Reminiscences of Edgar A. Poe
BY MRS. SUSAN ARCHER WEISS
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY JAMES A. HARRISON, L.H.H., LL.D.
[It was a series of three articles, published In THE INDEPENDENT in September, 1900, written by Professor Harrison, of the chair of Romance Languages in the University of Virginia; entitled “New Glimpses of Poe,” that was the occasion of the publication of the great “Virginia edition” of the Life and Works of Poe in seventeen volumes, edited by Professor Harrison, who is now recognized as the chief authority on all matters relating to the most distinguished and most unfortunate of American poets. Certain important material as to Poe’s life that reached Professor Harrison too late to incorporate in those volumes he has embodied in this and one or two succeeding articles. Mrs. Weiss was known in literary circles under her maiden name of Talley, and published a volume of musical verse in 1850. -- EDITOR.]
The editor of the following pages offers no apology for presenting to admirers of Edgar Allan Poe a number of interesting unpublished reminiscences of the poet by contemporaries, and letters and documents about him from a throng of correspondents who were deeply, even passionately, concerned in him and in his career at the time of his death. The recent Poe revival adds further keenness to the relish with which everything connected with the poet even In a remote degree is seized upon and read. New portraits of the poet are eagerly scanned to see if they chance to unlock the mystery of this musical and mysterious being; the places where Poe lived and labored old Richmond and Philadelphia and New York houses, old printing houses like the Southern Literary Messenger office (still standing in Richmond), where he superintended his publications and read proofs; old taverns where lie “put up” under the olden regime, like the Swan Tavern and the old United States Hotel (also still standing in the Virginia capital) ; the quaint house, 2613 East Grace street, Richmond, where he wooed and won Mrs. Shelton; the home of the Mackenzies, “Duncan’s Lodge,” where his sister Rosalie lived and he so often lodged in
[column 2:]the hospitable forties; the curious little fortress-like cell which he inhabited at the University of Virginia; the Philadelphia homes; Fordham; the home of the Whitmans in Providence -- all these places are visited with almost reverential interest by Poe pilgrims from far and wide and invested with a delicate glamour of admiration emanating from the enduring and apparently inexhaustible force of the Poe legend.
Only the other day the writer held in his hand the locket that encircled the most precious of all the Poe portraits: the medallion of 1836, containing the exquisite miniature painted in oils on ivory, probably by a Madame Guillet, of New York, then living in Richmond. From this fragile disk seemed to flow all the passion and the poetry with which the young man of twenty-seven was surcharged, superadded to the deep pathos of the fact that this was the very locket-portrait that hun about Virginia’s neck when her beautiful, trouble spirit passed away at Fordham that bitter January day in 1847. The owner generously removed the rare relic from its case, showing the ivory background of the picture and calling attention to the clear gray eyes and pallid complexion, rich,
[page 1011:]nevertheless, with the underflush of red blood that coursed imperiously through the veins.
In another interesting drawing-room to which the writer had access hung in a charming oval Sully’s lovely portrait of the first Mrs. Allan, the foster-mother to whom Poe was tenderly attached, beautiful enough to have inspired his “Helen;’; around the corner, In another stately room, was a delicately chiseled bust of the second Mrs. Allan (whom Poe as heartily hated), a handsome, noble-looking woman into whose massive face a Neapolitan sculptor had thrown Roman energy and severity combined: twin types of the Virginian women of two generations and a half ago. In the iron safe of a third Poe connoisseur lay a yellowed bundle of priceless Poe letters covering the dark period from 1828 to 1834 and jealously guarding the secrets of his university career, his years In the army, and his West Point escapade. Down the street, behind a historic church, was the house once Illumined by the presence of the Psyche “Helen” herself.
The poetical haze that hung about all these things and glorified them in the eyes of the pilgrim could not be mistaken: Poe was still very much alive!
It has therefore seemed not amiss to gather up further memorials of this singular genius and present them here, furnished with such brief running commentary as may serve to make them Intelligible to the general reader.
In the present paper I include reminiscences from the pen of the venerable Mrs. S. A. Weiss, with whose “Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe,” published in the old Scribner’s for 1878, readers of this magazine are probably familiar. Mrs. Weiss is still living, at an advanced age, in full possession of her remarkable faculties. -- J. A. H.
Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss to Professor Harrison:
6 NORTH PARK STREET, RICHMOND, VA., December 9th, 1901.
DEAR SIR: I regret not having heard from you at an earlier period of your work on Poe, as I might then have supplied you with items, of no great interest in themselves, but serving to truthfully illustrate his character, surroundings, etc., as a school-boy. It is now, I suppose, too late for this; but I may mention one or two things in which I am convinced that Poe has been done great injustice, and from which I am anxious to see him cleared. One of these is in regard to his rupture with Mr. Allan, at that time an old man in failing health and completely under the influence of his second wife, much younger than himself and to whom he had been but recently married. Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell, who was first cousin to this lady, and Miss Anne Valentine, sister of the first Mrs. A., and who continued an inmate of Mr. Allan’s house until his death, always declared that Edgar was “blameless” in this matter. On returning home from the university* he found his position in Mr. Allan’s family entirely changed, under the regime of the new wife. The servants were forbidden to
[column 2:]obey or attend upon him formerly and a room was allotted him which was used by the first Mrs. Allan’s maid and which he refused to occupy. In an interview with Mrs. A. she reminded him of his dependent position as an object of “charity” in her house, which so incensed him that he accused her of having “married for money,” etc. In reporting this to her husband she declared that “she and Edgar Poe could not live under the same roof.” Mr. A. at once, in his impulsive anger, ordered him to leave the house, which he immediately did, refusing (so said report) the money offered for his immediate expenses. Mr. and Mrs. Allan’s friends and relatives and also his enemies placed the worst construction upon the affair, as regarded Poe; but there were others who warmly defended him and remained his friends through life. I tell you all this in confidence, as I have heard it from some of our best citizens, who knew all the parties concerned, because I wish you to understand how much wronged Poe was. The matter was much discussed in Richmond at the time, and all sorts of reports got abroad as to “unpardonable ingratitude” to Mr. Allan and “outrageous insult” to his wife. This culminated in Dr. Griswold’s account of the matter, after Poe’s death.
* Mrs. Weiss is here mistaken. Poe returned to Richmond from the university in December, 1826; “the first Mrs. Allan” lived until 1828. -- J. A. H. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 1011, column 1.]]
I once ventured, when a girl, to inquire of Mrs. Allan in regard to Poe’s personal appearance. She replied, with the suave and dignified politeness of which, as a thorough woman of the world, she was mistress: “My dear Miss Talley, I never but once saw the person of whom you speak.”
I have but recently been informed by Dr. John F. Carter,* who was an intimate friend of the Mackenzie family, that Edgar Poe was never “adopted” by the Allans, neither his sister Rosalie by Mrs. Mackenzie. This he had on the authority of Mrs. Mackenzie herself and other persons intimate with the Allans. The children were simply taken to be cared for until claimed by their relatives, who, already having charge of Henry, were unwilling to assume the responsibility of the two others. They even suggested an orphan asylum, on which Mrs. Mackenzie
[page 1012:]decided to allow Rose (two years old) to remain in her family, and Mrs. Allan, who had become attached to Edgar, persuaded her husband to do the same by him. So it appears that Poe never had any legal claim upon his benefactor as either ward or adopted son, and that his residence beneath Mr. Allan’s roof depended simply on the pleasure of the latter. I had it from an uncle of my own, Mr. Edward Valentine, who was also a cousin of the first Mrs. Allan, that Mr. Allan never had any intention of making Edgar his heir, but to educate and establish him in some business or profession which would render him independent. You will Observe that this account the truth of which cannot be questioned, coming as it does from such authority -- differs materially from that of Poe s biographers, who represent him as the “pampered adopted son and heir” of Mr. Allan.
* The gentleman (still living) with whom Poe; spent a part of his last night in Richmond. -- J. A. H. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 1011, column 2.]]
Another mistake into which these biographers (none of whom knew Poe personally) have fallen is that of representing him as of a gloomy, morose and melancholy disposition, appropriate to the author of “The Raven” and “Lenone.” From all that I have heard of him from those who knew him from his babyhood the reverse was the truth. As a child, unusually bright, merry and joyous, he was the delight of all who saw, him; while I have been told by Mr. John Mackenzie, Poe’s most intimate friend, as also by Mr. Robert Sully and others, that in every kind of schoolboy frolic and mischief, including “playing ghost” and robbing apple orchards, Edgar was the leader and the one who most thoroughly enjoyed the fun. Even in after years and under the most adverse circumstances he was not easily depressed; and
[column 2:]Mrs. Clemm is my authority for the statement that when at home, in even the dark season at Fordham, he was invariably cheerful and good-natured. Mrs. Osgood gives a pleasant instance of this in her account of a visit to his wife. But it pleases the public to imagine the poet of a character in sympathy with his writings, a mystical and melancholy recluse and haunter of graveyards and lonely tarns and
“The ghoul-haunted regions of Weir,’:
while forever mourning some lost Lenore or, Eulalie or Annabel Lee. That this latter poem was in memory of his wife seems a fixed belief in the minds of the public, whereas, by Mr. Poe’s own admission to me, it was written some years before her death, and, like most of his poems, lay on his desk for years unfinished and subject to frequent revisions before being published.
One of Mr. Poets favorite poems (and that which strikes me as being, on the whole, the best) are the 1ines. “ To Helen.” Once, upon my shyly declining to show him some verses which I had written “when a child,” he repeated. “When a child? Then, perhaps they may be your best. Some lines which I wrote at ten years of age I consider as among my best, commencing
“Helen, thy beauty is to me.’ ”
But most probably, this poem, like the rest, was subject to many revisions and corrections before its publication in his maturer years; for I can imagine nothing more graceful, more exquisite in language, expression and rhythm than this little gem, seeming to breathe the very spirit
“Of the glory that was Greece,
Of the grandeur that was Rome.”
Mr. Poe seems to have been incapable of writing poetry with any sustained effort. Impulsive, erratic, he would soon weary of the task and lay -aside the sketchy outlines of his poem, to be filled up, touched and retouched until it had reached the state of perfection which his fastidious taste demanded. I was told by Colonel. Du Solle -- whom I knew about 1869 as assistant editor of the New York (Noah’s) Sunday Times -- that at one time he had known Poe well in Philadelphia, where the latter had often come to his (Du Solle’s) room in the evenings and consulted him and others present about the composition of “ The Raven,” which he was at that time engaged in “revising” with a view to a speedy publication. He would read certain stanzas with which he was dissatisfied, explain his difficulties, and ask their opinion and suggestions as to more suitable words or harmonious rhythm, and he had more than once remarked that he had never found so much difficulty with a poem and felt inclined to give up the whole thing and throw away the manuscript. “ It was not until ‘years after this;” said Colonel Du Solle; “that ‘The Raven’ appeared in print.”
It is certain that Poe was a most indefatigable and elaborate worker upon his poems, and that he never abandoned one until convinced of its utter hopelessness.
I have no letters of Mr. Poe; only a few little notes of no special interest, sent me during his illness at Mrs. Mackenzie’s thanks for flowers, or inclosing a newspaper clipping which had interested him: The
[column 2:]first note which I ever received from him was some time previous to his last visit to Richmond, and is as follows:
“If Miss Talley will, upon reading the enclosed letter, seal it and forward it to its address with a word from herself in behalf of the writer, she will confer the greatest, of favors upon one who most profoundly. respects and admires her genius, the he cannot as yet boast of her personal acquaintance.”
Tho greatly surprised and rather overcome by this flattering appeal, I, made jib mention of it to any one, but promptly forwarded the accompanying letter, as desired, to my uncle, Mr. Edward Valentine, with whom Poe had in his boyhood been a great favorite.* It was an eloquent and, to my idea, touching appeal for pecuniary assistance in establishing The Iris [Stylus], and I believe resulted, as such requests generally did, in a promise to contribute to the desired stem should there be a prospect of raising the whole, a consummation of which Mr. Poe was confident up to the time of his death. Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell and Mrs. Mackenzie had been the first t o promise such assistance. The letter to Mr. Valentine above mentioned is now in possession of my cousin, Rev. E. Valentine Jones, of Cismont, Albemarle County, who may be willing to submit it to you should you desire it. I mention the whole matter simply as a proof of the earnestness with which Poe desired and worked for the accomplishment of this desire of his lifetime, the establishment of his own magazine.
* This letter has been printed by the edition in Vol. XVII of his edition. -- J. A. H. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 1013, column 2.]]
[page 1014:]I have written the foregoing under many difficulties, chief of which is the occasional inability to hold a pen, so that I can write but at intervals and in the discursive and disjointed style of the present MS. However, I send it to you as it is, regretting that I have nothing of more interest to offer.
Should you desire to make any special
[column 2:]inquiry concerning Mr. Poe, I shall take pleasure in answering, it to the best of my ability.
Begging that you will make all allowances for this unsightly MS., and wishing you a happy Christmas and New Year,
I am very truly yours,
SUSAN ARCHER WEISS.
[[captions from illustrations:]]
EDGAR ALLAN POE
The John R. Thompson crayon, owned by Mr. Charles Quarles. of Philadelphia to whom it was given by his uncle, John R. Thompson, Unpublished. By permission of the owner.
The Traylor Portrait: from a daguerreotype given by Poe to Mrs. Shelton on big last visit to Richmond, just before his departure and death in his Baltimore, October 7th, 1849. The daguerreotype was accidentally injured by chemicals in the effort to bring out the features more clearly. Never before printed to this form. By permission of Mr. R. E. Traylor, Richmond, Va.
[S:0 - IN, 1900]