Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 32,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 219-225


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[page 219:]

CHAPTER XXXII.

POE’S CHARACTER.

In order thoroughly to understand Poe, it is necessary that one should recognize the dominant trait of his character — a trait which affected and in a measure overruled all the rest — in a word, weakness of will.

“Unstable as water,” is written upon Poe’s every visage in characters which all might read; in the weak falling away of the outline of the jaw, the narrow, receding chin, and the sensitive, irresolute mouth. Above the soul-lighted eyes and the magnificent temple of intellect overshadowing them, we look in vain for the rising dome of Firmness, which, like the keystone of the arch, should strengthen and bind together the rest. Lacking this, the arch must be ever tottering to a fall.

To this weakness of will we may trace nearly every other defect in Poe’s character, together with most of the disappointments and failures in whatsoever he undertook. He [page 220:] lacked the resolution and persistence necessary to battle against obstacles, to persevere to the end against opposition and discouragement, and to resist temptations and influences which he knew would lead him astray from the object which he had at heart. In this way he lost many a coveted prize when it seemed almost within his grasp.

The accepted opinion is that Poe’s dissipation was his chief fault, as it was that to which was owing his ruin in the end. But even this was the effect chiefly of weakness of will. He was not by nature inclined to evil, but the contrary; and we have seen that, when left to himself and not exposed to temptation, he was, from all accounts, “sober, industrious and exemplary in his conduct.” But he lacked firmness to resist the temptation which, more than in the case of most men, assailed him on every side.

Dr. William Gibbon Carter has told me how, when Poe was in Richmond on his last visit, and doing his best to remain sober, he would in his visits and strolls about the city be constantly greeted by friends and acquaintances with invitations to “take a julep.” It was the custom of the time. Poe, said Dr. Carter, in one morning declined twenty-four such invitations, [page 221:] but finally yielded; and the consequence was the severe illness which threatened his life whilst in the city. The effect of one glass on him, said the Doctor, was that of several on any other man. Often he was tempted to drink from an amiable reluctance to decline the offered hospitality.

A marked peculiarity of Poe’s character was the restless discontent which from his sixteenth year took possession of and clung to him through life, and was to him a source of much unhappiness. It was not the discontent of poverty or of ungratified worldly ambition, but the dissatisfaction of a genius which knows itself capable of higher things, from which it is debarred — the desire of the caged eagle for the wind-swept sky and the distant eyrie. He was not satisfied with being a mere writer of stories. He believed that, with a broader scope, he could wield a powerful influence over the literary world and make a record for strength, brilliancy and originality of thought which would render his name famous in other countries as in this. His desire was to set established rules and conventionalities at defiance, and to be fearless, independent, dominant in his assertion of himself and his ideas and convictions. As an editor writing [page 222:] for other editors, he found himself trammeled by what he called their narrowness and timidity. He must be his own master, his own editor; and hence his lifelong dream and desire took form in the conception of the Stylus — that ignis fatuus which he pursued to the last day of his life — uncertain, elusive, yet ever eagerly sought, and always ending in disappointment and bitterness of soul. Time and again it seemed within his grasp, and, as he exultantly proclaimed, “his prospects glorious,” when, by his own weakness of will, it was lost to him.

Undoubtedly, one of the chief factors in the non-success of Poe’s life and its consequent unhappiness was his marriage.

Setting aside the poetic imaginings which have been and doubtless will continue to be written concerning this marriage as one of idylic mutual love and “idolatry,” the story, in the light of established facts, resolves itself into a very prosaic one.

Mr. John Mackenzie, Poe’s lifelong and only intimate and confidential friend, never hesitated to say that had Poe been left to himself the idea would never have occurred to him of marrying his little child-cousin. In no transaction of his life was his pitiable [page 223:] weakness more manifest than in this feeble yielding of himself to the dominant will of a mother-in-law.

Had Poe remained single or have married another than Virginia, his regard for her would have continued just what it had been in the beginning and what it remained to the end — the affection of a brother or cousin for a sweet and lovable child. But no one can believe that Poe’s nature could have found its satisfying in such a marriage; and, in fact, whatsoever sentimental things he may have written concerning it, his whole conduct goes to prove its insincerity.

Poe was of all men one who most craved and needed the love and sympathy of a woman of a nature kindred to his own — a woman of talent and qualities of mind and heart to appreciate his genius and all that was best in him; one who would be to him not only a congenial companion, but a “helpmeet” as well. Had he married one of Mrs. Osgood’s tender sensibilities and feminine charm, or Mrs. Whitman, with her talent and strong character, or even a woman of the practical good sense and judgment of Mrs. Shew, who knew so well how to care for him mentally and physically — Poe would have been a different man. [page 224:] But his imprudent and, as it has been called, unnatural marriage, cut him off from what would probably have been the highest happiness of his life, with its accompanying worldly and social advantages, and bound him down to a life of unceasing toil, penury and helplessness. It deprived him of a social position and social enjoyment; for his poverty-stricken “home” was never one to which he could invite his friends; and he himself seems never to have found in it any real pleasure, but to have regarded it merely as a haven of refuge in seasons of distress. But as the years went by and, despite his incessant toil, his life and his home grew more cheerless and poverty-stricken, he became hopeless and in a measure reckless. It is to be noted that it was only after the death of his wife that he appeared to recover anything like hope or energy. Then his prospects suddenly brightened in the love of a good and talented woman who could have made his life happy and prosperous, when, owing to his miserable weakness of will in yielding to temptation, for which there was no excuse, it was all at once swept from his grasp.

Mr. John Mackenzie might well have said, as he did, that Poe’s marriage was the greatest [page 225:] misfortune of his life and as a millstone around his neck, holding him down against every effort to rise. But perhaps not even this close friend knew how keenly the poet must have felt the narrowness of his life, the sordidness of his home, and the humiliation of his poverty. Patiently and uncomplainingly he bore his unhappy lot; and it is to be noted to his credit that howsoever he might at times go astray, no word or act of unkindness toward the wife and mother who loved him was ever known to escape from him.

It will be seen from all that has here been written, in the light of prosaic truth, that Poe’s real character was one very different from that which it has pleased the world in general to ascribe to him — judging him as it does by the character of his writings as a poet. The folly of such judgment, and the extent to which it was until recently carried, is simply surprising. It is true that he appeared to have but one ideal — the death of a woman young, lovely and beloved — and that ideal in the imagining of the world resolved itself into the personality of his wife. She, they concluded, was the original of all the Lenores, and Anabel Lees, and Ullalumes, which inspired his melancholy and despairing lyre; and in its gloom and hopelessness they could see nothing but the expression of the poet’s own nature. As well have accused Rembrandt of being gloomy and morose because he painted in dark colors. Like the artist, Poe loved obscure and sombre ideas and conceptions, and he delighted in embodying these in his poems as much as Rembrandt did in transferring his own to canvas.

 


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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 32)