Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 22,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 137-144


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[page 137:]

CHAPTER XXII.

THE SHADOW AT THE DOOR.

During the winter and succeeding summer matters did not improve at the cottage. Poe, with health completely shattered and spirits horribly depressed, remained at home with his sick wife for the most part, only occasionally arousing himself to write. A lady, who was at this time a little girl and one of Virginia’s visitors, afterward told a reporter of how she would sometimes see Mr. Poe writing at his table in the upstairs room, and how as each sheet was finished he would paste it on to the last one, until it was long enough to reach across the floor. Then she would venture to roll it up for him in a neat cylinder, taking care not to disturb him. Sometimes, when he was not employed, he would tell the children blood-curdling stories of ghouls and goblins, when his eyes would light up in a wonderful manner. “I lost my heart to those beautiful eyes,” she said. [page 138:]

Mrs. Clemm continued to make the rounds of the editors’ offices with these manuscripts, but met with little success. Poe’s mind was not at its brightest. He was not in a writing mood; and, as has been since observed, he was reduced to the expedient of rewriting and altering certain smaller articles and offering them to the more obscure papers and journals. Mrs. Clemm, in the midst of her manifold duties, could do but little with her sewing in the way of support for the family. So her furniture went, piece by piece, the furniture which Miss Poe had so often described — the parlor box-lounge upon which she slept; the dining-table, which stood in the midst of the room, ready for the meal which was so seldom placed upon it; the large engraving above the mantelpiece, and the collection of sea-shells — all disappeared, until the once cosey little apartment presented a bare and poverty-stricken appearance. Mrs. Gove, one of the literary women of the day, described it as being furnished with only a checked matting, a small corner-stand, a hanging-shelf of books and four chairs.

Years afterward, when strangers would visit the cottage at Fordham, they would hear from [page 139:] the neighbors pathetic accounts of the family during this summer of 1846.

“We knew that they were poor,” said one, “but they tried to keep it to themselves. Many a time I have wanted to send them things from my garden, but was afraid to do so.”

One old dame said to a New York reporter: “I’ve known when they were out of provisions, for then Mrs. Clemm, who always seemed cheerful, would come out with a basket and a shining case-knife and go ‘round digging greens (dandelions). Once I said to her, says I, ‘Greens may be took too frequent.’ ‘Oh, no,’ says she, smiling, ‘they cool the blood, and Eddie likes them.’”

Thus poor Mrs. Clemm, with her assumed cheerfulness, would seek to produce the impression that their dinner of wild herbs was a matter of choice instead of necessity.

Another neighbor said to a visitor: “I never saw checked matting last as theirs did. There was nothing upstairs but an old cot in a little hall-room or closet, where Mrs. Clemm slept, and an old table and chair and bed in the next room, where Mr. Poe wrote. But you could eat your dinner off the two floors.”

The testimony of still another was: “In the [page 140:] kitchen she had only a little stove, a pine table and a chair; but the floor was as white as the table, and the tins as bright as silver. I don’t think that she had more than a dozen pieces of crockery, all on a little shelf in the kitchen. The only meat I’ve ever known them to have was a five-cent bone for soup or a few butcher’s trimmings for a stew; but it seemed Mrs. Clemm could make a little of anything go twice as far as other people could.”

In the early part of this summer Virginia’s health appeared better than usual. A neighbor who lived nearest them said to a visitor to Poe’s old home: “In fine weather that summer — the summer before she died — we could sometimes see her sitting at her front door, wrapped up, with her husband or mother beside her, Mr. Poe reading a paper and Mrs. Clemm knitting. Most times there would be one or two children along, and Mr. Poe would play ball with them while his wife laughingly looked on. She looked like a child herself, hardly taller than they were. Well — no; she wasn’t exactly pretty. She looked too spooky, with her white face and big, black eyes; but she was interesting looking, and we felt sorry for her — and for them all, for that matter. You could see they had known better days.” [page 141:]

As the summer wore on, and the first autumn breezes shook the leaves from the cherry tree, a change came over Virginia. Mrs. Clemm wrote to Miss Poe that unless she could go to her relations at the South — a thing not to be thought of — she would not live through the winter. Eddie’s health was completely broken, and unless she herself remained strong enough to take care of them both, all would have to go to the poor-house. These letters were generally indirect appeals for pecuniary aid. Through similar pathetic accounts given by Mrs. Clemm to editors to whom she offered manuscripts, the condition of the poet and his family became known and was commented upon by the public papers, to Poe’s great indignation, who took occasion in an anonymous communication to deny its truth. But that it was no time for pride to stand in the way of dire necessity is evident from the account of Mrs. Gove on her first visit to the cottage late in that fall. One can hardly realize a condition of things such as she described — the bare and fireless room, the bed with its thin, white covering and the military cloak — a relic of the West Point days — spread over it, and the sick woman, “whose only means of warmth was as her husband held her hands and her [page 142:] mother her feet, while she herself hugged a large tortoise-shell cat to her bosom.” And the thin, haggard man, suffering like his wife from cold and the lack of nourishing food, but who yet received his visitor with such courtly elegance of manner, was the author of The Raven, with which the world was even then being thrilled!

It was a blessed day for the distressed family that on which, about the last of October, Mrs. Shew came to the now bleak little cottage on the hill and, like a ministering angel, devoted herself to caring for and comforting them — not only as regarded their material wants but with kind and encouraging words as well. With a sufficient competence and the medical education given her by her father, she was enabled thus to devote herself to the service of those who could not afford the attendance of a regular physician.

Not only did she supply them with medicine, but with careful nursing and proper food prepared by her own hands in Mrs. Clemm’s little kitchen. Mrs. Gove collected sixty dollars, with which their other wants were supplied; so that during the months of November and December the family were more comfortably situated than was usual with them. But [page 143:] meantime Virginia rapidly declined, until it became evident that her frail life was very near its close.

On the day before her death Poe, in mortal dread of that awful shadow which had been so long in its approach and now stood upon their threshold, wrote urgently to Mrs. Shew to come and pass the night with them. “My poor Virginia still lives, though failing fast.” She came, in time to take leave of the dying wife.

One of Poe’s biographers* has stated that on the day previous to Mrs. Poe’s death she requested Mrs. Shew to read two letters from the second Mrs. Allen exonerating Poe from having ever caused a difficulty in her house. To those who knew Mrs. Allan and had heard from herself and her family the frequent accounts of that occurrence — accounts never retracted by her to her dying day — this statement is not worth a moment’s consideration. The only question is, Who wrote those letters, and how is it that they were never made public or again heard of? And who could have imposed upon the dying woman a task such as this, instead of themselves taking the responsibility? [page 144:]

From this incident, if the account be true, it would appear that Virginia was gentle, obedient and submissive to the last. On the day following — January 3, 1847 — her innocent, childlike spirit passed away from earth.

She was in the twenty-sixth year of her age.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 143:]

*  Ingraham [[Ingram, Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters and Opinions, 1880, 2:109]].

 


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Notes:

Although Ingram’s name is misspelled in the footnote on p. 143, it is spelled corrected elsewhere in the book.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 22)