Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 13,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 74-81


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[page 74:]

CHAPTER XIII.

POE’S DOUBLE MARRIAGE.

How it was that Poe, when a mature man of twenty-seven, came to marry his little cousin of twelve or thirteen has ever appeared something of a mystery.

As understood by his Richmond friends, it appeared that when, in July of 1835, he left Baltimore to assume the duties of assistant editor to Mr. White of the Southern Literary Messenger, Virginia, deprived of her constant companion, so missed him and grieved over his absence that her mother became alarmed for her health, and wrote to Poe concerning it; and that in May of the following year the two came to Richmond, where Poe and Virginia were married, she being at that time not fourteen years of age. For this marriage Mrs. Clemm was severely criticised, the universal belief being that she had “made the match.”

Of any other marriage than this these friends never heard; since it was only from a [page 75:] letter found among Poe’s papers after his death, and the reluctant admission of Mrs. Clemm, that it became known that a previous marriage had taken place.

The marriage records of Baltimore show that on September 22, 1835, Edgar A. Poe took out a license to marry Virginia E. Clemm. Mrs. Clemm, when interviewed by one of Poe’s biographers, admitted that there had been such a marriage, and stated that the ceremony had been performed by Bishop John Johns in Old Christ Church; though of this there is no mention in the church records. Immediately after the ceremony, she said, Poe returned to Richmond and to his editorial duties on the Messenger. She vouchsafed no explanation, except that the two were engaged previous to Poe’s departure for Richmond.

A possible explanation of the mystery may be that Mrs. Clemm, having set her heart upon keeping her nephew in the family, could think of no surer means than that of a match between himself and her daughter. When he left Baltimore for Richmond, in July, she doubtless had her fears; and then came reports of his notorious love affairs, one of which came near ending in an elopement and marriage. [page 76:] It was probably then that she wrote to him about Virginia’s grieving for him; following up this letter with another saying that Neilson Poe had offered to take Virginia into his family and care for her until she should be eighteen years of age. This brought a prompt reply from Poe, begging that she would not consent to this plan and take “Sissy” away from him.

This last letter is dated August 29. What other correspondence followed we do not know; but two weeks later, on September 11, 1835, we find Poe writing to his friend, Mr. Kennedy, the following extraordinary letter, in which he clearly hints at suicide:

“I am wretched. I know not why. Console me — for you can. But let it be quickly, or it will be too late. Convince me that it is worth one’s while to live. . . . Oh, pity me, for I feel that my words are incoherent. . . . Urge me to do what is right. Fail not, as you value your peace of mind hereafter.

“EDGAR A. POE.”

This production, which, in whatever light it is viewed, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of pitiable weakness. Some writer has chosen to attribute Poe’s anguish to the prospect of losing Virginia. But it does not [page 77:] at all appear that such is the case; for, even if Neilson Poe did make such an offer, Poe knew well enough that neither Mrs. Clemm nor her daughter would ever consent to accept it. The whole thing appears to have been simply a plan of Mrs. Clemm to bring matters to the satisfactory conclusion which she desired. She possessed over her nephew then and always the influence and authority of a strong and determined will over a very weak one; and we here see that in less than two months after Poe’s leaving her house she had carried her point and married him to her daughter. Having thus secured him, she was content to wait a more propitious time for making the marriage public.

There is yet a little episode which may have influenced this affair and may serve further to explain it.

When Poe first went to Richmond, Mr. White, as a safeguard from the temptation to evil habits, received him as an inmate of his own home, where he immediately fell in love with the editor’s youngest daughter, “little Eliza,” a lovely girl of eighteen. It was said that the father, who idolized his daughter, and was also very fond of Poe, did not forbid the match, but made his consent conditional upon [page 78:] the young man’s remaining perfectly sober for a certain length of time. All was going well, and the couple were looked upon as engaged, when Mrs. Clemm, who kept a watchful eye upon her nephew, may have received information of the affair, and we have seen the result.

Does this throw any light upon Poe’s pitiful appeal, “Urge me to do what is right”? Was this why the marriage was kept secret — to give time for a proper breaking off of the match with Elizabeth White? And it is certain, from all accounts, that Poe now, at once, plunged into the dissipation which was, according to general report, the occasion of Mr. White’s prohibition of his attentions to his daughter. It was she to whom the lines, “To Eliza,” now included in Poe’s poems, were addressed.

When I was a girl I more than once heard of Eliza White and her love affair with Edgar Poe. “She was the sweetest girl that I ever knew,” said a lady who had been her schoolmate; “a slender, graceful blonde, with deep blue eyes, who reminded you of the Watteau Shepherdesses upon fans. She was a great student, and very bright and intelligent. She was said to be engaged to Poe, but they never appeared anywhere together. It was soon [page 79:] broken off on account of his dissipation. I don’t think she ever got over it. She had many admirers, but is still unmarried.”

Recently I read an article written by Mrs. Holmes Cumming, of Louisville, Kentucky, in which she spoke of persons and places that she had seen in Richmond associated with Poe. Among others, she met with a niece of Eliza White, who, when a child, had often seen Poe at the latter’s home. She remembered having at a party seen him dancing with Eliza, and how every one remarked what a handsome couple they were. She had never seen any one enjoy dancing more than Poe did; not but that he was very dignified, but you could see in his whole manner and expression how he enjoyed it.” Perhaps it was because he had “little Eliza” for a partner.

Previous to Poe’s first marriage, he had boarded with a Mrs. Poore on Bank street, facing the Capitol square, and with whose son-in-law, Mr. Thomas W. Cleland, he held friendly relations. A few weeks after his first marriage (which was still kept secret) he removed to the establishment of a Mrs. Yarrington, in the same neighborhood, where, being joined by Mrs. Clemm and Virginia, they lived together as formerly, he — as he informed [page 80:] Mr. George Poe — paying out of his slender salary nine dollars a week for their joint board. This continued until May of the next year, when the public marriage of Poe and Virginia took place.

On this occasion Mr. Thomas Cleland was obliging enough to consent to act as Poe’s surety, and he also secured the services of his own pastor, the Rev. Amasa Converse, a noted Presbyterian minister. Late on the evening of May 16, Mr. Cleland, with Mrs. Clemm, Poe and Virginia, left Mrs. Yarrington’s and, walking quietly up Main street to the corner of Seventh, were married in Mr. Converse’s own parlor and in the presence of his family, Mrs. Clemm giving her full and free consent. The clergyman remarked afterward that Mrs. Clemm struck him as being “polished, dignified, and agreeable in her bearing,” while the bride “looked very young.” The party then returned to their boarding-house, where Mrs. Clemm invited the lady boarders to her room to partake of wine and cake, when it was discovered that it was a wedding celebration.*

It will be observed that, according to the marriage bond, Virginia was married under [page 81:] her maiden name of Clemm, thus ignoring the former ceremony; and that Poe subscribed to the oath of Thomas Cleland that she was “of the full age of twenty-one years,” when in reality she was but thirteen, having been born August 16, 1822. Thus is shown how pliable was Poe in the hands of his mother-in-law; and as regards Mr. Cleland, who was a very pious Presbyterian, it can only be hoped that he never discovered in what manner he had been imposed upon.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 80:]

*  A letter to Mrs. Holmes Cumming, from a son of the Rev. Amasa Converse, 1905.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 13)