or at Duncan’s Lodge, Poe would join in the light conversation or amusement of the hour, I observed that it had not power to interest him for any length of time. He preferred a seat on the portico, or a stroll about the lawn or garden, in company with a friend.

In his conversations with me Poe expressed himself with a freedom and unreserve which gave me a clearer insight into his personal history and character than, I think, was possessed by many persons. [column 2:] Indeed, I may say that from the moment of our meeting he was never to me the “inexplicable” character that he was pronounced by others. Young as I was, I had yet by some intuitive instinct of perception, as it were, comprehended the finer and more elevated nature of the man, and it was probably to his own consciousness of this that I owed his confidence. I remember his saying, near the beginning of our acquaintance, and in reply to a remark of my own, “I cannot express the pleasure — the more than pleasure — of finding myself so entirely understood by you;” adding, “It is not often that I am so understood.” Again, he said of Mrs. Osgood, “She is the only one of my friends who understands me.” His own insight into personal character was quick and intuitive, but not deep; and it struck me even then, with all my youthful inexperience, that in knowledge of human nature he was, for a man of his genius, strangely deficient.

Among other things, Poe spoke to me freely of his future plans and prospects. He was at this time absorbed in his cherished scheme of establishing his projected journal, the “Stylus.” Nearly all his old friends in Virginia had promised to aid him with the necessary funds, and he was sanguine of success. He intended to spare no pains, no effort, to establish this as the leading literary journal of the country. The plan of it, which he explained in detail, but of which I retain little recollection, was to be something entirely original; and the highest “genius, distinctive from talent,” of the country was to be represented in its pages. To secure this result, he would offer a more liberal price for contributions than any other publisher. This would, of course, demand capital to begin with, which was all that he required; and of that he had the promise. To establish this journal had been, he said, the cherished dream of his life, and now at last he felt assured of success. And in thus speaking he held his head erect, and his eyes glowed with enthusiasm. “I must and will succeed!” he said.

Much curiosity has been expressed and many and various statements have been made in regard to the poet’s relations at this time with Mrs. Sarah Shelton of Richmond. So far as I am certainly informed upon the subject, the story is simply this:

The two had been schoolmates, and, as such, a childish flirtation had existed between them. When, some years previous ­[page 710:] to this time, Poe made a brief visit to Richmond, Mrs. Shelton, then a wealthy widow, had invited him to her house and treated him with special attention. Shortly after the death of his wife, an intimate friend wrote to him that Mrs. Shelton often inquired after him, and suggested the plan which he somewhat later, when so much in need of money, came seriously to consider. Certain it is that a correspondence existed between the poet and Mrs. Shelton almost from the time of Mrs. Poe’s death, and that for months before his appearance in Richmond it was understood by his friends that an engagement of marriage existed between them. His attentions to the lady immediately upon his arrival tended to confirm the report. Some friend of hers, however, represented to her that Poe’s motives were of a mercenary nature; and of this she accused him, at the same time declaring her intention of so securing her property as to prevent his having any command of it. A rupture ensued, and thenceforth no further communication took place between them.

Poe never publicly admitted his engagement with Mrs. Shelton, and appeared anxious to keep the matter private. Mr. John M. Daniel, the well-known editor of the “Examiner,” having in the columns of that paper made some allusion to the reported engagement, Poe resented it as an ‘unwarrantable liberty, and proceeded to the “Examiner” office to demand an “explanation.” Mr. Daniel, whose fiery temper was well known to Poe, had been informed of the proposed visit, and on the latter’s entrance advanced to meet him. The two, who had never before met, stood facing each other; but before a dozen words had been spoken, Mr. Daniel, as with a sudden impulse, extended his hand, and Poe, who was quick to respond to any token of good feeling, and doubtless recognized the nobility of the man before him, as readily accepted it, and thus was ratified a friendship which lasted while they lived.

It will be seen from the above account of the affair with Mrs. Shelton that Poe did not, as is stated by his biographers, leave Richmond for New York with the intention of preparing for his marriage with that lady. Yet that he had entered into an engagement of marriage with her even previous to his appearance in Richmond, I am assured. It was at a time when, as he himself declared, he stood more in need of money [column 2:] than at any previous period of his life. It was, to his own view, the turning-point of his fortunes, depending upon his cherished scheme of establishing the “Stylus,” through which he was to secure fame and fortune. This could not be done without money. Money was the one thing needful, upon which all else depended; and money he must have, at whatever cost or sacrifice. Hence the affair with Mrs. Shelton. She was a lady of respectability, but of plain manners and practical disposition; older than Poe, and not gifted with those traits which might be supposed capable of attracting one of his peculiar taste and temperament.

While upon this subject, I venture, though with great hesitation, to say a word in relation to Poe’s own marriage with his cousin, Virginia Clemm. I am aware that there exists with the public but one view of this union, and that so lovely and touching in itself, that to mar the picture with even a shadow inspires almost a feeling of remorse. Yet since in the biography of a distinguished man of genius truth is above all things desirable, and since in this instance the facts do not redound to the discredit of any party concerned, I may be allowed to state what I have been assured is truth.

Poets are proverbial for uncongenial marriages, and to this Poe can scarcely be classed as an exception. From the time when as a youth of nineteen he became a tutor to his sweet and gentle little cousin of six years old, he loved her with the tender and protective fondness of an elder brother. As years passed he became the subject of successive fancies or passions for various charming women; but she, gradually budding into early womanhood, experienced, but one attachment — an absorbing devotion to her handsome, talented, and fascinating cousin. So intense was this passion that her health and spirits became seriously affected, and her mother, aroused to painful solicitude, spoke to Edgar about it. This was just as he was preparing to leave her house, which had been for some years his home, and enter the world of business. The idea of this separation was insupportable to Virginia. The result was that Poe, at that time a young man of twenty-eight, married his little, penniless, and delicate child-cousin of fourteen or fifteen, and thus unselfishly secured her own and her mother’s happiness. In his wife he had ever the most tender and devoted of companions; but it was his own declaration that he ever missed in her a certain intellectual and spiritual ­[page 711:] sympathy necessary to perfect happiness in such an union. It was this need which so often impelled him to “those many romantic little episodes” of which Mrs. Osgood speaks, and which were well known to Poe’s acquaintance. He was never a deliberately unkind husband, and toward the close of Mrs. Poe’s life he was assiduous in his tender care and attention. Yet his own declaration to an intimate friend of his youth was that his marriage “had not been a congenial one;” and I repeatedly heard the match ascribed to Mrs. Clemm, by those who were well acquainted with the family and the circumstances. In thus alluding to a subject so delicate, I have not lightly done so, or unadvisedly made a statement which seems refuted by the testimony of so many who have written of “the passionate idolatry” with which the poet regarded his wife. I have heard the subject often and freely discussed by Poe’s most intimate friends, including his sisters, and upon this authority I speak. Lovely in person, sweet and gentle in disposition, his young wife deserved, doubtless, all the love that it was in his nature to bestow. Of his unvarying filial affection for Mrs. Clemm, and of her almost angelic devotion to himself and his interests, there can be no question.

Mr. Poe, among other plans for raising the funds so sorely needed, decided to give a series of lectures in Richmond. The first of these (“The Poetic Principle”) brought him at once into prominent notice with the Richmond public. The press discussed him, and the elite of society feted him. With the attention and kindness thus shown him he was much gratified. Yet he did not appear to care for the formal parties, and declared that he found more enjoyment with his friends in the country.

I can vividly recall him as he appeared on his visits to us. He always carried a cane, and upon entering the shade of the avenue would remove his hat, throw back his hair, and walk lingeringly, as if enjoying the coolness, carrying his hat in his hand, generally behind him. Sometimes he would pause to examine some rare flower, or to pluck a grape from the laden trellises. He met us always with an expression of pleasure illuminating his countenance and lighting his fine eyes.

Poe’s eyes, indeed, were his most striking feature, and it was to these that his face owed its peculiar at fraction. I have never seen other eyes at all resembling them. They were large, with long, jet-black lashes, — the [column 2:] iris dark steel-gray, possessing a crystalline clearness and transparency, through which the jet-black pupil was seen to expand and contract with every shade of thought or emotion. I observed that the lids never contracted, as is so usual in most persons, especially when talking; but his gaze was ever full, open, and unshrinking. His usual expression was dreamy and sad. He had a way of sometimes turning a slightly askance look upon some person who was not observing him, and, with a quiet, steady gaze, appear to be mentally taking the caliber of the unsuspecting subject. “What awful eyes Mr. Poe has!” said a lady to me. “It makes my blood run cold to see him slowly turn and fix them upon me when I am talking.”

Apart from the wonderful beauty of his eyes, I would not have called Poe a very handsome man. He was, in my opinion, rather distinguished-looking than handsome. What he had been when younger I had heard, but at the period of my acquaintance with him he had a pallid and careworn look, — somewhat haggard, indeed, — very apparent except in his moments of animation. He wore a dark mustache, scrupulously kept, but not entirely concealing a slightly contracted expression of the mouth and an occasional twitching of the upper lip, resembling a sneer. This sneer, indeed, was easily excited — a motion of the lip, scarcely perceptible, and yet intensely expressive. There was in it nothing of ill-nature, but much of sarcasm, as when he remarked of a certain pretentious editor, “He can make bold plunges in shallow water;” and again, in reference to an editor presenting a costly book to a lady whose poems he had for years published while yet refusing to pay for them, Poe observed, “He could afford it,” with that almost imperceptible curl of the lip, more expressive of contempt than words could have been. The shape of his head struck me, even on first sight, as peculiar. There was a massive projection of the broad brow and temples, with the organ of casualty very conspicuously developed, a marked flatness of the top of the head, and an unusual fullness at the back. I had at this time no knowledge of phrenology; but now, in recalling this peculiar shape, I cannot deny that in Poe what are called the intellectual and animal portions of the head were remarkably developed, while in the moral regions there was as marked a deficiency. Especially there was a slight depression instead of fullness ­[page 712:] of outline where the organs of veneration and firmness are located by phrenologists. This peculiarity detracted so much from the symmetrical proportions of the head that he sought to remedy the defect by wearing his hair tossed back, thus producing more apparent height of the cranium.

I am convinced that this time of which I speak must have been what Poe himself declared it — one of the brightest, happiest, and most promising of his maturer life. Had he but possessed a will sufficiently strong to preserve him from the temptation which was his greatest bane, how fair and happy might have been his future career!

As I have said, the knowledge of this weakness was by his own request concealed from me. All that I knew of the matter was when a friend informed me that “Mr. Poe was too unwell to see us that evening.” A day or two after this he sent a message by his sister requesting some flowers, in return for which came a dainty note of thanks, written in a tremulous hand. He again wrote, inclosing a little anonymous poem which he had found in some newspaper and admired; and on the day following he made his appearance among us, but so pale, tremulous and apparently subdued as to convince me that he had been seriously ill. On this occasion he had been at his rooms at the “Old Swan” where he was carefully tended by Mrs. Mackenzie’s family, but on a second and more serious relapse he was taken by Dr. Mackenzie and Dr. Gibbon Carter to Duncan’s Lodge, where during some days his life was in imminent danger. Assiduous attention saved him, but it was the opinion of the physicians that another such attack would prove fatal. This they told him, warning him seriously of the danger. His reply was that if people would not tempt him, he would not fall. Dr. Carter relates how, on this occasion, he had a long conversation with him, in which Poe expressed the most earnest desire to break from the thralldom of his besetting sin, and told of his many unavailing struggles to do so. He was moved even to tears, and finally declared, in the most solemn manner, that this time he would restrain himself — would withstand any temptation. He kept his word as long as he remained in Richmond; but for those who thereafter placed the stumbling-block in the way of the unsteady feet, what shall be said? [column 2:]

Among the warmest of his personal friends at this time, and those whom he most frequently visited, were Dr. Robert G. Cabell, Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell, Mrs. Chevalie, and Mr. Robert Sully, and his venerable mother and accomplished sisters. These had all known him in his boyhood, and he expressed to me with earnestness the pleasure of the hours spent with them in their own homes. Especially did he enjoy his visits to the Sullys, “where” said he, “I always find pictures, flowers, delightful music and conversation, and a kindness more refreshing than all.”

The only occasion on which I saw Poe really sad or depressed, was on a walk to the “Hermitage,” the old deserted seat of the Mayo family, where he had, in his youth, been a frequent visitor. On reaching the place, our party separated, and Poe and myself strolled slowly about the grounds. I observed that he was unusually silent and preoccupied, and, attributing it to the influence of memories associated with the place, forbore to interrupt him. He passed slowly by the mossy bench called the “lovers’ seat,” beneath two aged trees, and remarked, as we turned toward the garden, “There used to be white violets here.” Searching amid the tangled wilderness of shrubs, we found a few late blossoms, some of which he placed carefully between the leaves of a note-book. Entering the deserted house, he passed from room to room with a grave, abstracted look, and removed his hat, as if involuntarily, on entering the saloon, where in old times many a brilliant company had assembled. Seated in one of the deep windows, over which now grew masses of ivy, his memory must have borne him back to former scenes, for he repeated the familiar lines of Moore:

“I feel like one who treads alone,

Some banquet hail deserted” —

and paused, with the first expression of real sadness that I had ever seen on his face. The light of the setting sun shone through the drooping ivy-boughs into the ghostly room, and the tattered and mildewed paper-hangings, with their faded tracery of rose garlands, waved fitfully in the autumn breeze. An inexpressibly eerie feeling came over me, which I can even now recall, and, as I stood there, my old childish idea of the poet as a spirit of mingled light and darkness, recurred strongly to my imagination. I have never forgotten that scene, or the impression of the moment. ­[page 713:]

Once, in discussing “The Raven,” Poe observed that he had never heard it correctly delivered by even the best readers — that is, not as he desired that it should be read. That evening, a number of visitors being present, he was requested to recite the poem, and complied. His impressive delivery held the company spell-bound, but in the midst of it, I, happening to glance toward the open window above the level roof of the green-house, beheld a group of sable faces the whites of whose eyes shone in strong relief against the surrounding darkness. These were a number of our family servants, who having heard much talk about “Mr. Poe, the poet,” and having but an imperfect idea of what a poet was, had requested permission of my brother to witness the recital. As the speaker became more impassioned and excited, more conspicuous grew the circle of white eyes, until when at length he turned suddenly toward the window, and, extending his arm, cried, with awful vehemence:

“Get thee hack into the tempest, and the night’s Plutonian shore!”

there was a sudden disappearance of the sable visages, a scuttling of feet, and the gallery audience was gone. Ludicrous as was the incident, the final touch was given when at that moment Miss Poe, who was an extraordinary character in her way, sleepily entered the room, and with a dull and drowsy deliberation seated herself on her brother’s knee. He had subsided from his excitement into a gloomy despair, and now, fixing his eyes upon his sister, he concluded:

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,

On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;

And its eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming ——“

The effect was irresistible; and as the final “nevermore” was solemnly uttered the half-suppressed titter of two very young persons in a corner was responded to by a general laugh. Poe remarked quietly that on his next delivery of a public lecture he would “take Rose along, to act the part of the raven, in which she seemed born to excel.”

He was in the habit of teasing his sister, in a half-vexed, half-playful way, about her peculiarities of dress and manner. She was a very plain person, and he with his fastidious ideas could not tolerate her want of feminine tact and taste. “Rose, why do [column 2:] you wear your hair in that absurd style?” “Where did you get that extraordinary dress pattern?” “Why don’t you try to behave like other people?” And once, when she presented herself in a particularly old-fashioned garb and coiffure, observing that she had been asleep, he replied: “Yes, and with Rip Van Winkle, evidently.” She took all with an easy indifference. She was very proud of her brother, and nothing that Edgar did or said could possibly be amiss.

It is with feelings of deep sadness, even after the lapse of so many years, that I approach the close of these reminiscences.

Poe one day told me that it was necessary that he should go to New York. He must make certain preparations for establishing his magazine, the “Stylus,” but he should in less than two weeks return to Richmond, where he proposed henceforth to reside. He looked forward to this arrangement with great pleasure. “I mean to turn over a new leaf; I shall begin to lead a new life,” he said confidently. He had often spoken to me of his books, — “few, but recherché “, — and he now proposed to send certain of these by express, for my perusal. “You must annotate them extensively,” he said. “A book wherein the minds of the author and the reader are thus brought in contact is to me a hundred-fold increased in interest. It is like flint and steel.” One of the books which he thus desired me to read was Mrs. Browning’s poems, and another one of Hawthorne’s works. I remember his saying of the latter that he was “indisputably the best prose writer in America;” that “Irving and the rest were mere commonplace beside him;” and that “there was more inspiration of true genius in Hawthorne’s prose than in all Longfellow’s poetry.” This may serve to give an idea of his own opinion of what constitutes genius, though some of Longfellow’s poems he pronounced “perfect of their kind.”

The evening of the day previous to that appointed for his departure from Richmond, Poe spent at my mother’s. He declined to enter the parlors, where a number of visitors were assembled, saying he preferred the more quiet sitting-room; and here I had a long and almost uninterrupted conversation with him. He spoke of his future, seeming to anticipate it with an eager delight, like that of youth. He declared that the last few weeks in the society of his old and new friends had been the happiest that he had known for ­[page 714:] many years, and that when he again left New York he should there leave behind all the trouble and vexation of his past life. On no occasion had I seen him so cheerful and hopeful as on this evening. “Do you know,” he inquired, “how I spent most of this morning? In writing a critique of your poems to be accompanied by a biographical sketch. I intend it to be one of my best, and that it shall appear in the second number of the’stylus,’” — so confident was he in regard to this magazine. In the course of the evening he showed me a letter just received from his “friend, Dr. Griswold,” in reply to one but recently written by Poe, wherein the latter had requested Dr. Griswold in case of his sudden death to become his literary executor. In this reply, Dr. Griswold accepted the proposal, expressing himself as much flattered thereby, and writing in terms of friendly warmth and interest. It will be observed that this incident is a contradiction of his statement that previous to Poe’s death he had had no intimation of the latter’s intention of appointing him his literary executor.

In speaking of his own writings Poe expressed his conviction that he had written his best poems, but that in prose he might yet surpass what he had already accomplished. He admitted that much which he had said in praise of certain writers was not the genuine expression of his opinions. Before my acquaintance with him I had read his critique on Mrs. Osgood, in the “Southern Literary Messenger,” and had in my turn criticised the article, writing my remarks freely on the margin of the magazine. I especially disagreed with him in his estimate of the lines on Fanny Elsler and “Fanny’s Error,” — ridiculing his suggested amendment of the latter. This copy of the magazine Mrs. Mackenzie afterward showed to Poe, and upon my expressing consternation thereat, she remarked laughingly, “Don’t be frightened; Edgar was delighted.” On this evening he alluded to the subject, saying, “I am delighted to find you so truly critical; your opinions are really the counterpart of my own.” I was naturally surprised, when he added, “You must not judge of me by what you find me saying in the magazines. Such expressions of opinion are necessarily modified by a thousand circumstances, the wishes of editors, personal friendship, etc.” When I expressed surprise at his high estimate of a certain lady writer, he said, “It is true, she is really commonplace, but her husband was kind [column 2:] to me;” and added, “I cannot point an arrow against any woman.”

Poe expressed great regret in being compelled to leave Richmond, on even so brief an absence. He would certainly, he said, be back in two weeks. He thanked my mother with graceful courtesy and warmth for her kindness and hospitality; and begged that we would write to him in New York, saying it would do him good.

He was the last of the party to leave the house. We were standing on the portico, and after going a few steps he paused, turned, and again lifted his hat, in a last adieu. At the moment, a brilliant meteor appeared in the sky directly over his head, and vanished in the east. We commented laughingly upon the incident; but I remembered it sadly afterward.

That night he spent at Duncan’s Lodge; and as his friend said, sat late at his window, meditatively smoking, and seemingly disinclined for conversation. On the following morning he went into the city, accompanied by his friends, Dr. Gibbon Carter and Dr. Mackenzie. The day was passed with them and others of his intimate friends. Late in the evening he entered the office of Dr. John Carter, and spent an hour in looking over the day’s papers; then taking Dr. Carter’s cane he went out, remarking that he would step across to Saddler’s (a fashionable restaurant) and get supper. From the circumstance of his taking the cane, leaving his own in its place, it is probable that he had intended to return; but at the restaurant he met with some acquaintances who detained him until late, and then accompanied him to the Baltimore boat. According to their account he was quite sober and cheerful to the last, remarking, as he took leave of them, that he would soon be in Richmond again.

On this evening I had been summoned to see a friend who was dangerously ill. On the way I was met by Miss Poe, who delivered a note left for me by her brother, containing a MS. copy of “Annie,” — a poem then almost unknown, and which I had expressed a wish to see. These strange prophetic lines I read at midnight, while the lifeless body of my friend lay in an adjoining chamber, and the awful shadow of death weighed almost forebodingly upon my spirit. Three days after, a friend came to me with the day’s issue of the “Richmond Dispatch.” Without a word she pointed to a particular paragraph, where I read, — “Death of Edgar A. Poe, in Baltimore.” ­[page 715:]

Poe had made himself popular in Richmond. People had become interested in him, and his death cast a universal gloom over the city. His old friends, and even those more recently formed, and whom he had strangely attached to himself, deeply regretted him. Mr. Sully came to consult with me about a picture of “The Raven” which he intended to make; and in the course of conversation expressed himself in regard to his lost friend with a warmth of feeling and appreciation not usual to him. The two had been schoolmates; and the artist said, “Poe was one of the most warm-hearted and generous of men. In his youth and prosperity, when admired and looked up to by all his companions, he invariably stood by me and took my part. I was a dull boy at learning, and Edgar never grudged time or pains in assisting me.” In further speaking he said, with a decision and earnestness which impressed me, “It was Mr. Allan’s cruelty in casting him upon the world, a beggar, which ruined Poe. Some who had envied him took advantage of his change of fortune to slight and insult him. He was sensitive and proud, and felt the change keenly. It was this which embittered him. By nature no person was less inclined to reserve or bitterness, and as a boy he was frank and generous to a fault.” In speaking of his poems, Mr. Sully remarked: “He has an eye for dramatic, but not for scenic or artistic effect. Except in the ‘Raven’ I can nowhere in his poems find a subject for a picture.”

On some future occasion I may speak further of Poe, and give some details which will clear up certain obscurities of his life. At present, there is one point connected with his history which I feel that I cannot in justice pass over, because upon it has hung the darkest and most undeserved calumny which has overshadowed his name. I allude to the cause of the estrangement and separation between himself and Mr. Allan.

For obvious reasons, I prefer, at present, not to speak in detail upon this subject. It will be sufficient to state that the affair was simply a “family quarrel,” which was not in the first instance the fault of Poe; that he received extreme provocation and insult, and that of all the parties concerned, it appears that he was the least culpable and the most wronged. Mr. Allan, though a kind-hearted and benevolent man, was quick-tempered and irascible, and in the heat of sudden anger treated Poe with a [column 2:] severity which he afterward regretted. In any event, his conduct in utterly casting off one whom he had brought up as a son, and had by education and mode of life made dependent on him, must ever, in the opinion of just-minded persons, detract from if not wholly outweigh the merit of former kindness. But the saddest part of the story is, that long after this, Poe, who never cherished resentments, being informed that his former guardian was ill and had spoken kindly of and had expressed a wish to see him, went to Mr. Allan’s house and there vainly sought an interview with him, — and that of this the latter was never informed, but died without seeing him; and as Dr. Griswold with unwitting significance observes, “without leaving Poe a mill of his money.

This is the simple truth of the story to which Dr. Griswold has attached a “blackness of horror” before the unrevealed mystery of which the mind shrinks aghast. As to my authority in making this statement, I will only say that I have heard the facts asserted by venerable ladies of Richmond, who were fully acquainted with the circumstances at the time of their occurrence. In closing these reminiscences, I may be allowed to make a few remarks founded upon my actual personal knowledge of Poe, in at least the phase of character in which he appeared to me. What he may have been to his ordinary associates, or to the world at large, I do not know; and in the picture presented us by Dr. Griswold, — half maniac, half demon, — I confess, I cannot recognize a trait of the gentle, grateful, warm-hearted man whom I saw amid his friends, — his care-worn face all aglow with generous feeling in the kindness and appreciation to which he was so little accustomed. His faults were sufficiently apparent; but for these a more than ordinary allowance should be made, in consideration of the unfavorable influences surrounding him from his very birth. He was ever the sport of an adverse fortune. Born in penury, reared in affluence, treated at one time with pernicious indulgence and then literally turned into the streets, a beggar and an outcast, deserted by those who had formerly courted him, maliciously calumniated, smarting always under a sense of wrong and injustice, — what wonder that his bright, warm, and naturally generous and genial nature should have become embittered? What wonder that his keenly sensitive and susceptible poetic temperament should have ­[page 716:] become jarred, out of tune, and into harsh discord with himself and mankind? Let the just and the generous pause before they [column 2:] judge; and upon their lips the breath of condemnation will soften into a sigh of sympathy and regret.



As for most recollections of Poe, Mrs. Weiss’s comments are of interest, but not to be taken as gospel.


[S:0 - SMM, 1878] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe (S. A. T. Weiss, 1878)