Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 21,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 127-136


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[page 127:]

CHAPTER XXI.

AT FORDHAM.

It was at this time, in the summer of 1845, that Poe’s sister, Miss Rosalie Poe, went on a visit to her brother, whom she had not seen in ten years. On her return home, and for years thereafter, she was accustomed to speak of this visit; and it was a curious picture which she gave of the life of the poet and his family in the humble little cottage on Fordham Hill.

Poe was away when she arrived — presumably in his insane pursuit of Mrs. Osgood. Miss Poe told of “Aunt Clemm’s” distress and anxiety on his account, and of how she “scraped together every penny” and borrowed money from herself to send to Edgar, who, she said, had been taken ill while on a business trip. There were no provisions in the house scarcely, and she herself, both then and at various other times, would purchase supplies from the market and grocers’ wagons [page 128:] which passed; for there were no stores at the little country station of Fordham.

Miss Poe told of her brother’s arrival at home, and of how she overheard Mrs. Clemm administering to him a severe “scolding.” He was so ill that he had to be put to bed by Mrs. Clemm, who sat up with him all night while he “talked out of his head” and begged for morphine. After some days he was better, and walked about the house and sat under the pine trees crowning a rocky knoll within calling distance of the house — ever a constant and favorite retreat of his, affording fine views of the river and neighboring country.

One day, still weak and ill, he sat at his desk and looked over his papers. Mrs. Clemm then took his place, and wrote at his dictation. Aunt Clemm, said Rosalie, could exactly imitate Edgar’s writing. On the following day she filled her satchel with some of these papers and went to the city, whence she returned late in the evening, quite after dark, with a hamper of provisions and medicines to Virginia’s great delight, who had feared some mishap to her mother and cried accordingly. Miss Poe believed that this hamper was a present from some one, but Aunt Clemm was very reserved toward her in regard to her [page 129:] affairs. She knew, she said, that Mrs. Clemm had never liked her, but Edgar and Virginia were kind.

From this time Poe wrote industriously, seldom going to town, but sending his mother-in-law instead. Several times Mrs. Clemm gave her niece some “copying” to do, but this was not to her a very gratifying task, and when, on her return home, she was asked what it was about, had not the least idea! She always insisted that Anabel Lee was written at this time, as she repeatedly heard Edgar read it to Mrs. Clemm and also to himself, and recognized it when it was published two years afterward. A curious picture was that which she gave of the poet’s reading his manuscript to his mother-in-law while the latter sat beside his desk inking the worn seams of his and her own garments; or of Poe, seated on a “settle” outside the kitchen door, also reading to her some of his “rare and radiant fancies,” while she presided over the family laundry. He seems to have been constantly appealing to her sympathy with his writing, but never to Virginia.

According to Miss Poe, Mrs. Clemm was at this time dependent for her own earnings on her sewing and fancy knitting, with pretty [page 130:] knick-knacks, which she disposed of at a certain “notion store.” Virginia, too, when well enough, liked this kind of work. They had few visitors, for Mrs. Clemm, too busy for gossip, made a point of discouraging calls from the neighbors, with the exception of two or three families of better class than most of those surrounding them. These latter were a half-rural people, keeping dairies and cultivating market gardens.

Miss Poe spoke of Virginia’s cheerfulness. Nothing ever disturbed her. “She was always laughing.” She liked to have children about her; and they came every day, bringing their dolls and playthings, with little offerings of fruit and flowers from their home gardens. She taught them to cut out and make their dolls’ dresses, and would sometimes be very merry with them. She did not appear to suffer, said Miss Poe — did not lose flesh, and had always a hearty appetite, eating what the others ate, though very fond of nice things, especially candy. Her mother and Edgar petted her like a baby. “Aunt Clemm and Virginia,” declared Miss Poe with conviction, “cared for nobody but themselves and Edgar.” Virginia was at this time twenty-four years of age. [page 131:]

It was not to be wondered at that, as Miss Poe said, her brother, immediately after his return, remained at home, seldom going into town, but sending his mother to dispose of his manuscripts. It has been said that when he did make his appearance in the city and among his usual business haunts, he found himself everywhere coldly received, in consequence of the notorious episode with Mrs. Osgood, for whom it was known he had left his sick wife. His literary enemies, of whom he had made many by his keen criticisms, made the most of this charge against him, in addition to that of dissipated habits, to which he now gave himself up with a recklessness which he had never before shown.

Poe afterward attempted to defend himself against this reproach and the whole scandal of this season by attributing its excesses to his grief and anxiety on account of his wife, whom, he says, he “loved as man never loved before,” a phrase the extravagance of which betrays its insincerity. He describes how through the years of her illness he “loved her more and more dearly and clung to her with the most desperate pertinacity, until he became insane, with intervals of horrible sanity. . . . During these fits of absolute unconsciousness [page 132:] I drank.” And thus he endeavors to explain away his pursuit of Mrs. Osgood!

It cannot but be noted that in all Poe’s accounts of himself, and especially of his feelings, is a palpable affectation and exaggeration, with an extravagance of expression bordering on the tragic and melo-dramatic; a style which is exemplified in some of his writings, and may be equally imaginative in both cases.

Mrs. Osgood also, in her “Reminiscences,” after Poe’s death, sought to clear both him and herself from the scandal of that summer by writing of the affection and confidence existing between himself and his wife — “his idolized Virginia” — as she saw them in their home, and declares her belief that his wife was the only woman whom he had ever really loved. In this we do not feel disposed to question her sincerity. Touching the slander against herself, she wrote to a friend:

“You have proof in Mrs. Poe’s letters to me and Poe’s to Mrs. Ellet, either of which would fully establish my innocence. . . . Neither of them, as you know, were persons likely to take much trouble to prove a woman’s innocence, and it was only because she felt that I had been cruelly wronged by her mother and [page 133:] Mrs. Ellet that she impulsively rendered me this justice.”

Of course, the letter of Mrs. Poe here referred to was written at the suggestion of her husband, but it is curious to observe how frankly andnaively Mrs. Osgood — not now writing for the public — expresses her real opinion of Poe and his wife.

Mrs. Osgood goes on to say: “Oh, it is too cruel that I, the only one of all those women who did not seek his acquaintance, should be sought out after his death as the only victim to suffer from the slanders of his mother.”

From this it would appear that after Poe’s death the old scandal was revived, and by Mrs. Clemm herself. About this time she was having frequent interviews with Dr. Griswold in regard to Poe’s papers, which she had handed over to him for use in the Memoirs upon which he was engaged. Naturally, Mrs. Clemm, who seems never to have forgiven Mrs. Osgood for the troubles of that unfortunate first summer at Fordham, would express herself freely to Griswold, who was a warm friend and admirer of Mrs. Osgood. Was it on account of such utterances that Griswold wrote to Mrs. Whitman:

“Be very careful what you say to Mrs. [page 134:] Clemm. She is not your friend or anybody’s friend, and has no element of goodness or kindness in her nature, but whose heart is full of wickedness and malice.”

Mrs. Osgood was a lovely and estimable woman, and if she did allow her admiration of Poe and her warm-hearted sympathy with one of a kindred poetic nature to impulsively carry her beyond the bounds of a strictly platonic friendship, it was in all innocence on her part, and did not lose her the good opinion of those who knew her. The blame was all for Poe and the feeling against him intense.

Undoubtedly the impression which she made on Poe was something beyond what he ordinarily experienced toward women. In my own acquaintance with him he several times spoke of her, and always with a sort of grave and reverential tenderness — as one may speak of the dead, or as he might have spoken of the lost friend of his boyhood, Mrs. Stanard. Although, as Mrs. Osgood says, Poe and herself never met in the few remaining years of their lives, yet several of his poems, without any real attempt at disguise, express his remembrance of her. It was to her that the lines “To F —— “ were addressed, after their parting: [page 135:]

“Beloved, amid the earnest woes

That crowd around my earthly path —

(Dear path, alas! where grows

Not e’en one thornless rose) —

My soul at last a solace hath

In dreams of thee — and therein knows

An Eden of calm repose.

“And thus thy memory is to me

Like some enchanted far-off isle

In some tumultuous sea;

Some ocean throbbing far and free

With storms — but where meanwhile

Serenest skies continually

Just o’er that one bright island smile.”

In “A Dream” he thus again alludes to her:

“That holy dream, that holy dream,

When all the world was chiding,

Hath cheered me like a lovely beam

A lonely spirit guiding.

“What though that light through storm and night

Still trembles from afar?

What could there be more purely bright

Than truth’s day-star?” [page 136:]

About the same time he wrote the lines, “To My Mother,” the only one of his poems in which he alluded to his wife, concluding with the couplet:

“By that infinitude which made my wife Dearer unto my soul than its own life.”

It will be observed that the sentimental things, in both prose and verse, which Poe has written concerning his love for his wife — and they are but two or three at most — were written immediately after his affair with Mrs. Osgood and the universal charge against him that he had deserted a dying wife for her sake. It is impossible that at this remote period of time it could be understood how seriously — from all contemporaneous accounts — Poe’s reputation was affected by this unfortunate episode; especially at the North, where it was best known.

When Miss Poe left Fordham, in July, she carried with her a letter from Mrs. Clemm to Mr. John Mackenzie, soliciting pecuniary aid for Edgar on plea of his wretched health. Mr. Mackenzie was at this time married and with a family of his own, but he never lost his interest in his old friend or ceased to assist him so far as was in his power.

 


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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 21)