Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 25,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 154-168


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[page 154:]

CHAPTER XXV.

WITH OLD FRIENDS.

It must be admitted that Poe, after his affair with Mrs. Osgood and the severe illness which followed, was never again what he had been. With health and spirits impaired, his intellect had in a great measure lost its brilliant creative power — its inspirations, as we may call it — and thenceforth his writings were no longer the spontaneous and irrepressible impulse of genius, but the product of mental effort and labor. In special had his poetic talent in a measure deserted him, as is evident in his latest poems, with one or two exceptions. Recognizing this condition — and with what a pang we may imagine — he recalled Mrs. Shew’s advice in regard to a second marriage, and, admitting its wisdom, began to look about for a suitable matrimonial partner. Finally his choice fell upon Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, of Providence, Rhode Island, one of [page 155:] the “poetesses” of the time, and the most brilliant of them all.

A consideration which doubtless chiefly influenced him in this choice was that Mrs. Whitman, being a lady of literary taste and independent means, would be likely to take an interest in the Stylus, the hope of establishing which he had never abandoned, and would assist him in carrying out his plans in regard to it.

Of Mrs. Whitman, at this time about forty-five years of age, I have the following account from a lady — Mrs. F. H. Kellogg — whose mother was an intimate friend and near neighbor of hers in Providence:

“She was considered very eccentric — impulsive and regardless of conventionalities. She dressed always in white, and on the coldest winter evenings, with snow on the ground, would cross over to our house in thin slippers and with nothing on her head but a thin, gauzy, white scarf. She probably thought this æsthetic — and perhaps it was. There was one thing which I must not omit to mention, because it was a part of herself —— ether. The scent accompanied her everywhere. It was said she could not write except [page 156:] under its influence, but of this I do not know.”

As an illustration of her impulsive ways, Mrs. Kellogg says:

“I was one evening, when a little girl, sitting on the front steps when she and her sister, Miss Powers, crossed over to our house. They went into the parlor, and I heard Mrs. Whitman ask my sister to sing for herThe Mocking Bird. She appreciated my sister’s beautiful singing, but on this occasion, while she was in the very midst of ‘ — Listen to the Mocking Bird,’ suddenly a cloud of white rushed past me like a tornado, and I heard Mrs. Whitman’s voice exclaiming excitedly, ‘ — I have it! I have it! — ‘ Of course, we were all astonished and could not understand it at all, until Miss Powers afterward explained it to us. It seems that the beautiful music and singing had excited in her some poetic thought or idea; and, regardless or forgetful of conventionalities, she had impulsively rushed home to put it in writing, or perhaps in poetry, before it should vanish away.”

Miss Sarah Jacobs, one of Griswold’s “Female Poets,” and a friend of Mrs. Whitman, describes her as small and dark, with deep-set dreamy eyes “that looked above and beyond [page 157:] but never at you;” quick, bird-like motions, and as being a believer in occult influences, as Poe himself professed to be. “For all the sweet, poetic fragrance of her nature, she took an interest in common things. She was wise, she was witty; and no one could be long in her presence without becoming aware of the sweet and generous sympathy of her nature.”

Up to this time Poe and Mrs. Whitman had never met, though Mrs. Osgood says that the lady had written to him and sent him a valentine, of which he had taken no notice. This was against him in his present venture, but he was not discouraged. He set about his courtship in his usual manner, by addressing to Mrs. Whitman (June 10) some lines — “To Helen” — commencing:

“I saw thee once — once only; —”

supposed to commemorate his first sight of her as, passing her garden “one July midnight,” he beheld her robed in white, reclining on a bank of violets, with her eyes raised heavenward.

“No footsteps stirred; the hated world all slept, [page 158:]

Save only thee and me. Oh, heaven — oh, God!

How my heart beats in coupling those two words —

Save only thee and me —!”

So, he continues, he gazed entranced until — the hour being past midnight and a storm-cloud threatening — the lady very properly arose and disappeared from his sight; all but her eyes. These remained and followed him home, and had followed him ever since:

“—— two sweetly scintillant

Venuses; unextinguished by the sun.”

All this must have been very gratifying to Mrs. Whitman — if she believed in it — but, remembering her neglected valentine, she was in no haste to acknowledge the poetic offering, and Poe, after waiting some weeks, had his attention drawn in another direction.

He had written to his friend, Mr. Mackenzie, concerning his matrimonial aspirations, and he now received an answer, suggesting that he come to Richmond and try his fortune with an old-time school-girl sweetheart, Miss Sarah Elmira Royster, now a rich “Widow [page 159:] Shelton,” who had several times of late inquired after him and sent her “remembrances.”

Animated by this new hope, he, late in the summer of 1847, proceeded to Richmond, where he visited among his friends and called upon Mrs. Shelton, but especially paid attention to a pretty widow, a Mrs. Clarke. This lady, when a resident of Louisville, Kentucky, many years after Poe’s death, gave to the editor of a paper some reminiscences of him at this time.

“The good lady was deeply interested that the world might think well of Poe, and grew warm on the subject of his wrongs. She claimed that the poet was a Virginian, and, like most Virginians, she is very proud of her State. She wondered where Gill had gotten the material for Poe’s vindication. She had first met Poe at the Mackenzies, when he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and he afterward boarded at the same hotel as herself; but she saw most of him on his visit to Richmond previous to his last. He was then at her house daily, and sometimes two or three times a day. He came there, as he said, to rest.

“If there happened to be friends present he [page 160:] was often obliging enough to read, and would sometimes read some of his own poems; but he would never read The Raven unless he felt in the mood for it. When in Richmond he generally stayed with the Mackenzies at Duncan Lodge, and would drive in with them at any time. One day he came in with his sister and two of the Mackenzies and stopped with me. There were some other people present, and he read The Raven for us. He shut out the daylight and read by an astral lamp on the table. When he was through all of us that had any tact whatever spared our comments and let our thanks be brief; for he was most impatient of both.”

Of Poe’s reading, Mrs. Clark spoke with enthusiasm. “It was altogether peculiar and indescribable,” she said. “I have heard The Raven read by his friend, John R. Thompson, and others, but it sounded so strange and affected, compared with his own delivery. Poe had a wonderful voice — rich, mellow and sweet. I cannot give you any idea of it. Edwin Booth sometimes reminds me of him in his eyes and expression, but Poe’s voice was peculiar to himself. I have never heard anything like it. He often read from Shelley and other poets. One day he pointed out to [page 161:] me in one of Shelley’s poems what he considered the truest characteristic of hopeless love that he knew of:

“ ‘The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow.’

“I enjoyed a good deal of his society during that visit in 1847. On his last visit I saw less of him. He was then said to be engaged to a Mrs. Shelton. Some said he was marrying her for her money. There was a good deal of gossip at that time concerning Poe. His intemperate habits especially were exaggerated and made the most of by those who did not like him, while his companions in dissipation escaped unnoticed. When he was in company at a party for instance — you might see a little of him in the earlier part of the evening, but he would presently be off somewhere. Then his eccentricities; I think that when a very young man he imitated Byron.”

Mrs. Clarke said she had seldom seen a good likeness of Poe. The best she had cut from an old magazine. “This engraving,” she said, showing it, reflects at once the fastidiousness and the virility characteristic of his temperament. All the others have an expression [page 162:] pitiably weak. His worst calumniators could hardly desire for him a harder fate than the continual reproduction of that feeble visage. When he had money he was lavish and over-generous with it. He was always refined. You felt it in his very presence. And as long as I knew him, and as much as I was with him, I never saw him in the least intoxicated. I have seen him when he had had enough wine to make him talk with even more than his usual brilliancy. Indeed, to talk in a large general company, some little stimulant was necessary to him. Dr. Griswold says he was arrogant, dogmatic and impatient of contradiction. I have heard him engage in discussions frequently; oftenest with diffidence, always with consideration for others. In a large company it was only when exhilarated with wine that he spoke out his views and ideas with any degree of self-assertion.”

Mrs. Clarke said that his sister, Rosalie, was rather pretty and resembled himself somewhat in appearance, but “was as different as possible in mental capacity. She was amiable, patient and sweet-tempered, but as a companion wholly tiresome and monotonous. She seemed to have had little or no individuality or force of character. She thought a great [page 163:] deal of her brother, but during the greater part of their lives they had seen nothing of each other. The family of Mr. Mackenzie treated her affectionately and kindly, and until the breaking up of the household she remained with them, and then went to Baltimore to her relatives, the Poes. I don’t know what became of her afterwards.”

Mrs. Clarke speaks of Poe’s reading and lectures during his first visit to Richmond; but these were mere small social entertainments at the houses of various acquaintances. He really gave but one public lecture during this visit to Richmond. One evening at Mrs. Mackenzie’s she said to him: “Edgar, since people appear so eager to hear you repeat The Raven, why not give a public recital, which might benefit you financially?” Being further urged, he finally yielded. One hundred tickets were advertised, at fifty cents each, and the music hall of the fashionable Exchange Hotel engaged for the occasion. On the appointed evening Poe stepped upon the platform to face an audience of thirteen persons, including the janitor and several to whom complimentary tickets had been presented. Of these was Mrs. Shelton, who occupied a seat directly in front of the platform. Poe was cool and self-possessed, [page 164:] but his delivery mechanical and rather hurried, and on concluding he bowed and abruptly retired. One of the audience remarked upon the unlucky number of thirteen; and Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell commented indignantly upon the indifference of the Richmond people to “their own great poet.” Poe was undoubtedly in a degree mortified, not at the indifference manifested, but at the picture presented by the large and brilliantly lighted hall and himself addressing the group of thirteen which constituted the audience. But his failure may be explained by the fact that in this month of August the elite and educated people of the city were mostly absent in the mountains and by the sea-shore; and the weather being extremely sultry, few were inclined to exchange the cool breezes of the “city of the seven hills” for a crowded and heated lecture room, even to hear The Raven read by its author.

During this visit of Poe to Richmond, I, with my mother and sister, was away from home, in the mountains, and we thus missed seeing him. On our return shortly after his departure, we heard various anecdotes concerning him, one or two of which I subjoin as illustrative of his natural disposition. [page 165:]

One evening, quite late, an alarm of fire was raised, and all the young men of Duncan Lodge, accompanied by Poe, hastened to the scene of disaster, about a mile further in the country. Finding a great crowd collected, and that their services were not required, they sat on a fence looking on, and it was past midnight when they thought of returning home. Gay young Dr. “Tom” Mackenzie remarked that it would never do to return in their immaculate white linen suits, as they would be sure to get a “wigging” from the old ladies for not having helped to put out the fire, and, besides, they were all hungry, and he knew how they could get a good supper. With that he seized a piece of charred wood and commenced besmirching their white garments and their hands and faces, including Poe’s. Arriving at home in an apparently exhausted condition, they were treated by Mrs. Mackenzie herself, who would not disturb her servants, to the best that the pantry afforded, nor was the trick discovered until the following day. Mrs. Mackenzie laughed, but from Mrs. Carter, the mother of two of the culprits, and who was gifted with eloquence, they got the “wigging” which they had been anxious to avoid. And from accounts, Poe enjoyed it all immensely. [page 166:]

A lady told me that one evening, going over to Duncan Lodge, her attention was attracted by the sound of voices in the garden, where she beheld all the young men in the broad central alley engaged in the classic game of “leapfrog.” When it came to Mr. Poe’s turn, she said, “he took a swift run and skimmed over their backs like a bird, seeming hardly to touch the ground. I never saw the like.” Mr. Jones, Mrs. Mackenzie’s son-in-law, who was rather large and heavy, came to grief in his performance, and no one laughed more heartily than did Poe.

Was this the melancholy, morbid, “weird and wholly incomprehensible being” that the world has pictured the author of The Raven — ? Among these youthful spirits and his old friends, the depressing influences of his late life and home — the poverty, the friendlessness — seemed to vanish, and his real disposition reasserted itself. Pity that it could not have been always so. I am convinced that a great deal of Poe’s unhappiness and apparent reserve and solitariness was owing to his obscure home life, which kept him apart from all genial social influences. At the North, wherever seen out of his business hours, he appears to have been “alone and solitary, [page 167:] proud and melancholy looking,” says one, who had no idea of the loneliness of spirit, the lack of genial companionship, which made him so. With a few he was on friendly terms, but of intimate friends or associates he had not one so far as is known.

Of the Mackenzies, so closely associated with Poe during his lifetime, I may be allowed to say that a more attractive family group I have rarely known. Beside those I have mentioned were the two youngest members, “Mr. Dick” and Mattie or “Mat” — wayward, generous, warm-hearted Mat, indifferent to people’s opinion and heedless of conventionalities. She cared for nothing so much as her horse and dog, and spent an hour each day in the stables, while her aunt, Miss Jane, would exclaim in despair: “I don’t know what to do with Martha. I cannot make a lady of her;” to which she would answer with a satisfied assurance that nature had never intended her to be a lady.

But about this time — in October — Mat was married. There are ladies living who have heard from their mothers, at that time young girls, accounts of this famous wedding. The festivities were kept up for full two weeks, with ever-changing house parties, and each [page 168:] evening music and dancing, with unbounded hospitality. Miss Jane Mackenzie, upon whom the family chiefly depended, and whose fortune they expected to inherit, was gone on a visit to her brother in London; but she had given Mat a liberal sum wherewith to celebrate her wedding. Sadly my thoughts pass from this gay time over the next ten years or so to the time of “the war” and the changes which it brought to this family and to us all.

 


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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 25)