Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 29,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 194-202


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[page 194:]

CHAPTER XXIX.

MRS. SHELTON.

Poe’s first visits on his arrival in Richmond had been to Mrs. Shelton, and it soon became known that an engagement existed between them, although they were never seen together in public, and Poe on all occasions denied the engagement. Yet morning after morning the curious neighbors were treated to a sight of the poet ascending the steps of the tall, plain, substantial looking brick house on the corner of Grace street, facing the rear of St. John’s church, and had they watched more closely they might at times have seen another figure following in its footsteps. This was Rosalie Poe, who, delighted at her brother’s engagement, and being utterly without tact or judgment, would present herself at Mrs. Shelton’s door shortly after his own arrival, as she said, for the pleasure of seeing the couple together. Once she surprised them at a tête-à-tête luncheon at which “corned beef and mustard” figured; [page 195:] but on another occasion Mrs. Shelton met and informed her that Mr. Poe had a headache from his long walk and was resting on the parlor sofa, where she herself would attend to him, and so dismissed her, to her great indignation. Not alone to Mrs. Shelton’s were these “shadowings” of her brother confined, but if she at any time knew of his intention to call at some house where she herself was acquainted, she would as likely as not make her own appearance during his visit; or, in promenading Broad street, he would unexpectedly find himself waylaid and introduced to some prosy acquaintance of his sister. It required Mrs. Mackenzie’s authority to relieve him from these annoyances. There was, however, something pathetic in the sister’s pride in and affection for a brother from whom she received but little manifestation of regard. He treated her indulgently, but, as she herself often said, in her homely way, “Edgar could never love me as I do him, because he is so far above me.”

About the middle of August Mrs. Shelton’s interested neighbors observed that the poet’s visits to her suddenly ceased; and then followed a report that the engagement was broken, and that a bitter estrangement existed [page 196:] between the two. Mr. Woodbury [[Woodberry]], Poe’s biographer, doubts this, and declares that, “We have no evidence that such was the case;” but we, who were on the spot, as it were, and had opportunity of judging, knew that the report was true. Miss Van Lew, the famous “war postmistress” of Richmond, once said to me as, standing on the porch of her house, she pointed out Mrs. Shelton’s residence: “I used at first to often see Mr. Poe enter there, but never during the latter part of his stay in Richmond. It seemed to be known about here that the engagement was off. . . . Gossip had it that Mrs. Shelton discarded him because persuaded by friends that he was after her money. All her relatives are said to be opposed to the match.”

From Poe’s own confidential statement to Mr. John Mackenzie, who had first suggested the match with Mrs. Shelton, it appears that money considerations was really the cause of the trouble. Mrs. Shelton had the reputation of being a thorough business woman and very careful and cautious with regard to her money. Poe was at this time canvassing in the interests of the Stylus, in which he received great encouragement from his friends, but when he applied to Mrs. Shelton it is certain that she [page 197:] failed to respond as he desired. She had no faith in the success of his plan, neither any sympathy with its purpose. Also, in discussing arrangements for their marriage, she announced her intention of keeping entire control of her property. Poe himself broke their engagement. Next there arose a difficulty concerning certain letters which the lady desired to have returned to her and which he declined to give up, except on condition of receiving his own. Possibly each feared that these letters might some time fall into the hands of Poe’s biographers. If they were written during his courtship of Mrs. Whitman, and when still uncertain of the result, he appears to have been keeping Mrs. Shelton in reserve.

Mrs. Shelton, during a few days’ absence of Poe at the country home of Mr. John Mackenzie, came to Duncan Lodge and appealed to Mrs. Mackenzie to influence Poe in returning her letters. I saw her on this occasion — a tall, rather masculine-looking woman, who drew her veil over her face as she passed us on the porch, though I caught a glimpse of large, shadowy, light blue eyes which must once have been handsome. We heard no more of her until some time about the middle of September, [page 198:] when suddenly Poe’s visits to her were resumed, though in a very quiet manner. It seems certain that the engagement was then renewed, and that Mrs. Shelton must have promised to assist Poe in his literary enterprise; for from that time he was enthusiastic in regard to the Stylus and what he termed its “assured success.” He even commenced arranging a Table of Contents for the first number of the magazine; and Mrs. Mackenzie told me how he one morning spent an hour in her room taking from her information, notes and data for an article which he intended to appear in one of its earliest numbers. He was in high spirits, and declared that he had never felt in better health. This was after an attack of serious illness, due to his association with dissipated companions. Tempted as he was on every side and wherever he went in the city, it was not strange that he had not always the strength of will to resist; and twice during this visit to Richmond he was subject to attacks somewhat similar to those which he had known at Fordham, and through which he was now kindly nursed by his friends at Duncan Lodge.

Poe gave but one public lecture on this visit to Richmond — that on “The Poetic Principle” [page 199:] — and of this most exaggerated accounts have been given by several writers, even to the present day, they representing it to have been a great financial success. One recent lecturer remarks upon the strangeness of the fate when, just as the hitherto impecunious poet was “about returning home with five thousand and five hundred dollars in his pocket, he should have been robbed of it all.” The truth of the matter is that but two hundred and fifty tickets were printed, the price being fifty cents each, and, as Dr. William Gibbon Carter informed me, there were by actual count not more than one hundred persons present at the lecture, some being holders of complimentary tickets. Another account says there were but sixty present, but that they were of the very elite of the city. Considering that from the proceeds of the lecture all expenses of hall rent had to be paid, we cannot wonder at Poe’s writing to Mrs. Clemm, “My poor, poor Muddie, I am yet unable to send you a single dollar.”

I was present at this lecture, with my mother and sister and Rose Poe, who as we took seats reserved for us, left her party and joined us. I noticed that Poe had no manuscript, and that, though he stood like a statue, [page 200:] he held his audience as motionless as himself — fascinated by his voice and expression. Rose pointed out to me Mrs. Shelton, seated conspicuously in front of the platform, facing the lecturer. This position gave me a good view of her, with her large, deep-set, light-blue eyes and sunken cheeks, her straight features, high forehead and cold expression of countenance. Doubtless she had been handsome in her youth, but the impression which she produced upon me was that of a sensible, practical woman, the reverse of a poet’s ideal. And yet she says “Poe often told her that she was the original of his lostLenore.”

When Poe had concluded his lecture, he lightly and quickly descended the platform and, passing Mrs. Shelton without notice, came to where we were seated, greeting us in his usual graceful manner. He looked pleased, smiling and handsome. The audience arose, but made no motion to retire; watching him as he talked and evidently waiting to speak to him; but he never glanced in their direction. Rose, radiantly happy, stood drawn up to her full height, and observed, “Edgar, only see how the people are staring at the poet and his sister.” I believe it to have been the proudest moment of her life, and one which she [page 201:] ever delighted to recall. This occurred during the period of estrangement between Poe and Mrs. Shelton.

Quite suddenly, in the latter part of September, Poe decided to go to New York. His object was, as he himself declared, to make some arrangements in regard to the Stylus, though gossip said to bring Mrs. Clemm on to his marriage.

It is difficult to get a clear idea of the relation between Poe and Mrs. Shelton, owing to the contradictory statements of the two. Undoubtedly they must have met during Poe’s first visit to Richmond, and he tells Mrs. Whitman that he was about to address the lady when her own letters caused him to change his mind. And yet Mrs. Shelton speaks of their meeting on his last visit as though it had been the first since their youthful acquaintance. As she entered the parlor, she says, on his first call, “I knew him at once,” and, as the pious and practical woman that she was, she adds, “I told him that I was on my way to church, and that I allowed nothing to interfere with this duty.” She says also in her Reminiscences, “I was never engaged to him, but there was an understanding;” and yet, on his death, she appeared in public attired in deepest [page 202:] widow’s weeds. That she was devoted to him appears from her own letter to Dr. Moran when informed by him of Poe’s death, “He was dearer to me than any other living creature.” Poe himself, writing to Mrs. Clemm, says: “Elmira has just returned from the country. I believe that she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew.” He adds, apparently in allusion to his marriage, “Nothing has yet been arranged, and it will not do to hurry matters,” concluding with, “If possible, I will get married before leaving Richmond.”

On his deathbed in Washington he said to Dr. Moran, “Sir, I was to have been married in ten days,” and requested him to write to Mrs. Shelton.

 


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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 29)