Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 18,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 102-107


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[page 102:]

CHAPTER XVIII.

VIRGINIA’S ILLNESS.

In all this time of which we have spoken, embracing a period of several years, Mrs. Clemm and her daughter continued their quiet life at the cottage, the former doing what she could toward the support and comfort of the family. But a great affliction was to befall them, in the dangerous illness of Virginia, now in her twenty-first year, who had the misfortune, while singing, to break a small blood-vessel. She had already developed signs of consumption, and from this time forth remained more or less an invalid, subject to occasional hemorrhages, but, from all accounts, losing none of her characteristic cheerfulness and light-heartedness.

Poe was at this time still engaged in the editorship of Graham’s Magazine, and it is now that we begin to hear of him in the character of “a devoted husband, watching beside the sick bed of an idolized wife,” with which the [page 103:] world is familiar. Certainly the condition of the helpless creature who so clung to him, and the real danger which threatened her, was calculated to awaken all the tenderness of his nature.

“She could not bear the slightest exposure,” wrote Mr. Harris in Hearth and Home, “all needed the utmost care and all those conveniences as to apartment and surroundings which are so important in the case of an invalid. And yet the room where she lay for weeks, hardly able to breathe except as she was fanned, was a little place with the ceiling so low over the narrow bed that her head almost touched it.”

Mr. Graham tells how he saw Poe “hovering around his wife’s couch with fond fear and tender anxiety, shuddering visibly at her slightest cough;” and mentions his driving out with them one summer day, and of the husband’s “watchful eyes eagerly bent on the slightest change in that beloved face.”

Another literary friend of Poe’s who visited the family in this time of trial, Mr. Clarke, tells of his once taking his little daughter with him, knowing Virginia to be fond of the companionship of children; and as a proof of the latter’s light-heartedness relates how the little girl was induced to sing a comic song, which [page 104:] Virginia received with “peal after peal of merry laughter.”

The reminiscences of these kindly gentlemen who, at Poe’s own request, called upon him, regarding the poet and his family, are of the most flattering character. Poe in his own home was the perfection of graceful courtesy, and Mrs. Clemm amiably dignified, with a countenance when speaking of “her children” almost “saint-like in its expression of patience and motherly devotion.” Of Virginia, Mr. Harris says, “She looked hardly more than fourteen, was soft, fair and girlish.” He says, furthermore, that Mrs. Poe, whom he had not known previous to her misfortune, had up to that time “possessed a voice of marvelous sweetness and a harp and piano,” which leads an English writer to represent the poet’s wife as “an accomplished musician, with the voice of a St. Cecilia.” This is a specimen of the exaggeration to which “biographers” sometimes lend themselves, to be taken up by those who follow and received by the public as fact.

Poe now again interested himself in getting up a magazine, to which he gave the name of “The Stylus” and there seemed an even more brilliant prospect than before of its success. He wrote a prospectus, and went to Washington [page 105:] to obtain subscriptions from President Tyler and the Cabinet, but was taken ill, the result, it was said, of his meeting with a convivial acquaintance; and Mrs. Clemm being notified thereof, on his return to Philadelphia met him at the railroad station and took him home in safety from further possible temptation. Owing partly to this indiscretion, The Stylus was again a failure; and the matter being known throughout the city, did not add to Poe’s personal reputation.

Now, also, just as for the first time, Poe began to be mentioned in the character of a devoted husband, there arose a widespread scandal concerning a handsome and wealthy lady whom, it was said, he accompanied to Saratoga, and who was paying his expenses there. But while the story appears to have been so far true, it certainly admits of a different construction from that given by the gossips. Poe was at this time in wretched health, hardly able to attend to his literary work, and in consequence the financial condition of himself and family was deplorable. What more probable than that some kind friend of his, seeing the absolute necessity to him of a change, should have invited him to be her guest at the quiet summer resort near Saratoga to which she was [page 106:] going? It was a more delicate and, for him, a safer way than to have supplied him with money on his own account. The lady, it was said, had her own little turn-out, in which they daily drove into Saratoga; and this exercise, with the mineral waters, the nourishing food and other advantages of the place, doubtless secured to him the benefits which his friend desired.

It is impossible to believe that Poe could so have defied public opinion as to have voluntarily given cause for a scandal of this nature, for which the gossip of a public watering place should alone be held responsible.

Poe now again applied himself to his writing, but, for some reason, with but little success. In desperation he hastily finished the manuscript ofThe Raven and offered it to Graham, who, not satisfied as to its merits as a poem, declined it, but expressed a willingness to abide by the decision of a number of the office employees, clerks and others, who, being called in, sat solemnly attentive and critical while Poe read to them the poem. Their decision was against it, but on learning of the poet’s penniless condition and that, as he confessed, he had not money to buy medicine for his sick wife, they made up a subscription of [page 107:] fifteen dollars, which was given, not to Poe himself, but to Mrs. Clemm, “for the use of the sick lady.”

This account, given in a New York paper by one of the office committee many years after the poet’s death, has been denied by a Mr. William Johnston, who was at that time an office-boy in Graham’s employ. He says that he was present at the reading of the poem, and that no subscription was taken up. This may have been done subsequently, without his knowledge. Of Poe, he spoke in the most enthusiastic terms of admiration and affection, as the kindest and most courteous gentleman that he had ever met with; prompt and industrious at his work, and having always a pleasant word and smile for himself. He never, in the course of Poe’s engagement with Graham, saw him otherwise than perfectly sober.

 


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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 18)