Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 20,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 119-126


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[page 119:]

CHAPTER XX.

POE AND MRS. OSGOOD.

It was a fortunate day when Mrs. Clemm, hunting about the suburbs of the great city for a cheap place of abode, discovered the little cottage at Fordham, a country railroad station some miles from New York.

It was but an humble place at best, an old cottage of four rooms, in ill-repair; but the rent was low, the situation — on the summit of a rocky knoll — pleasant, affording fine views of the Harlem river; and there was pure air, plenty of outdoor space, and that famous cherry tree, now, in the month of May, in full and fragrant bloom. A few repairs were made, and Mrs. Clemm’s vigorous hands, with the assistance of soap and water and whitewash, soon transformed the neglected abode into a miracle of neatness and order. Checked matting hid the worn parlor floor, and the cheap furniture which they had brought with them looked better here than ever it had [page 120:] done in the cramped and stuffy rooms of the city. Outside a neglected rose-bush was trained against the wall, supplying Virginia with roses in its season. Her room was above the parlor, at the head of a narrow staircase; a low-ceiled apartment, with sloping walls and small, square windows; and it was here at a desk or table near his wife’s sick bed that most of Poe’s writing was now done.

In the preceding winter Virginia’s health had apparently greatly improved, and her illness was not of so serious a nature as to confine her entirely to the house or to interfere with the social or literary engagements of her husband, who was, as poet, lecturer, editor and critic, at the zenith of his fame. In this time he had attended thesoirees of Miss Lynch and others of the literary class, once or twice accompanied by his wife. At these he made the acquaintance of Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Mrs. E. F. Ellet, with others of the “starry sisterhood of poetesses,” as they were called by some poetaster of the day, with each of whom he in succession formed one of the sentimental platonic friendships to which he was given. All these, however, were destined to yield to the superior attractions of a sister poetess, Mrs. [page 121:] Frances Sergeant Osgood, wife of the artist of that name.

Mrs. Osgood, at this time about thirty-years of age, is described by R. H. Stoddard as “A paragon — not only loved by men, but liked by women as well.” Attractive in person, bright, witty and sweet-natured, she won even the splenatic Thomas Dunn English and the stoical Greeley, whose approval of her was as frankly expressed as was his denunciation of the “ugliness, self-conceit and disagreeableness” of her friend, the transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller.

Poe, who had written a very flattering notice of Mrs. Osgood’s poems — in return for which she addressed him some lines in the character ofIsraefel — obtained an introduction and visited her frequently. Also, at his request, she called upon his wife, and friendly relations were soon established between them. To her, after Poe’s death, we are indebted for a characteristic picture of the poet and his wife in their home in Amity street; and which, though almost too well known for repetition, I will here give as a specimen of his home life:

“It was in his own simple yet poetical home that the character of Edgar Poe appeared to [page 122:] me 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, he had, even in the midst of the 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* patient, assiduous, uncomplaining, tracing in an exquisitely clear chirography and with almost superhuman swiftness the lightning thoughts, the rare and radiant fancies as they flowed through his wonderful brain. For hours I have listened entranced to his strains of almost celestial eloquence.

“I recollect one morning toward the close of his residence in this city, when he seemed unusually gay and light-hearted, Virginia, his sweet wife, had written me a pressing invitation to come to them, and I, who never could resist her affectionate summons, and who enjoyed his society far more in his own home than elsewhere, hastened to Amity street. I found him just completing his series of papers called “The Literati of New York.” ‘Now,’ said he, displaying in laughing triumph several [page 123:] little rolls of narrow paper (he always wrote thus for the press), ‘I am going to show you by the difference of length in these the different degrees of estimation in which I hold all you literary people. In each of these one of you is rolled up and fully discussed. Come, Virginia, and help me.’ And one by one they unfolded them. At last they came to one which seemed interminable. Virginia laughingly ran to one corner of the room with one end and her husband went to the opposite with the other. ‘And whose linked sweetness long drawn out is that?’ said I. ‘Hear her,’ he cried; ‘just as if her little vain heart didn’t tell her it’s herself.’”

From this account — the exaggerated phrases of which will be noted — it would appear that a great degree of intimacy existed between Poe and his fair visitor, when he could in his own home — the two tiny rooms in Amity street — write “hour after hour” undisturbed by her presence. Virginia was delighted with her new friend, but Mrs. Clemm, noting these frequent and lengthy visits, regarded her with a suspicious eye. Too well she knew of the platonic friendships of her Eddie; but there appeared something in this affair beyond what was usual, and, in fact, [page 124:] gossip had already begun to link together their names. Mrs. Osgood herself seems to have relied upon Mrs. Poe’s frequent invitations and fondness for her society as a shield against meddlesome tongues, but in vain — for not only were the jealous and vigilant eyes of Poe’s mother-in-law bent upon her, but those of the “starry sisterhood” as well. There was a flutter and a chatter in the literary dovecote, and at length one of the starry ones — Mrs. Ellet — concluded it to be her bounden duty to inquire into the matter. Calling at Fordham one day, in Poe’s absence, she and Mrs. Clemm, who had probably never before met, engaged in a confidential discussion, in the course of which the irate mother-in-law showed the visitor a letter from Mrs. Osgood to Poe (one wonders how she got possession of that letter), the contents of which were so opposed to all the latter’s ideas of propriety that it was clear that something would have to be done. Eventually two of the starry ones — of whom one was Margaret Fuller — waited upon Mrs. Osgood, whom they advised to commission them to demand of Poe the return of her letters, which, strangely enough, she did, though probably only as a conciliatory measure. Poe, in his exasperation at this unwarrantable [page 125:] intermeddling, remarked significantly that “Mrs. Ellet had better come and look after her own letters;” upon which she sent to demand them. But he meantime had cut her acquaintance by leaving them at her own door without either written word or message; very much, we may imagine, as Dean Swift strode into Vanessa’s presence and threw at her feet her letter to Stella.

This was either in May or early June, shortly after their removal to Fordham. Poe had no idea of allowing this episode to interfere with his visits to Mrs. Osgood, and the gossip continued, until, to avoid further annoyance, she left New York and went to Albany on a visit to her brother-in-law, Dr. Harrington.

On the 12th of June we find Poe writing an affectionate note to his wife, explaining why he stays away from her that night, and concluding with:

“Sleep well, and God grant you a peaceful summer with your devoted

“EDGAR.”

A few days after this, toward the end of June, he was in Albany, making passionate love to Mrs. Osgood. In dismay she left that city and went to Boston, whither he followed [page 126:] her; and again to Lowell and Providence, giving rise to a widespread scandal, which caused the lady infinite trouble and distress. But Mrs. Osgood, brilliant, talented and virtuous, was also kind-hearted to a fault, and where her feelings and sympathies were appealed to, amiably weak. Instead of indignantly and determinately rejecting Poe’s impassioned love-making, she says she pitied him, argued with him, appealed to his reason and better feelings, and, in special, reminded him of his sick wife, who lay dying at home and longing for his presence. Finally, she returned to Albany; and Poe, ill at a hotel, wrote urgently to Mrs. Clemm for money to pay his board bill and take him back to Fordham.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 122:]

*  A pencil sketch of Mrs. Stanard by Poe himself.

 


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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 20)