Text: C. Chauncey Burr, “Character of Edgar A. Poe,” Nineteenth Century, February 1852, vol. V, no. 1, pp. 19-33.


­ [page 19:]



I AM acquainted with no author who has dwelt sufficiently upon the physical peculiarities of men of genius; and yet it is plain enough to be seen, that their material organism is altogether as eccentric as their thoughts and passions. To be sure it cannot be otherwise; since we know that this material organism is the instrument by which the mind carries on the mysterious process of thought and passion in its relations with the physical world. And have not experience and observation well enough taught us, that, if this instrument be composed of the finest material, and its mechanism be most exquisite, so that its motions are quick and powerful, there will be found a corresponding activity and strength in the emotions of the mind? And do we not see how true all this is, if the physical machine be once impaired, in the enfeebled or in the wild and zigzag operations of the mind itself? How madly the thoughts dash on, if the nerves be spurred up by a little wine! And how sick and feeble they creep along, when the stimulus has exhausted itself, and the jaded machine must sink as far below its natural motions, as the wine has raised it above!

There are, if I may say so, physicals, which are so full of natural wine, that they are always tuned up to the highest pitch, and all the thoughts, emotions and passions have the same rebound and quickness that characterize this intense nervous machine.

And this is the natural temperament of Genius. All the fiery activities of the thoughts and passions have also their physical correspondences in the quality and motions of the nerves; so that we may know this temperament by the texture of the skin, the quality of the hair, and even by the color of the eyes. A finely organized, intense, fiery kind of machine it is, through which the soul is so powerfully acted upon by external impressions, that all its energies are aroused ­[page 20:] into those rapid, and glowing effects that constitute what are called the “highest activities of the mind.”

An instrument so complicated, with motions so quick and elastic, must necessarily be exposed to frequent and fatal disorders. Alas, such is the experience which comes to us out of the whole history of Genius!

In every action of the mental faculties, the motions of the arteries and nerves of the brain are not only increased, but a greater quantity of blood is immediately transmitted to them, so that we may say that a kind of sanguineous congestion takes place in all the vessels of the head. We see it in the fullness and redness of the face and eyes of orators when they grow excited with their theme, or, more mildly and beautifully, in the gentle “flurry of thoughts” that sends the blushes to a maiden’s cheeks.

This increase of blood in the region of the brain, which is, in the first place, the effect of mental excitement, immediately becomes a cause of a still more intense mental action, by stimulating and increasing the motions of the nerves through which impressions, ab externo, reach the mind.

It was long ago observed by learned physiologists, that whatever produced a moderate determination of blood to the brain increased, for the time being, the action of the mind. Dendy records a remarkable instance of the power of position in influencing mental energy, in the case of a German student, who discovered that he could think and compose with far happier results, with his head on the ground, and his feet elevated against the wall; and the learned author adds: “You will smile when I tell you that the tints of the landscape are brighter if we reverse the position of the head.” Tissot also mentions a student of the French Academy, who placed himself on his head to discover the quadrature of the circle.* When Pope was at Lord Bolingbroke’s, he was in the habit of ringing in the night for paper, pen and ink, that he might write down, before they were lost, the sublime and beautiful fancies that flashed through his brain, as he lay on his back in bed. Shell tells us similar things of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle; and I know not how many more such instances I might summon to show the wonderful effects, upon ­[page 21:] the thoughts, of stimulating the brain with blood. To insure brilliant thoughts, and wild visions of poesy, Dryden and Mrs. Radcliffe used to eat raw flesh, which was simply another trick to stimulate the nerves. Had they drunk a small quantity of arterial blood, their object would have been more easily and more scientifically obtained.

* Nous avons un etudier dans cette acad’mie il n’y pas longtemps, un jeune homme de merite, qui s’ etant mis dans la tete, de decouvrie la quadrature du circle. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 20]]  

Others have used various drugs to “whip up their dull and lagging thoughts.” The ancient poets carried about with them, in their pockets, a kind of “inspiration of the gods,” which, from all that I can discover, might have been simply some preparation of Indian hemp, an article of which the Europeans have lately sent us Americans a few grains for a taste, and for the approval of our doctors, as a specific for certain forms of disease.

We moderns have used the various preparations of opium for the same purpose. I am ashamed to say so, but it is nevertheless very true what I say. We all know the story of De Quincey. And Coleridge does not blush to tell us that his beautiful poem, Kubla Khan, was an inspiration of opium; and his readers may detect evidences enough of the same thing through a large portion of his writings. If I have not deceived myself, the “Ancient Mariner” came also this way.   .......... “The very deep did rot: O Christ! .. That ever this should be! .. Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs .. Upon a slimy sea.”

Or again:   .......... “It ate the food it ne’er had eat, .. And round and round it flew. .. The ice did split with a thunder-fit; .. The helmsman steered us through!”

Wine, however, has most commonly supplied this mystic je n’sais quoi, and set the poet’s eye in the “fine phrenzy rolling.” “Wine for the gods!” sang the old poets, and our younger pilgrims to Parnassus have not forgotten to practice after the same strain. Alas, that it should be so! Alas, that a, thousand years of experience should not be able to teach. us that, if this strange hand lift one up like a god, it will throw hirer down like a devil! But the temptation is ­[page 22:] great, especially to those fine organizations, those fiery wheels of life, which receive the “ highest inspiration” from the vine. Their profession leads them to dwell constantly in the vast world of the Imagination, which they are to people with creations out of their own brain. They are endowed with wonderful sensibility of nerves, so that every impression is quickly and powerfully sent to the mind, and vice versa, — the images of the mind act quickly and forcibly upon the corporeal. In these natures, pleasure and pain, both mental and corporeal, are very acute, the passions and desires are powerful, and where there is not an almost miraculous selfcontrol, fatal excesses may abound. The acuteness and quickness with which impressions are felt, and the wild delight with which indulgence is enjoyed, allow small time for the exercise of the judgment; and our experience has long ago taught us not to look for so tame and plodding a thing as deliberation in this mad rush of precipitation.

There is also another peculiarity that may weaken the self-control of this temperament, and account for many of the fatal excesses of Genius. In authors whose professions lead them especially to cultivate, imagination, what we may call the representative faculty of the mind often becomes disproportionably great, especially in reference to judgment; and so a powerful genitrix of excesses is, if I may say so, bound as a destiny to this man’s career.

How shall this man, whose task it is to find out the meaning of the stars,-who feels that he was sent into this world to translate the fire-ciphers of destiny, and paint the images of eternity on the scroll of time, square himself down to the plummet and rule of slow and methodizing judgment? This is the Thought Smith, hammering away upon his invisible anvils, where the fires glow beneath the breath of the gods; and shall he, can he pause to listen to the chattering skeletons of mere conventional prudence, that dance around him only as the shadows of twilight, while his own vision is illumined with flashes from Olympus! He carries the torch of Prometheus to animate your cold clay with fire, which was stolen from heaven; and I know not how you shall persuade him to hearken to the teachings of what is called judgment, measured out like tape and bobbin by the world’s yard-stick!

Alas, I can see that for all these things he must one day be chained to a rock, and the vultures shall gnaw his heart! But who shall make him believe it now? I can see, looking ­[page 23:] back through the experience of mankind, and registered there upon the pages of all history, that over against all excess, Nature has planted her unappeasable Woe: that invisible demon hands, out of the black clouds, clutch evermore at the throats of these rash and impetuous coiners in the fiery mines of the soul. It is the penalty of the great Gift. It is the weight that keeps the balance of the world even.

Now I have hinted at these physico-mental peculiarities of Genius, in order that we may the better comprehend its infirmities. I come not to defend these infirmities; no, not even to apologize for them, but only to show you their rationale, — to show you, even physiologically, how near the divinest natures run to madness. For we have abundant evidence that those who are constantly employed in the composition of work of the imagination, often pass altogether from the real to the ideal, where they take the inspirations of fancy for existing form, and illusions for the reality of substance. Such, we know, was occasionally the condition of Tasso and Novalis, and constantly, at last, of Leland and Collins. From the very nature of this temperament, we may infer, that such, at any time, may be the state of the highest order of poetic genius, especially if accompanied with a feeble body and diseased nervous system.

Thus we know it often was with the lamented Poe. We may say of him, as Byron said of Shelley, that “he was a machine of imagination and sensibility, moved perpetually by the slightest touch. And we may sing for hint the strain that Langhorne sang for Collins: —

“Sweet bard, beloved by every muse in vain!

With powers whose fineness wrought their own decay; .. Ah! wherefore, thoughtless, didst thou yield the rein

To fancy’s will, and chase the meteor ray!”

Poe was, every way, a stronger man, and infinitely a greater poet than Collins; but still he reminds us of the poor Bard of Chichester. There was in his conversation the same richness of fancy, elegance, and versatile emotion, that wove such a charm about the social life of Collins. He had the same delicate impressible nervous temperament, attended with a spare and feeble body, that physiologically fated him to the same sudden excesses and transitions in his passions and emotions. In the deep core of his heart was the same natural ­[page 24:] charity and intense affection; and whatever in his life seemed unlike this, was simply the perversion of his own nature, as his proud heart sat there swayed and twisted, and smarting under misfortunes. I remember that at such times he dealt some terrible blows of scorn and hate, but I remember that afterwards he also sang —   .......... “I have no words, alas! to tell .. The loveliness of loving well.”

If we look up at the beauteous heaven in the storm and clouds of night, it is black enough; but we do not, therefore, forget that the bright stars are always there. The bosom. of genius, however convulsed with hate and revenge it may at times be, is nevertheless the everlasting abode of the most beautiful love. Especially am I unable to conceive it otherwise with the poet. I know that an attempt has been made by the enemies of Poe, to show that he was “without heart;” and even a contemporary whom we must acquit of any malice in the charge, has sung

“But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.”

Poe was undoubtedly the greatest artist among modern authors; and it is his consummate skill as an artist, that has led to these mistakes about the properties of his own heart. That perfection of horror which abounds in his writings, has been most unjustly attributed to some moral defect in the roan. But I perceive not why the competent critic should fall into this error. Of all authors, ancient or modern, Poe has given us the least of himself in his works. He wrote as an artist. He intuitively saws what Schiller has so well expressed, that it is an universal phenomenon of our nature that the mournful, the fearful, even the horrible, allures with irresistible enchantment. He probed this general psychological law, in its subtle windings through the mystic chambers of our being, as it was never probed before, until he stood in the very abyss of its center, the sole master of its effects. It is complained that his characters, no matter what their crimes, never feel remorse. And in that very thing the consummate skill of the artist appears. Vice has its perfection, and a half tyrant or a half sinner would be insupportable in a work of art. Cruelty, ambition, perfidy, become great only when ­[page 25:] pushed to an extreme. Richard is greater than Macbeth, who feels remorse; and Macbeth is greater than Hamlet, who talks of “his timid soul, and would, but can’t, repent.”

When, therefore, the reviewer complains that Poe’s characters are destitute of “a manifestation of conscience,” the answer is, because that was not his object. What is called conscience is an excellent theme for a psalm, or a sermon, and would be an invaluable possession to a biographer if he would but keep it; but it is a poor material to use in the accomplishment of the startling highest effects of tragic art.

Poe’s great skill appears in this, that he never distracts the mind with a complication of characters and incidents. He had the great secret not only of simplicity, but of unity of action. In him there are none of those little incidents, with their little effects which so overcharge the works of the ancients, and which have been the common rock on which nearly all modern authors have split. Sue, Dickens, and Dumas often founder on this bank. For the highest enjoyment of a work, the mind must be able to take in the whole, and therefore the action must be neither too great, nor too small, nor the incidents too many. It is truly said if a monster covers many furlongs, we cannot see the proportion of the parts. Simplicity therefore consists in presenting one whole and integral action, which must not be overcharged with incidents, nor too much subdivided into parts, and subordinate interests, but fairly exhibiting cause and effect, and the tendency of such causes and effects to produce a catastrophe by probable, if not necessary means. This was Poe’s design: to seize a single idea and work it up suddenly into the most startling catastrophe possible. It is the highest conceivable achievement of art; and one that does not admit of any stopping by the way to weave in incidents of the qualms of conscience. It was a mighty stroke of art when Richard says —   .......... “Down to hell, and say I sent thee there!”

But how would he appear if the next moment he had fallen down on the grass, and exclaimed, “O dear, what a horrible bad fellow I am; I’m sorry I killed him!” This I can believe would have delighted the taste of those critics who have attempted to asperse the moral nature of Poe, because he does not make his characters feel remorse at doing evil.

It is perhaps true that, into the works of mediocre authors, ­[page 26:] who have only skill to write out some chapters from their experience in love and other matters, we may look for their own moral pictures; but not thus into the works of the great artist, of any author of real genius. And happily we have abundant means at hand to defeat the attempt upon the memory of Poe, in his own private letters, and in the testimony of the pure and gifted who knew him best. The testimony which Graham has given on this subject is so just and so manly that I am induced to make the following extract, although it is already familiar to the American reader:

“I shall never forget how solicitous of the happiness of his wife and mother-in-law he was, whilst one of the editors of Graham’s Magazine — his whole efforts seemed to be to procure the comfort and welfare of his home. Except for their happiness — and the natural ambition of having a magazine of his own — I never heard him deplore the want of wealth. The truth is, he cared little for money, and knew less of its value, for he seemed to have no personal expenses. What he received from me in regular monthly instalments, went directly into the hands of his mother-in-law for family comforts — and twice only I remember his purchasing some rather expensive luxuries for his house, and then lie was nervous to the degree of misery, until he had, by extra articles, covered what he considered an imprudent indebtedness. His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty, which he felt was fading before his eyes. I have seen him hovering around her when she was ill, with all the fond fear and tender anxiety of a mother for her first-born — her slightest cough causing in him a shudder, a heart-chill that was visible. I rode out one summer evening with them, and the remembrance of his watchful eyes eagerly bent upon the slightest change of hue — in that loved face, haunts me yet as the memory of a sad strain.”

And such was the man, who, as soon as his enemies were certain that he was dead, was held up to us as a cold remorseless fiend, without a single social virtue to redeem him from the contempt of mankind. Certainly a more horrible and cowardly slander was never heaped upon the dead. All who knew him well, bear this testimony, that he was, in private life, as gentle and refined as a woman, with a heart as tender and affectionate as a child. If there were no other voice to speak in his behalf, that which came from one of the most gifted of our female poets, Mrs. Osgood, even while she was sinking on the verge of the grave, would be a sufficient ­[page 27:] vindication to the charitable and virtuous. Mr. Griswold says, “she was an invalid — dying of that consumption by which in a few weeks she was removed to heaven, and calling for pillows to support her while she drew this sketch:”

“You ask me, my friend, to write for you my reminiscences of Edgar Poe. For you, who knew and understood my affectionate interest in him, and my frank acknowledgment of that interest to all who had a claim upon my confidence, for you, I will willingly do so. I think no one could know him — no one has known him personally — certainly no woman — without feeling the same interest. I can sincerely say, that although I have frequently heard of aberrations on his part from ‘the straight and narrow path,’ I have never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred, and fastidiously refined. To a sensitive and delicately-nurtured woman, there was a peculiar and irresistible charm in the chivalric, graceful, and almost tender reverence with which he invariably approached all women who won his respect. It was this which first commanded and always retained my regard for him.

“It was in his own simple yet poetical home that, to me, the character of Edgar Poe appeared in its most beautiful light. Playful, affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child — for his young, gentle and idolized wife, and for all who came, be had even in the midst of his most harassing literary duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful and courteous attention. At his desk beneath the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore, he would sit, hour after hour, patient, assiduous and uncomplaining, tracing, in an exquisitely clear chirography, and with almost superhuman swiftness, the lightning thoughts – the ‘rare and radiant’ fancies as they flashed through his wonderful and ever wakeful brain.

“My first meeting with the poet was at the Astor House. A few days previous, Mr. Willis had handed me, at the table d’hote, that strange and thrilling poem entitled ‘The Raven,’ saying that the author wanted my opinion of it. Its effect upon me was so singular; so like that of `weird, unearthly music,’ that it was with a feeling almost of dread, I heard he desired an introduction. Yet I could not refuse without seeming ungrateful, because I had just heard of his enthusiastic and partial eulogy of my writings, in his lecture on American Literature. I shall never forget the morning when I was summoned to the drawing-room by Mr. Willis to receive him. With his proud and beautiful head erect, his dark eyes flashing with the elective light of feeling and of thought, a peculiar, an inimitable blending of sweetness and hauteur in his expression and manner, he greeted me, calmly, gravely, almost ­[page 28:] coldly; yet with so marked an earnestness that I could not help being deeply impressed by it. From that moment until his death we were friends; although we met only during the first year of our acquaintance. And in his last words, ere reason had forever left her imperial throne in that overtasked brain, I have a touching memento of his undying faith and friendship.

“During that year, while traveling for my health, I maintained. a correspondence with Mr. Poe, in accordance, with the earnest entreaties of his wife, who imagined that my influence over him had a restraining and beneficial effect. It had, as far as this — that having solemnly promised me to give up the use of stimulants, he so firmly respected his promise and me, as never once, during our whole acquaintance, to appear in my presence when in the slightest degree affected by them. Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman whom lie ever truly loved; and this is evidenced by the exquisite pathos of the little poem lately written, called Annabel Lee, of which she was the subject, and which is by far the most natural, simple, tender and touchingly beautiful of all his songs. I have heard it said that it was intended to illustrate a late love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses — where he says,   .......... “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling 

My beautiful Annabel Lee, .. So that her high-born kinsmen came, 

And bore her away from me.”

“There seems a strange and almost profane disregard of the sacred purity and spiritual tenderness of this delicious ballad, in thus overlooking the allusion to the kindred angels and the heavenly Father of the lost and loved and unforgotten wife.”

I have given as much of this sketch as the space allows, and the occasion requires, and let it be read as the voice of the pure and beautiful dead, vindicating the dead.

And at this spot let us pause to look into the private letters of Poe, for surely We shall find his heart there. Rightly to comprehend the real nature of a man, we must look at him as he sits alone, with his own heart, or in the presence of those ­[page 29:] who are his chosen friends and confidants, and I feel that I am justified in opening to the public eye this sacred retreat of privacy in the life of Poe, in order to defend his fame from the scandalous falsehoods which malice has heaped upon it. Here we shall find traces of an intense, sincere, fiery, loving heart, full of great extremes and wanderings, alas! but, somehow, always returning to the same spot of affection and truth. His affection for Mrs. Clem [[Clemm]], the mother of his wife, and his tender and anxious solicitude for her welfare, even in the midst of the most distracting pain and poverty, opens to our view, the agonies of a heart overflowing with kindness, gratitude and faith, yet cruelly dispossessed of every means of the blessing it would bestow. I am greatly indebted to this kind lady for the privilege of making such extracts from her son’s letters to her, as I may find important for my purpose, and I have taken the liberty to quote only parts of letters, for to do more than this, would swell my paper beyond the limits of a magazine article.

“NEW YORK, July 7.....

“My dear, dear Mother, — I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen.”

“The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka.’ I could accomplish nothing more. For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together. You have been all in all to me, darling, ever beloved mother, and dearest, truest friend.

“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 then I was not. It was about Virginia.”


“The weather is awfully hot, and, besides all this, I am so homesick I don’t know what to do. I never wanted to see any one half so bad as I want to see my own darling mother. It seems to me that I would make any sacrifice to hold you by the hand once more, and get you to cheer me up, for I am terribly depressed. I do not think that any circumstances will ever tempt me to leave you again. When I am with you I can bear anything, but when I am away from you I am too miserable to live.” ­[page 30:] “RICHMOND, Saturday Night.....

“Oh, my darling Mother, it is now more than three weeks since I saw you, and in all that time your poor Eddy has scarcely drawn a breath except of intense agony. Perhaps you are sick or gone from Fordham in despair, or dead. If you are but alive, and if I but see you again, all the rest is nothing. I love you better than ten thousand lives — so much so that it is cruel in you to let me leave you; nothing but sorrow ever comes of it.

“Oh, Mother, I am so ill while I write – but I resolved that come what would, I would not sleep again without easing your dear heart as far as I could.

“My valise was lost for ten days. At last I found it at the depot in Philadelphia, but (you will scarcely credit it) they had opened it and stolen both lectures. Oh, Mother, think of the blow to me this evening, when on examining the valise, these lectures were gone. All my object here is over unless I can recover them or re-write one of them.

“I am indebted for more than life itself to B —— [[Burr]]. Never forget him, Mother, while you live. When all failed me, he stood my friend, got me money, and saw me.off in the cars for Richmond.

“I got here with two dollars over-of which I inclose you one. Oh God, my Mother, shall we ever again meet? If possible, oh COME! My clothes are so horrible, and I am so ill. Oh, if you could come to me, my mother. Write instantly — oh do not fail. God forever bless you. EDDY.”

“RICHMOND, Thursday, July 19.....


“You will see at once, by the handwriting of this letter, that I am better-much better in health and spirits. Oh, if you only knew how your dear letter comforted me! It acted like magic. Most of my suffering arose from that terrible idea which I could not get rid of — the idea that you were dead. For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval I imagined the most horrible calamities.”

“All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced-an attack of mania-a-potu. May Heaven grant that it prove a warning to me for the rest of my days. If so, I shall not regret even the horrible unspeakable torments I have endured.

“To L —— [[Lippard]] and to C — B– [[Chauncey Burr]] (and in some measure, also, to Mr. S- [[Sartain]]) I am indebted for more than life. They remained with me (I- and B-) all day on Friday last, comforted me and aided ­[page 31:] me in coming to my senses. L– [[Lippard]] saw G– [[Godey]], who said everything kind of me, and sent me five dollars; and P — [[Patterson]] sent another five. B — [[Burr]] procured me a ticket as far as Baltimore, and the passage from there to Richmond was seven dollars. I have not drank anything since Friday morning, and then only a little Port wine. If possible, dearest Mother, I will extricate myself from this difficulty for your dear, dear sake. So keep up heart.

“All is not lost yet, and I the darkest hour is just before daylight.’ Keep up heart, my own beloved mother — all may yet go well. I will put forth all my energies. When I get my mind a little more composed, I will try to write something. Oh, give my dearest, fondest love to Mrs. L. Tell her that never, while I live, will I forget her kindness to my darling mother.”

(His last.)

“RICHMOND, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 1849.....


“On arriving here last night from Norfolk, I received both your letters, including Mrs. L-’s. I cannot tell you the joy they gave me — to learn at least that you are well and hopeful. May God forever bless you, my dear, dear mother. I am still unable to send you even one dollar — but keep up heart — I hope that our troubles are nearly over.”

Alas, thou poor stricken child of genius, thy hope was soon fulfilled,   .......... “The fever, called living, was over at length.”

Do we not, in these letters, find traces of a heart as simple and affectionate as a child? And do they not triumphantly vindicate him from that charge of ingratitude, so oft repeated? Do they not show us for all he was that terrible caustic reviewer, that unsparing wit and critic, he was, also, in the core of his heart, a grateful, single-minded, loving kind of man?

And certainly we all knew him to be such in his private life and character. A very gentle, thoughtful, scrupulously refined, and modest kind of man. Such a man as has left a place quite unfilled now that he has gone. Of all the literary men of our country, Poe was among the most finished and unexceptionable in the qualities of private life. He reminded us continually of Byron’s description of Shelley.

How came he then to be so abused, even when he was dead, ­[page 32:] and could not speak for himself? That is one of the secrets of the human heart, which, it seems to me, all revelations of malice have as yet failed to reveal. For one, with my poor brain, I cannot understand it. And I should esteem it the greatest misfortune to be able to comprehend the quality of such motives.

That he had faults and many weaknesses is, alas, too true. But that lie had a congregation of virtues which made him loved as well as admired by those who knew him best, is also true. And now shall all these be, buried with him in his grave, the rule and habit of his better self be forgotten, and only those faults of his be dragged forth to the light and held up as the total moral picture of the man? God have mercy on his assailants, if such is to be the rule of literary biography. It were better that they had not been born.

No, the generous and just who have survived the poet, feel in relation to his faults, as an old Irish Bishop did, when a malicious young priest related with an eager delight the sins of a, fallen brother — “I thank God, not that I have not so fallen, but that I was not so tempted.” It is a noble nature that feels thus. It is the sentiment of experienced virtue towards the misfortunes of a tempted sorrowing child of genius like Poe; misfortunes that are interwoven with the very temperament of the man, almost as much so as the color of his eyes, or the texture of his hair. We have seen how a nervous system like his, may assume entirely new motions in any moment of time, by even a passing thought or a stray emotion; and we have seen what sudden and fatal excesses may result. Is there then no mantle of charity that may cover the inheritor of weakness from the ribald laughter of the crowd, which is only as far removed from his temptations, as its phlegmatic soul is from the fires of his genius?

The only charge which can with truth be brought against Poe is that of intemperance. And yet he was far enough from being an habitual drunkard: for I may safely say, that, in his whole life, he never drank so much as many of his enemies swallow down in a single month. Far enough from one of those guzzling, soaking, gormandizing kind of men was Poe. His taste and refinement would have rebelled against such a life; but he had that delicate peculiar organism, which a single glass of wine, or the least mental excitement, would at times, set to whirling on the very verge of insanity. Many times after the death of his beloved wife, was lie found at the ­[page 33:] dead hour of a winter night, sitting beside her tomb, almost frozen in the snow, where he had wandered from his weeping and wailing for his   .......... “Loved, and lost Lenore.”

The harshest word that we can apply to a man like Poe, is that of weakness. We are compelled to remember the quaint, the quiet, the lovable Charles Lamb, who would not Harm a fly, though he so deeply injured himself. We are compelled to remember the pious poet, Beattie, who was often seen wandering from room to room through his house, striving to drown his sorrows in yet deeper libations, entreating his servants to tell him whether he had a child or not. Alas, we are compelled to remember a long list of poets who have in their turn instructed and amused the world, while they themselves were the inheritors of misery and weakness. The great light that was called Shakspeare, went out at last of a fever which was caught at a drinking round with Drayton and Ben Jonson. So of the gifted Parnell, of Addison, Pope, Steele, Sheridan, Ferguson, Robert Burns, and I know not how many more, who were no wiser than our own lamented Poe in this great misfortune. It is well enough known to literary men, that when the accusing spirit flew up to heaven with Uncle Toby’s sin, the recording angel, as he wrote it down, dropt a tear upon it and blotted it out forever. If there be yet another tear in heaven’s chancery, I will pray it may be shed on these inheritors of weakness; for plain enough, if they have in them somewhat of earth and sin, they have more of love and deity. Genius is the last touch, the highest finish which the hand of God has given to his intellectual works. It is the virgin light, bent and stained it may be in falling through the atmosphere of earth, but the virgin light. The passionless smile, the selfish tear it cannot know. But it pays dear for importing its smiles and tears from heaven: they flicker and burn, and too soon are quenched on the cold brow of earth. The liveliest coals are soonest consumed by the puff of the winds. So hearts which are fullest of the Promethean fire, are soonest wasted in the blasts of life. That way also went the lamented Poe.





[S:0 - NC, 1852] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Character of Edgar A. Poe (C. C. Burr, 1852)