Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 24,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 148-153


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[page 148:]

CHAPTER XXIV.

QUIET LIFE AT FORDHAM.

The beginning of this year was a dreary time at the cottage at Fordham. The resources of the family, which had been generously contributed to, mostly by strangers and anonymously, were now exhausted, and Poe, still ill and in wretched spirits, was not capable of the exertion necessary to replenish them. In the preceding summer he had by a severe criticism of Thomas Dunn English aroused the ire of that gentleman, who revenged himself in an article for which Poe brought a suit of libel, recovering damages to the amount of two hundred and fifty dollars — a welcome boon in a time of need. He remained at home, applying himself to his writing, and, mindful of Mrs. Shew’s advice, abstained from stimulants and took regular exercise on the country roads about Fordham. His frequent companion in these walks was a priest of St. John’s College, near Fordham, [page 149:] who, being an educated and intellectual man, must have proven a most congenial and welcome acquaintance. This priest, who seems to have known Poe well, declares that he “made a superhuman struggle against starvation,” and speaks of him as a gentle and amiable man, easily influenced by a kind word or act.

Most of his time, said Mrs. Clemm, was passed out of doors. He did not like the loneliness of the house, and would not remain alone in the room in which Virginia had died. When he chose to write at night, as was sometimes the case, and was particularly absorbed in his subject, he would have his devoted mother-in-law sit beside him, “dozing in her chair” and at intervals supplying him with hot coffee, or Catalina, his wife’s old pet, perched upon his knee or shoulder, cheering him with her gentle purring. Virginia’s death seemed to have drawn these three more closely together. They could thenceforth often be seen walking up and down the garden-walk, Poe and his mother, arm-in-arm, or with their arms about each other’s waists, and Catalina staidly keeping pace with them, rubbing and purring. Mrs. Clemm told Stoddard how, when Poe was about this time writing “Eureka,” he [page 150:] would walk at night up and down the veranda explaining his views and dragging her along with him, “until her teeth chattered and she was nearly frozen.” It is to be feared that he was not always sufficiently considerate of his indulgent mother-in-law.

Poe soon experienced the benefits of his restful and temperate life. Health and spirits improved, and he began to take an interest in the everyday things about him. As spring advanced, he and Mrs. Clemm laid out some flower beds in the front garden and planted them with flowers and vines given by the neighbors, until when in May the cherry tree again blossomed the little abode assumed quite an attractive appearance. Upon an old “settle” left by a former tenant, and which Mrs. Clemm’s skillful hands had mended and scrubbed and stained into respectability and placed beneath the cherry tree as a garden-seat, Poe might now often be seen reclining; gazing up into the branches, where birds and bees flitted in and out, or talking and whistling to his own pets, a parrot and bobolink, whose cages hung in the branches. A passer-by was impressed by the picture presented quite early one summer morning of the poet and his mother standing together on the green turf, [page 151:] smilingly looking up and talking to these pets. Here, on the convenient settle, on returning from one of his long sunrise rambles, he would rest until summoned by his mother to his frugal breakfast.

I have at various times heard persons remark that in reading the life of a distinguished man they have desired to know some of the lesser details of his daily life — as, how did he dress? what did he eat? We have all been interested in learning that General Washington liked corn bread and fried bacon for breakfast; that Sir Walter Scott was fond of “oaten grills with milk,” and that Wordsworth’s favorite lunch was bread and raisins. As regards Poe, we must go back to his sister’s account of what his morning meal consisted of while she was at Fordham — “a pretzel and two cups of strong coffee;” or, when there was no pretzel, the crusty part of a loaf with a bit of salt herring as a relish. Poe had the reputation of being a very moderate eater and of preferring simple viands, even at the luxurious tables of his friends. He was fond of fruit, and his sister said of buttermilk and curds, which they obtained from their rural neighbors. But we recall his enjoyment of the “elegant” tea-cakes [page 152:] at the Morrisons on Greenwich street and the fried eggs for breakfast.

A lady who as a little girl knew Poe and his mother at this time said to a correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser: “We lived so near them that we saw them every day. They lived miserably, and in abject poverty. He was naturally improvident, and but for the neighbors they must have starved. My mother sent many a thing from her storeroom to their table. He was not a man who drank in the common acceptation of the term, but those were days when wine ran like water, and not to serve it would seem niggardly. I remember that one day ‘Muddie,’ as Mr. Poe called Mrs. Clemm, came to our house and asked us not to offer wine to Edgar, as his head was weak, but that he did not like to refuse it.”

As an illustration of the fascination which Poe possessed, even for strangers, is the following letter from Mr. John DeGalliford, of Chattanooga, Tenn., to this same New York correspondent:

“I am drawn to you by your defense of Edgar A. Poe. I love him, though I met him but once. It was in September, 1845. I was sitting on a pile watching our bark that was [page 153:] moored to the pile. A quiet, neatly-dressed gentleman came up to me and asked me numberless questions in regard to our seafaring life. He was so lovable in his conversation that I never forgot him, and I prize the memory of those few hours of his sweet talk with me and hold it sacred to his memory. He could not have been a drinking man, for his looks did not show it. On my telling that I was a runaway boy from Kentucky, he took some scraps of paper from his pocket and took notes, saying that he could make a nice story of what I had told him. I took him aboard the bark and showed him a pet monkey I had brought from Natal. He ate a piece of biscuit and drank some cold coffee, and said he would come again and see me and get acquainted with my captain. This was years ago, and I am now an old man, seventy-three years old, but I can remember, word for word, all that passed.”

 


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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 24)