Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 08,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 187-212


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[page 187:]

CHAPTER VIII.

1844-1845.

NEW YORK; “THE BROADWAY JOURNAL.”

CONSCIENCE is an awkward ingredient to mingle with things. The conscientious man is always a terror to the community. Let it be known that a man ham a conscience, that he means to exercise it, that neither fear nor favor will intimidate him from his sense of duty to himself and to that community: and instantly such a man becomes a bugbear, a scarecrow, an offence, and a scourge to the evil-doer and the unconscientious.

When he settled in New York, for the second time, in April, 1844, Poe had become this incarnation of the literary conscience of the time. From the moment he had reviewed “Norman Leslie” in the “Southern Literary Messenger” and pricked the spangled bubbles that then danced before the public eye, down to the date of his departure from Philadelphia, the crit ical instinct — the literary conscience — had been growing in him with vast strides. — I have sometimes amused myself,” he says in “Marginalia,” — by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of an individual gifted, or rather accursed with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course he would be conscious of his own superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting [page 188:] his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind — that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of a being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.”

In his many letters and prospectuses touching upon this subject, Poe had continually referred to the need of a free, independent, and fearless school of criticism in this country. What, in his “Marginalia,” he describes as the “disgusting spectacle of our subserviency to British criticism,” was no less painful to him than the indiscriminate laudation of every American poetaster by the native, one might call it the domestic, press of the period.

“We know the British to bear us little but ill-will; we know that, in no case, do they utter unbiassed opinions of American books; we know that in the few instances in which our writers have been treated with common decency in England, these writers have either openly paid homage to English institutions, or have had lurking at the bottom of their hearts a secret principle at war with Democracy: — we know all this, and yet, day after day, submit our necks to the degrading yoke of the crudest opinion that emanates from the fatherland. Now if we must have nationality, let it be a nationality that will throw off this yoke.”

Year by year the accumulating wrath of his literary conscience, his sense of self-respect and national independence, had gone on growing until it became a lake of fire, and finally broken forth volcanically in “The Literati” and the group of studies on “The Minor [page 189:] Contemporaries” extending from 1839, with “George P. Morris,” to 1845, with “Elizabeth Oakes Smith.”

Not that the “lake of fire” did not illuminate as well as flame, scorch, and burn: much of this criticism is optimistic and sweet-tempered, but into it entered one element of discrimination, of art, of sound Literary feeling and sense of proportion that was not to be found in contemporary criticism before. Poe from the start was an analyst of admirable powers: he never wrote from mere “instinct ” or intuition, and he was as far from the rhapsodic, ignorant, and egotistical Wilson in temperament as he was distant from him, geographically, in space. If he wrote a fine or a noble poem, he was ready instantly with a “Rationale of Verse ” or a “Philosophy of Composition” to explain it; and what one reads, in him, with such exquisite ease, grace and melody, was based upon profound knowledge and subtle analytical reasoning. The “trick” of Poe is easily caught, but it was not easily originated he was the sovereign of lyrical form in America in his day, and his sovereignty was based upon supreme rhythmical feeling backed by completest poetic knowledge.

Being, like his supposititious critic, “gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race,” conscious of this superiority and unable to control the consciousness, with opinions and speculations widely different from those of all mankind, he easily made himself enemies and was hooted at as a madman, as abnormally weak, because he was so abnormally, so unintelligibly, strong. Heine was hooted at in almost the same terms and for almost the same reasons: the man of — accursed conscience ” in literary [page 190:] matters who could not and would not endure the literary sloven.

Apropos of Poe’s pungency in criticism, it will be well to quote here a letter from the famous Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers who, on receiving one of Poe’s prospectuses, wrote in 1840 as follows:

NO. 47, CANAL STREET, N.Y.,
August 17th, 1840.  

DEAR SIR, — I received your letter this evening, containing a Prospectus of the “Penn Magazine,” which you intend publishing in the City of Philadelphia. My absence from the City, among the emerald highlands of the beautiful Hudson, prevented my answering it sooner than to-day. In answer to your solicitation for my support for the forthcoming journal, I must say that I am much pleased with your “Prospectus” — the plan which you have in view — and hope sincerely that you may realize all your anticipations. As it regards myself, I will support you as long as you may continue the Editor of the above-named work. In the Paradise of Literature, I do not know one better calculated than yourself to prune the young scions of their exuberant thoughts. In some instances, let me remark, you seemed to me to lay aside the pruning-knife for the tomahawk, and not only to lop off the redundant limbs, but absolutely to eradicate the entire tree. In such cases there is no hope of its afterwards bearing any fruit. In surgical operations we always use a sharp knife, and wish to be as expeditious as possible; but we never go so far as to cut away so much of a part as to endanger the vitality of the whole. If we find, as in cases of gangrene, that the vital part is so affected that an operation would be unsafe, we [page 191:] then choose to let the patient die a natural death, rather than hasten it by our surgical art. I have seen a little sapling transplanted before now, which had every appearance of dying until it had undergone a gentle pruning and watering, when, to the astonishment of the gardener, it towered above all the rest in the grove, and remained a living monument of his skill and kind attention. The same thing is true in regard to the literary world. Bad treatment to the human economy will make a chronic disease sooner than a functional one, [and] by its own process, will terminate in organic derangement.(1)

Poe’s mistake was in using the giant spear and the mighty girdle of Brunhilda in crushing infinitesimal foes: in rushing upon Dawes and Fay and “Flaccus” and Headley, upon Channing, English, and Clark with the fury of a whirlwind when a zephyr would have sufficed. The “Dunciad” and “English Bards” were blown full of futile breath in the same way: flies that would have perished of their own inanity now embalmed in indestructible amber. To use a homely image, it will not do for the barber that shaves us to sever our jugular vein! As a physician, Dr. Chivers understood well the application of his surgical metaphor, and it would have been well for Poe if he had taken the letter to heart.

Up to the present date Poe had been going through the first of the two cycles of psychological preparation which he attributed to the Germany of his day; the “impulsive” and the “critical” stages.

“Germans have not yet passed this first epoch ” [page 192:]

[“the impulsive epoch of literary civilization“]. “It must be remembered that during the whole of the middle ages they lived in utter ignorance of the art of writing. From so total a darkness, of so late a date, they could not, as a nation, have as yet fully emerged into the second or critical epoch. Individual Germans have been critical in the best sense; but the masses are unleavened. Literary Germany thus presents the singular spectacle of the impulsive spirit surrounded by the critical, and, of course, in some measure influenced thereby. . . . For my own part, I admit the German vigor, the German directness, boldness, imagination, and some other qualities of impulse, just as I am willing to admit and admire these qualities in the first (or impulsive) epochs of British and French letters. At the German criticism, however, I cannot refrain from laughing all the more heartily, all the more seriously I hear it praised. Not that, in detail, it affects me as an absurdity — but in the adaptation of its details. It abounds in brilliant bubbles of suggestion, but these rise and sink and jostle each other, until the whole vortex of thought in which they originate is one indistinguishable chaos of froth.”

This statement is simply tantamount to saying that Poe had ripened, that the richness and luxuriance of his youth had mellowed down into clear vigor and manly strength, that this youth was fading into a mellowed manhood in which the full plenitude of his powers was developing along intellectual lines. Nearly all his early work — up at least to 1839, when he was thirty years old — seems to have come in jets, in instantaneous inspirations, in impulsive spurts, geyser-like in splendor and abundance but bearing all the birthmarks of his theory of the short story, the short [page 193:] poem — that they must be read at a sitting. When he worked at all he worked with a kind of frenzy, a blind fury, that pursued him day and night until he had rid himself of it by writing it off. In colder moments, he returned to the polishing process, using his delicate emery wheel, his diamond dust, diligently to erase the angles and roughnesses of the earlier sketches or poems; substituting critical for impulsive moods, and turning the cold light of reason upon the imaginative landscapes and emotional tropics which his exuberant youth had evoked.

With the 1840 edition of “The Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque,” Poe had virtually crossed the equatorial line of youth and entered the new territory of deductive reasoning and perfection in rhythmical form. Nothing henceforth passed his pen that did not possess perfection of one kind or another: his prose style simplifies and clarifies to complete lucidity; his poems take on changing fights and lustres that they never had before; his critical sense awakens to a keenness and alertness that did not scruple to analyze Tennyson, Dickens, Macaulay, Miss Barren, Longfellow, Lowell, Emerson, and show their defects as well as their excellences: in short, Poe was ripe; whatever was to come from him henceforth, in the new cycle of existence on which he had entered, was to show this ripeness.

Poe signalized his arrival in New York in April, 1844, by a characteristic bit of fun: the “Balloon Hoax,” published in the New York “Sun” for April 13.

“About twelve years ago, I think,” he remarks in his critique on Richard Adams Locks, “the New [page 194:] York ’Sun,’ a daily paper, price one penny, was established in the city of New York by Mr. Moses Y. Beach, who engaged Mr. Richard Adams Locks as its editor. In a well-written prospectus, the object of the journal professed to be that of I supplying the public with the news of the day at so cheap a rate as to lie within the means of all.’ The consequences of the scheme, in their influence on the whole newspaper business of the country, and through this business on the interests of the country at large, are probably beyond all calculation.

“. . . The ’Sun’ was revolving in a comparatively narrow orbit when one fine day, there appeared in its editorial columns a prefatory article announcing very remarkable astronomical discoveries at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschel. The information was said to have been received by the ’Sun’ from an early copy of the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Science,’ in which appeared a communication from Sir John himself. This preparatory announcement took very well (there had been no hoaxes in those days), and was followed by full details of the reputed discoveries, which were now found to have been made chiefly in respect to the moon, and by means of a telescope to which the one lately constructed by the Earl of Rosse is a plaything. As these discoveries were gradually spread before the public, the astonishment of that public grew out of all bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of the ’Sun ’ — the authenticity of the communication to the Edinburgh journal of Science‘ — were really very few indeed; and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any — man-bat ’ of them all.” [page 195:]

This was the celebrated “Moon Hoax” emanating from the pen of Locke about three weeks after the publication of Poe’s “Hans Pfaall’s Journey to the Moon,” in the “Southern Literary Messenger” for June, 1835.

“From the epoch of the hoax, the ’Sun,‘” continues Poet “shone with unmitigated splendor. The start thus given the paper insured it a triumph; it has now a daily circulation of not far from 50,000 copies, and is, therefore, probably the most really influential journal of its kind in the world. Its success firmly established the ‘penny system’ throughout the country, and (through the ’Sun‘) consequently, we are indebted to the genius of Mr. Locke for one of the most important steps ever yet taken in the pathway of human progress. ”

It was in this “Sun,” already famous for its astronomical hoax, that Poe appeared one morning (fittingly on April 1 ), in large capitals, bearing —

“Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk! The Atlantic crossed in Three Days!! Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason’s Flying Machine!!!

Arrival at Sullivan’s Island, Near Charleston, S. C., of Mr. Mason, Mr. Robert Holland, Mr. Henson, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, and four others, in the Steering Balloon, ‘Victoria,’ after a passage of seventy-five boars from Land to Land! Fall Particulars of the Voyage!

“The Balloon-Hoax” produced a prodigious sensation, and once more Poe rode, Triton-like, on the crest of a wave of popularity, blowing his horn and scattering the spray of his laughter in the faces of the [page 196:] gullible. This Lifelong love of hoaxing was, in Poe, curiously intertwined with a continual mystical hankering after the incredible, after the dim borderlands between conscious and subconscious life, after such a literary utilization of science as might half persuade himself and others of things undreamt of in the crude physical philosophies of the day. His tales of pseudoscience were just “pseudo,” just false, and just true enough to confuse and becloud the half-educated mob of the “forties,” and make them take delight in such transcendental physics and metaphysics as Poe, expressing them in his supremely convincing and strenuous style, could conjure up at will. Poe might talk the most absolute scientific nonsense, as doubtless be often did, but he did it in such forceful and captivating style that none but trained scientists could dissent or protest. How few read “The Power of Words” or “Eiros and Charmion,” beautiful and imaginative as these pieces are, with any feeling of the absolute baselessness of the physical theories on which they rest, — lost in admiration of the fantastic energy and pictorial quality of the entirely new language in which all their impossibilities are arrayed.

And this breaks the way into a suggestive line of speculation for us, to wit: in these “Tales of Psuedo-Science [[Pseudo-Science]],” “Hans Pfaall,” — “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “Descent into the Maelström,” “The Thousand-and-Second-Tale of Scheherazade,” “Some Words with a Mummy,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “Power of Words,” “Eiros and Charmion” — even in “Eureka” — may not Poe be indulging, as he undoubtedly and confessedly was in “Hans Pfaall” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in a kind of [page 197:] subtle, subterranean banter, using his physical and scientific knowledge just plausibly enough to bewilder the psuedo-scientific [[pseudo-scientific]] reader and extort from him cries of delight over what probably Poe himself knew, and the twentieth century physicist adjudges to be, the wildest extravaganza? “The fairy tale of science” in the hands of a great verbal artist like Poe could be made a wonderfully prolific source of pleasure to readers who could simply admire and not follow his semi-mystic excursions into the scientific realm. To them every hour of Hans Pfaall’s lunar journey would be a rapturous panorama of unfolding facts, every whirl in the Maelstrom descent would be a shuddering possibility, every toss of the phantom ship on the ghostly foam of the “MS. Found in a Bottle,” hurrying to destruction yet never destroyed, would be realizable in imaginative experience.

And the more one recognizes the fact that Poe was a recondite and most exquisite humorist — that he continually preyed with almost morbid pertinacity upon the gullibility of human nature, “accursed ” as he was with “the gift of intellect superior to his race “the more one is inclined to believe that his use of science was not intentionally ignorant or unconsciously false, but that it was another and subtler method of capturing other and subtler intellects to has spells, as he captured many physicians with his “mesmeric revelations,” and found “a grave professor of mathematics in a Virginian college” ready to believe the “Moon Hoax” of Locke. The delicious rigmarole, the refined Münchausenism, of his scientific romances, show an unparalleled fertility of talent in the line of artistic deception, just as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was so plausibly written that it deceived [page 198:] the French critics and was looked upon as a true narrative. “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” was republished in London as an actual voyage of discovery.

Hoaxing is thus seen to be an ingrained element of Poe’s intellectual make-up, and he has, in our opinion, carried it to a far greater distance and into far more mysterious realms than his students and biographers have hitherto noticed.

Poe’s places of residence in New York prior to his final removal to Fordham cottage (now the property of the New York Shakspere Society), in 1846, were numerous and varied. A writer in “The Ledger Monthly” for December, 1900, speaks of them as follows: —

“Edgar Allan Poe once dwelt with his ailing wife on the upper floor of a small brick house at 195 East Broadway, now replaced by the building of the Educational Alliance, and other neighboring places have piquant associations with this gifted man. Temple Court, in Beekman Street, covers the site of an office of his short-lived ‘Broadway Journal’; at the corner of Ann and Nassau streets he was employed by Willis upon the ‘Evening Mirror,’ and in Greenwich Street, near to Rector, there stands in the shadow of the elevated railway a shabby structure that was his abode when he wrote ‘The Balloon-Hoax’ and the curious poem of ‘Dreamland.’

“Going farther afield one finds on the west side of Carmine Street above Varick the site of the modest frame house in which Poe lived when he gave the finishing touches to the ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,’ and had Gowans, the bookseller, for a fellow [page 199:] lodger; later, with Gowans, he had brief occupancy of one of the floors, now darkened by passing trains, of a building in Sixth Avenue, near Waverley Place, and in this forbidding abode produced ‘Ligeia ’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ while in an old-fashioned dwelling lately gone from West Eighty-fourth Street the poet and his family boarded when he wrote The Facts in the Case of M. Valdetnar,’ and, if tradition is to be relied upon, his most famous poem, The Raven.’ ”(1)

The remainder of the year 1844 was filled out with the following list of literary work: Review of Horne’s “Orion,” “Graham’s,” for March; “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” April; Review in “The Pioneer”; “Dreamland,” “Graham’s,” for June; “Mesmeric Revelation,” “Columbian Magazine,” August; “The Oblong Box,” “Godey’s,” September; work as sub-editor and paragraphist on “The Evening Mirror”; “Thou Art the Man,” “Godey’s,” November; “The Literary Life of Thingum-Bob, Esq., late editor of the ‘Goosetherumfoodle,’ ” “Southern Literary Messenger,” December; “Marginalia,” I. and II., “Democratic Review,” November and December. “The Premature Burial,” “The Purloined Letter,” “The System of Doctors Tar [[Tarr]] and Fether” (as he gives the title in a letter to Lowell, May 28, 1844), were in the hands of different editors, but as yet unpublished.

One of his least amiable biographers, commenting on Poe’s industry, writes: —

“The list of the tales still in the hands of editors which this letter gives, brings out strongly one source [page 200:] of the discouragement under which Poe had to bear up. He had been for ten years a writer of untiring industry, and in that time had produced an amount of work large in quantity and excellent in quality, much of it belonging in the very highest rank of imaginative prone; but his books had never sold, and the income from his tales and other papers in the magazines had never sufficed to keep the wolf from the door unless he eked out his resources by editing.”

The continual necessity for hackwork of this description injured the poet’s spontaneity beyond measure and left him fagged, exhausted, enervated, in the humor to lapse into that fearful addiction to morphine so vividly pictured in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” Thinking he had found a congenial spirit in Lowell, he wrote to him at this time: “I have been too deeply conscious of the mutability and evanescence of temporal things to give any continuous effort to anything — to be consistent in anything. My life has been whim — impulse — passion — a longing for solitude — a scorn of all things present, in an earnest desire for the future.

“Now profoundly excited by music, and by some poems, — those of Tennyson especially — whom, with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge (occasionally), and a few others of like thought and expression, I regard as the sole poets. Music is the perfection of the soul, or idea, of poetry. The vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be strictly indefinite and never too strongly suggestive) is precisely what we should aim at in poetry. Affectation, within bounds, is thus no blemish.”

The “whim, — the impulse, — the passion,” rode and ruled him to the last and perhaps constituted [page 201:] the temperamental factor that coined itself into his theory that all phases of literary art, to be effective, must be brief, intense, concentrated, impressionistic, just as impulse, whim, and passion are short-lived and ephemeral. His best poems, — of the ante-“Raven” period, — he declared to be “hurried and unconsidered” — “The Sleeper,” “The Conqueror Worm,” “The Haunted Palace,” “Lenore,” “Dreamland,” — The Coliseum,” in the order named; and in similar fashion he names to Lowell as his best tales, “Ligeia,” “The Gold-Bug,” — “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” — “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” also in the order named, adding that perhaps: — The Purloined Letter,” forthcoming, was the best of his tales of ratiocination.

Poe’s correspondence with Lowell ranged up and down the whole gamut of greeting, from “My Dear Friend,” “My Dear Mr. Lowell,” to the form which the friendship took — under the cooling influence of Charles F. Briggs’s criticisms and insinuations — in Poe’s review of Lowell’s “Fable for Critics.” Later on, in the ” Messenger ” for February, 1849, there were indications that this promising friendship had frozen to an icicle. “To show the general manner of the Fable,” he writes, we quote a portion of what he says about Mr. Poe: —

“ “There comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,

Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,

Who talks line a book of iambs and pentameters,

In a way to make all men of common sense damn metres;

Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,

But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.’ ” [page 202:]

In return for this Poe denounced Lowell as “one of the most rabid of the Abolition fanatics; and no Southerner, who does not wish to be insulted, and at the same time revolted by a bigotry the most obstinately blind and deaf, should ever touch a volume by this author. His fanaticism about slavery is a mere local outbreak of the same innate wrong-headedness which, if he owned slaves, would manifest itself in atrocious ill-treatment of them, with murder of any abolitionist who should endeavor to set them free. A fanatic of Mr. Lowell’s species is simply a fanatic for the sake of fanaticism, and must be a fanatic in whatever circumstances you place him. . . . All whom he praises are Bostonians. Other writers are barbarians, and satirized accordingly, if mentioned at all.”

Just about this time (1844-45) Lowell was engaged on the paper “Our Contributors. — No. XVII: Edgar Allan Poe. With a Portrait. By James Russell Lowell,” which appeared in “Graham’s” for February, 1845, and which delighted Poe with its laudation. Lowell was ten years younger than Poe, and was at the time a young man who dewed his elder with a reverence and appreciation almost amounting to awe. “Mr. Poe,” he remarks, “is at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America. It may be that we should qualify our remark a little, and say that he might br, rather than that he always if, for he seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic acid for his inkstand. If we do not always agree with him in his premises, we are, at least, satisfied that his deductions are logical, and [page 203:] that we are reading the thoughts of a man who thinks for himself, and says what he thinks, and knows well what he is talking about. His analytic power would furnish forth bravely some score of ordinary critics. . . . Had Mr. Poe had the control of a magazine of his own, in which to display his critical abilities, he would have been as autocratic, ere this, in America, as Professor Wilson has been in England; and his criticisms, we are sure, would have been far more profound and philosophical than those of the Scotsman. As it is, he has squared out blocks enough to build an enduring pyramid, but has left them lying carelessly and unclaimed in many different quarries.”

Mr. Lowell then continued in a penetrating comparison of Poe’s precocity with that of Shakspere, Milton, Pope, Collins, Chatterton, Kirke White, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, and Cowley, ending with, “We call them [the poems] the most remarkable boyish poems that we have ever read. We know of none that can compare with them for maturity of purpose, and a nice under. standing of the effects of language and metre. . . . Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius.”

Alas, that this honey should turn into gall, and that the two quondam friends should live to bespatter each other’s reputation!

Professor Woodberry’s version of the rupture is as follows: —

“Not long before,” June 29, 1845, “being on his way from Philadelphia back to Cambridge, Lowell called on Poe; but as, in Mrs. Clemm’s words to the former, ‘he was not himself that day,’ none of those golden hopes, indulged in by Poe, and at an earlier [page 204:] day by Briggs also, were realized from this personal meeting. The interview, however, prepared Lowell for the following passage in Briggs’s next letter, in explanation of what seemed a sudden demise of the [Broadway] ‘Journal.’ ” Then follows an account of a “drunken spree,” in which Poe had indulged:

“Poe’s mother-in-law told me that he was quite tipsy the day that you called upon him, and that he acted very strangely; but I perceived nothing of it when I saw him in the morning. He was to have delivered a poem before the societies of the New York University a few weeks since, but drunkenness pre. vented him. I believe he had not drank [sir] anything fbr more than eighteen months until within the past three months, but in this time he has been very frequently carried home in a wretched condition.’ ”

That Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s guardian angel, the one woman in all the world most anxious to shield her nephew and son-in-law’s reputation from the cruel criticism of strangers, should confess to the stranger Briggs that he was ‘= tipsy ” is altogether incredible and rests only on the unauthenticated testimony of a man who was now Poe’s professed enemy.

Mrs. Clemm, all her life long, showed herself the truest friend of her daughter’s husband; and why Willis’s style in his famous characterization of her in the “Home Journal” for October 13, 1849, should be stigmatized — except by a determined enemy — as — falsetto,” we are at a loss to conceive. This characterization ran as follows: —

“Our first knowledge of Mr. Poe’s removal to this city was by a call which we received from a lady who introduced herself to us as the mother of his wife. She was in search of employment for him, and she excused [page 205:] her errand by mentioning that he was ill, that her daughter was a confirmed invalid, and that their circumstances were such as compelled her taking it upon herself: The countenance of this lady, made beautiful and saintly with an evidently complete giving up of her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness, her gentle and mournful voice urging its plea, her long-forgotten but habitually and unconsciously refined manners, and her appealing and yet appreciative mention of the claims and abilities of her son, disclosed at once the presence of one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity can be. It was a hard fate that she was watching over. Mr. Poe wrote with fastidious difficulty, and in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid. He was always in pecuniary difficulty, and, with his sick wife, frequently in want of the merest necessaries of life. Winter after winter, for years, the most touching sight to us, in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly and insufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or an article on some literary subject, to sell — sometimes simply pleading in a broken voice that ‘he was ill,’ and begging for him, — mentioning nothing but that a ‘he was ill,’ whatever might be the reason for his writing nothing — and never, amid all her tears and recitals of distress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride in his genius and good intentions [italics ours]. Her daughter died a year and a half since, but she did not desert him. She continued his ministering angel — living with him — coring for him — guarding him against exposure, and, when he was carried away by temptation, amid grief and the loneliness of feelings unreplied to, and awoke [page 206:] from his self-abandonment prostrated in destitution and suffering, begging for him still. If woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does not a devotion like this — pure, disinterested, and holy as the watch of an invisible spirit — say for him who inspired it?”

Of this venerated and excellent woman the following is a little sketch furnished us by her relative Miss Amelia F. Poe, to whom this edition is also indebted for likenesses of Virginia and Edgar.

“Maria Poe was a daughter of Gen. David Poe and Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland, March 12th, 1790, and was married at St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, Maryland, July 13, 1817, by the Rev. William Wyatt, to William Clemm, Jr., son of Col. William and Catherine Clemm, of Mount Prospect, now (1901) Walbrook, a suburb of Baltimore. They had children, Henry and Maria, who died young. Virginia, afterwards wife of Edgar Allan Poe, born August 13(1) 1822, died at Fordham, New York, January 30, 1847. Her father, William Clemm, Jr., died in Baltimore, February 8th, 1806, and was buried in St. Paul’s graveyard, Baltimore. His widow, Maria Poe Clemm, died in Baltimore, February 16, 1871. She was first buried in her father’s lot, No. 27, Westminster Churchyard, Baltimore, and her remains were transferred at the same time as those of her nephew and son-in-law, Edgar Allan Poe, November 17, 1875, and they both he now under the Poe Monument.” [page 205:]

Poe’s first engagement in New York seems to have been with Willis, as “mechanical paragraphist” and sub-editor of the latter’s “Evening Mirror.” Of Willis he had a very kindly opinion, evinced in the following extract from “The Literati”:

“As a writer of ’sketches,’ properly so called, Mr. Willis is unequalled. Sketches, especially of society, are his forte, and they are so for no other reason than that they afford him the best opportunity of introducing the personal Willis; or, more distinctly, because this species of composition is most susceptible of impression from his personal character. The dégagé tone of this kind of writing, too, best admits and encourages that kind of fancy which Mr. Willis possesses in the most extraordinary degree; it is in fancy that he reigns supreme; this, more than any one other quality, and, indeed, more than all his other literary qualities combined, has made him what he is. It is this which gives him the originality, the freshness, the point, the piquancy, which appear to be the immediate, but which are, in fact, the mediate sources of his popularity. . . . Mr. Willis’s career has naturally made him enemies among the envious host of dunces whom he has outstripped in the race for fame; and these his personal manner (a little tinctured with reserve, brusquerie or even haughtiness) is by no means adapted to conciliate. He has innumerable warm friends, however, and is himself a warm friend. He is impulsive, generous, bold, impetuous, vacillating, irregularly energetic — apt to be hurried into error, but incapable of deliberate wrong.”

Poe’s association with Willis on “The Evening Mirror” left a most agreeable impression on the mind and memory of the latter. In a letter dated Idlewild, October 17, 1859, Willis writes: [page 208:]

“In our harassing and exhausting days of ‘daily’ editorship, Poe, for a long time, was our assistant — the constant and industrious occupant of a desk in our office. . . . Poe came to us quite incidentally, neither of us having been personally acquainted with him till that time; and his position towards us, and connection with us, of course unaffected by claims of previous friendship, were a fair average of his general intercourse and impressions. As he was a man who never smiled, and never said a propitiatory or deprecating word, we were not likely to have been seized with any sudden partiality or wayward caprice in his favor. I should preface my avowal of an almost reverence for the man, as I knew him, by reminding the reader of the strange double, common to the presence and magnetism of a man of genius, the mysterious electricity of mind.

“It was rather a step downward, after being the chief editor of several monthlies, as Poe had been, to come into the office of a daily journal as a mechanical paragraphist. It was his business to sit at a desk, in a corner of the editorial room, ready to be called upon for any of the miscellaneous work of the day; yet you remember how absolutely and how good-humoredly ready he was for any suggestion; how punctually and industriously reliable in the following out of the wish once expressed; how cheerful and present-minded his work when he might excusably have been so listless and abstracted. We loved the man for the entireness of fidelity with which he served us. When he left w, we were very reluctant to part with him.”

And he goes on:

“Poe was employed by us, for several months, as critic and sub-editor. This was our first personal [page 209:] acquaintance with him. . . . With the highest admiration for his genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very capricious attention to his duties, and, occasionally, a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful, and intellectual face, as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of course, not to treat him always with deferential courtesy, and, to our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a criticism, or that he would erase a passage coloured too highly with his resentments against society and mankind, he readily and courteously assented — far more yielding than most men, we thought, on points so excusably sensitive. With a prospect of taking the lead in another periodical, he, at last, voluntarily gave up his employment with us, and, through all this considerable period, we had seen but one presentment of the man — a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability.”(1)

The year 1845 was the “banner” year of Poe’s literary life: never afterwards — never before — did he attain such maturity, such variety, or such ripeness in his intellectual work. The short-lived “Broadway Journal” enabled him to revise and reprint, generally in more finished form, nearly everything that he had yet produced. He has been bitterly reproached and sneered at for this by persons who ought to know better, whose own search for imperfection is directly the reverse of Poe’s continual search for perfection. This [page 210:] was the only opportunity he ever had — an opportunity for which he perpetually prayed — of running a journal, however short-lived, for himself, on independent lines, and, after the paper passed into his hands, he availed himself of it in a way for which posterity can be but grateful, for the “Broadway Journal” form is, first and last, with — “The Raven and Other Poems” of 1845, and the “Eureka” of 1848, the final and unchangeable form in which, substantially, the Poe texts have been left to us.

In his sketch of Charles F. Briggs, in “The Literati,” Poe writes:

“In connection with Mr. John Bisco, he was the originator of the late ‘Broadway Journal’ — my editorial connection with that work not having commenced until the sixth or seventh(1) number, although I wrote for it occasionally from the first. . . . Mr. Briggs is better known as ‘Harry Franco,” a nom de plume assumed since the publication, in the ‘Knickerbocker Magazine,’ of his series of papers called ‘Adventures of Harry Franco.’ . . . Mr. Briggs’s manner, however, is an obvious imitation of Smollett; and, as usual with all imitations, produces an unfavorable impression upon those conversant with the original. . . . He is from Cape Cod or Nantucket, . . . and is the centre of a little circle of rather intellectual people, of which the Kirklands, Lowell, and some other notabilities are honorary members.”

The reference to Lowell is significant, as it is to him that after a fortissimo of laudation in which superlatives [page 211:] seem inadequate, Briggs begins, trickle trickle, drop by drop — piano, — piano, — pianissimo — then with a torrential fury, to swell into a tumult of abuse and denunciation of his editorial assistant.

The laudation began with: “I like Poe exceedingly well; Mr. Griswold has told me shocking bad stories about him, which his whole demeanor contradicts. . . . I have always strangely misunderstood Poe, from thinking him one of the Graham and Godey species, but I find him as different as possible. I think that you [Lowell] will like him well when you come to know him personally.”(1)

“The rift within the lute” began with the unsavory “Longfellow War,” in which Poe accused the Maine poet of plagiarism: “Poe has left the Mirror,’ Willis was too Willisy for him. Unfortunately for him (Poe) he has mounted a very ticklish hobby just now, Plagiarism, which he is bent on riding to death, and I think the better way is to let him run down as soon as possible by giving him no check. Wiley and Putnam are going to publish a new edition of his tales and sketches. Everybody has been raven-mad about his last poem, and his lecture, which W. Story went with me to hear, has gained him a dozen or two of waspish foes who will do him more good than harm.”

Then, vacillatingly, in a letter a few days later, “Poe has, indeed, a very high admiration for Longfellow, and so he will say before he is done [with the “Outis” Longfellow controversy]. For my own part I did not use to think well of Poe [compare this with our first extract], but my love for you and implicit confidence in your judgment, led me to abandon [page 212:] all my prejudices against him when I read your account of him [in “Graham’s” for February]. The Rev. Mr. Griswold, of Philadelphia, told me some abominable lies about him, but a personal acquaintance with him has induced me to think highly of him. Perhaps some Philadelphian has been whispering foul things in your ear about him. Doubtless his sharp manner has made him many enemies. But you will think better of him when you meet him.”

Later, “I shall haul down Poe’s name, he has latterly got into his old habits and I fear will injure himself irretrievably. I was taken at first with a certain appearance of independence and learning in his criticisms, but they are so verbal, and so purely selfish that I can no longer have any sympathy with him.”

This is followed by the charges of drunkenness, the temporary suspension of the — journal,” the exclusion of Briggs from its management when it was resumed, and a rigmarole of denunciation of Poe by Briggs as a man utterly destitute of “high motive” — because, apparently, Briggs could not make as much money out of Poe’s brains as he had hoped and did not have brains enough himself to maize a success.

At all events, Poe succeeded Briggs as editor and Bisco went on with the publishing, allowing Poe until October a one-third interest in the publication. October 14. he became sole proprietor of the “Journal,” having bought out Bisco’s interest for $50.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 191:]

1.  Passages from the Correspondence of R. W. Griswold. By W. M. Griswold, Cambridge, 1898.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 199:]

1.  From Baltimore Sun December 30, 1900.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 206:]

1.  St. Paul’s records say August 22.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 209:]

1.  Ingram, I., pp. 260-262.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 210:]

1.  Mr. Ingram, I., 270, writes: “ ‘It was not until Nov. is that I had anything to do with this journal as editor,’ is Poe’s endorsement upon our copy, but from its commencement he wrote for it.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 211:]

1.  Woodberry, Life, p. 226.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 08)