Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 16,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 310-326


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[page 310:]

CHAPTER XVI.

1849.

LAST DAYS IN RICHMOND.

THE last days in Richmond have fortunately been painted for us by a sympathetic and artistic hand in a picture to which we can add a few important unprinted details gathered from still living contemporaries of the poet.

In his return — a prodigal — to the beautiful old city of his youth where so many innocent and happy hours had been spent, fishing, hunting, swimming in the ancient yellow “Jeems,” running the flower-bespangled woods, acting in the Thespian Club, verse-capping at old Burke’s Academy, the city where his mother lay in a nameless and unknown grave, Poe found for a brief two months and a half a renewal of the eagle-like strength of his earlier years. The city had of course grown immensely since his youth; the Mexican War, with its wave of excitement, had passed over the land and brought the great Virginians, Zachary Taylor and W infield Scott prominently before the public; the streets swarmed with new faces; new literary figures had appeared on the scene; but it was, fundamentally, the same dear old Richmond, social, hospitable, sunshiny, richly read in eighteenth century literature, a trifle pedantic in its culture, but full of winsome women and cultivated men who had watched the career of this extraordinary “cosmopolite” (as the [page 311:] novelist Virginian Cooke, called him) and were ready to welcome the wanderer back to what many of them thought was his native town.

The Mackenzies and Cabells, the Mayos and Sullys, the Sheltons and Carters and Thomases were still there, friends of his youth, ready to kill the fatted calf in honor of the return, and their houses were thrown wide open to the gifted and distinguished stranger. Poe, like Chaucer in his famous “I am a Sotherne man,” continually referred to Virginia as his home and shrank from the hyperborean clime and criticism of certain latitudes in the north-east, albeit deriving from thence many an auroral beam of true and lasting friendship. In his own Virginia — consecrated, to him, by the tenderest of names — he felt perfectly at home; and here he felt, too, that his “Stylus ” project might grow into a real thing. Friends flocked around him; offers of subscriptions and of subscribers were freely made; and he delivered several lectures in the parlors of the old Exchange Hotel, where, a little later, the Prince of Wales (now King Edward VII.) was entertained in 1860.

Poe put up at the old “Swan Tavern,” which is referred to, among other interesting matters, in the following letter to the author:

RICHMOND, Nov. 26th, 1900.

DEAR SIR, — Your letter of November twenty-fifth received, in which you state I might know something of the poet, Edgar Poe, and his visit to Richmond in eighteen ’ forty-nine. My impression is he was a resident at that time of this city, and boarded at the old ” Swan Tavern,” on Broad Street, between Eighth and Ninth. Dr. George Rawlins, an intimate friend of mine, told me he attended him there in an attack of “delirium tremens,” [page 312:] and before he had ceased to visit him, he left the tavern, and when next heard from, was in Baltimore, where he renewed his frolic, and died in a few days.

I had no personal acquaintance with Poe, but have often seen him. The only time I ever heard him speak was the summer of eighteen forty-eight in the Exchange Concert-room in this city. The inspiration of the lecture was no doubt need of money. In elucidating his subject — “The Poetic Principle” — he recited excerpts from some of his poems — “Annabelle Lee,” “Tintinnabulations of the Bells,” etc.; and in conclusion repeated “The Raven” with all the rhythm and pathos of which he was capable. All this before an audience of about twenty persons. The occasion to this day I recall with pleasure. I have heard that at times his necessities were so urgent he would write a poem and sell it to an acquaintance for the paltry sum of one dollar. He was said to be moody and peevish, but always recognized by his school — fellows as a boy of true courage. On one occasion a friend found him lying on the wayside — intoxicated. As he approached him he exclaimed: “Why, Edgar Poe!” when Poe looked at him and replied: “No; poor Edgar,” showing he always retained his wits. The “Swan Tavern” is still in existence, but hardly recognizable, having been converted into offices, lodging-rooms, and so on. Miss Jane McKenzie, who adopted Miss Rosalie Poe about the time Mr. Allan took Edgar Poe, is, of course, long since dead — in fact every member of her family, so far as I know, is dead. I had a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Shelton, to whom he was said to be engaged, but of her family I can tell you nothing.

It may be emphasized, in connection with one matter referred to in this letter, that Richmond has for fifty years past been divided into two antagonistic camps on the “Poe question,” the minority holding the “delirium tremens” theory of his irregularities, the majority [page 313:] taking the more humane and charitable view of Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss, in her “Last Days of Edgar A. Poe.”(1) The occurrences undoubtedly occurred — to use an expressive tautology; but the explanation of them is a purely pathological one: morbid conditions existed which overpowered any will-power that may have been left, honeycombed as this power had become by a string and concatenation of disasters unparalleled in the history of any literary man on record. Schiller, in the “Wallenstein,” mercifully keeps the murder of the hero out of sight; Poe is presented to us by his biographers undergoing all the torments of the damned before the gaping eyes of the audience.

This little visit shed an Indian summer glow over the life of the poet that lingers still in the memory of some who saw him. He hunted up his old haunts, made new friends, recited his “Raven” and other poems in the parlors of his intimates, stayed at Duncan’s Lodge with the Mackenzies, met his eccentric sister, Rosalie Poe, once more, and above all renewed the acquaintance with the old flame of his University and Academy days, Miss Royster (now Mrs. Shelton, widow of a prosperous merchant — a lady whom the author, living in the same town with her in 1871-76, used to hear familiarly called “Poe’s Lenore“). Poe had come down from New York to Richmond in 1848 and had then, it is said, renewed the suit begun more than twenty years before, a period during which both had become widowed. Mrs. Weiss asserts that the engagement was renewed, but that it was broken off when Mrs. Shelton learned that it was purely mercenary — that it was the “Stylus,” not herself, that [page 314:] Poe was in pursuit of. That Poe’s affections for women were intense but fleeting, is 1t part of the universal record of him; and in the case of Mrs. Shelton it may well have been a momentary recrudescence of the old feeling mixed with new elements self-interest. The lady herself believed she was engaged to Poe, and so asserted by pen and mouth to Moran, the physician who attended Poe in his last illness.(1) In the Ingram correspondence (“Appleton’s Journal,” May, 1878) she thus describes their meeting in the summer of 1849, describing their relation, however, as a “partial understanding” only:

“I was ready to go to church, when a servant entered and told me that a gentleman in the parlor wished to see me. I went down and was amazed at seeing him [Poe], but knew him instantly. He came up to me in the most enthusiastic, manner, and said: ‘Oh? Elmira, is it you?’ I told him I was going to church, that I never let anything interfere with that, and that he must call again. . .

“When he did call again, he renewed his addresses. I laughed; he looked away serious, and said he was in earnest, and had been thinking about it for a long time. When I found out that he was very serious, I became serious also, and told him that, if he would not take a positive denial, he must give me time to consider. He answered, ‘A love that hesitated was not a love for him.’ . . . But he stayed a long time, and was very pleasant and cheerful. He came to visit me frequently. . . . I went with him to the Exchange Concert- Room,’ and heard him read. . . . When he was going away, he begged me to marry him, and promised [page 315:] he would be everything I could desire. He said, when he left, that he was going to New York to wind up some business matters, and that he would return to Richmond as soon as he had accomplished it, although he said, at the same time, that he had a presentiment that he should never see me any more. . . . I was not engaged to him, but there was a partial understanding. . . . He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was one of the most fascinating and refined men I ever knew. I never saw him under the influence of wine.”

Thus bathing in the sunlight of his youth, touching the hand of people he had not met for twenty years, lounging in the comfortable office of the “Messenger,” whose accomplished young editor, the poet John R. Thompson, eagerly received anything he might send, and freshening up old associations at “The Hermitage,” the home of the Mayos, fondly intertwined with his earliest memories, Poe seemed well on the way to the happy rejuvenation that awaited a man emerging as from a hideous dream — a life of penury, persecution, and humiliation — into the daylight of restored peace and happiness.

“Poe’s personality is as vivid to me,” writes Prof. B. C. Gildersleeve to the editor, “as if I had heard and seen him yesterday. I am old enough to remember what an excitement his ‘Gold-Bug’ created in Charleston when it first appeared, and how severely we boys criticised the inaccuracies in the description of Sullivan’s Island. Poe himself I saw and heard in Richmond during the last summer of his life. He was lodging at some poor place in Broad Street, if I am not mistaken. At least I saw him repeatedly in that thoroughfare — a poetical figure, if there ever was [page 316:] one, clad in black as was the fashion then — slender — erect — the subtle lines of his face fixed in meditation. I thought him wonderfully handsome, the mouth being the only weak point. I was too shy to seek an introduction to the poet, but John R. Thompson procured for me Poe’s autograph, a possession of which I was naturally very proud.

“While Poe was in Richmond some of his friends got up a reading for his benefit, and I heard him read ‘The Raven’ and some other poems before a small audience in one of the parlors of the Exchange Hotel. In spite of my admiration of Poe I was not an uncritical listener, and I have retained the impression that he did not read very well. His voice was pleasant enough, but he emphasized the rhythm unduly — a failing common, I believe, to poets endowed with a keen sense of the music of their own verse.”

“A compact, well-set man,” wrote Bishop Fitxgerald, “about five feet six inches high, straight as an arrow, easy-gaited, with white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest and broad Panama hat, features sad yet finely cut, shapely head, and eyes that were strangely magnetic as you looked into them — this is the image of Edgar Allan Poe most vivid to my mind as I saw him one warm day in Richmond in 1849. There was a fascination about him that everybody felt. Meeting him in the midst of thousands a stranger would stop to get a second look, and to ask, ‘Who is he?’ He was distingué in a peculiar sense — a man bearing the stamp of genius and the charm of a melancholy that drew one toward him with a strange sympathy. He was scarcely less unique in his personality than in his literary quality. His writings had already given him national reputation. The gentleness of his manner and [page 317:] the tones of his voice seemed to me to be strangely contrasted with the bitterness that characterized his personal controversies. These controversies were strangely numerous, and in nearly all cases their intensity was in the inverse ratio to the importance of the issues involved. Poe, I suspect, was one of the men who said worse things than he felt, his talent for satire proving a snare to him, as it has been to many others who with pen or tongue sacrifice moderation for brilliancy or piquancy of expression. He was harshly treated by some of his contemporaries, but he owed them nothing on this account, giving them as good as they sent in the way of invective or sarcasm. The bitter personalities of literary men at that time were owing in part to an evil fashion then prevalent. The duelling and street fights among politicians had their counterpart in the shedding of vitriolic ink among the literati, great and small. Poe only differed from the rest in that he had a sharper thrust and a surer aim.

“The Richmond ‘Examiner’ was just then achieving its first and winning distinction as an male and ultra advocate of State Rights politics. John C. Calhoun was the leader, and the young ‘chivalry’ of the South made a following that was heroic, and that did not stop to count the cost. The ‘Examiner’ was their organ in Virginia — and a live organ it was. John M. Daniel, its editor-in-chief, wrote political leaders that were logic and rhetoric on fire. Robert W. Hughes discussed in good English economic questions from the standpoint of his time and his section. Arthur E. Petticolas wrote concerning art with much enthusiasm and some show of culture. Patrick Henry Aylett, a kinsman of the great orator of the Revolution, whose Christian name he bore, with a free hand [page 318:] touched up current politics and living politicians. Aylett was a picturesque Virginian of that time — a man nearly seven feet high, who had something of the eloquence of his renowned ancestor, and the easy swing of a man of the people, a man who believed with all his heart in the Revolution of ‘98 and ‘99, and uniformly voted the straight Democratic ticket. Mr. Poe now and then contributed a literary article critical and peculiar, unmistakably his own. There were others who wrote for the ‘Examiner’ — among them a youth who felt called upon to expound oracularly certain controverted Constitutional questions that Clay, Calhoun and Webster had failed to settle. He was a young man then, and need not be named now.

“Poe and Daniel were often together, and I was not surprised when informed that arrangements had been made by which the former was soon to become the literary editor of the ‘Examiner,’ was talked of in newspaper circles, and much satisfaction expressed by the initiated, who regarded it as a transaction promising good things for Southern journalism and literature. The ‘Examiner,’ the new star in the journalistic firmament, was expected to blaze with added lustre and fill all the South with the illumination.

“Poe had the sensitive organization of a man of genius, to whom alcoholic stimulation brings madness; for such there is no middle ground between total abstinence and inebriety. By the persuasion of friends he was induced to take a pledge of total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. His sad face took on a more hopeful expression; with a new hope in his heart he was about to make a new start in life. It was announced [page 319:] that he would soon make a visit to New York to close out his affairs there, preparatory to his entrance upon his new engagement at Richmond. With a view to giving him pecuniary assistance in a delicate way, and an expression of the good will of the Richmond public toward him, Poe was invited to deliver a lecture on some topic to be chosen by himself. The tickets were placed at five dollars each, and at that price three hundred persons were packed into the assembly rooms of the old Exchange Hotel. The lecture prepared for that occasion was on ‘The Poetic Principle,’ and it was read by him as it is now presented in his works. He was a charming reader, his manner the opposite of the elocutionary or sensational — quiet, without gesture, with distinctness of utterance, nice shadings of accent, easy gracefulness, and that indefinable element that draws the hearer toward the speaker with increasing good will and pleasure. I am glad that I heard Poe read that lecture; its sentences on the printed page have for me an added charm from the recollection. The net proceeds of the lecture amounted to fifteen hundred dollars. There was a touch of old Virginia in the way this was done. There is some of that old Virginia still left. The Virginia of that day and this will demonstrate their identity in the outcome of the movement to provide here at your university a suitable memorial of her most distinguished alumnus.

“With the proceeds of this lecture in hand, Mr. Poe started to New York, but he never made the journey. Stopping in Baltimore en route he was invited to a birthday party During the feast the fair hostess asked him to pledge with wine; and he could not refuse. That glass of wine was a spark to a powder magazine. He went on a debauch, and a few days later died in a [page 320:] hospital of mania a potu. On its nearer side death is a tragedy whenever, wherever, and however it may come. But the tragedy of Poe’s death is too deep for words of mine. He was only thirty-nine years old. His best work ought to have been before him. Had he lived dad worked with unclouded brain and ardent purpose during the tremendous decades that followed, what might he not have achieved! Who can compute the loss to our literature from his untimely death!

“Go on with your work, gentlemen of the University of Virginia, provide a fitting memorial to Edgar Allan Poe, your illustrious son. Young gentlemen of the University, do your part in this good work — and shun the rock on which he was wrecked.”(1)

Associated with these striking new particulars connected with Poe’s last sojourn in the home of his youth, may well be added the following statement from the gentleman (now living) who administered the temperance oath to Poe while he was there.

617 E. LEIGH ST., RICHMOND, VA.,
Dec. 4, 1900  

PROF. J. A. HARRISON, UNIVERSITY OF VA.:

DEAR SIR, — Your favor of the 26th ult. I have. I regret to say that I fear I can contribute very little that will help you in your grand undertaking, that of placing fairly before the people the bright side of the character of the poet Poe. About fifty years ago I heard Mr. Poe deliver a lecture at the Exchange Hotel lecture-room this city. I did not meet him again until early in the summer [page 321:] of 1849. He made his home at the old Swan Tavern (now standing on Broad Street between Eighth and Ninth north side). There he made the acquaintance of some member or members of the Division of the Sons of Temperance (this was a large organization previous to the war of ’61-’65); he was proposed for membership, elected, and initiated about the 1st of July, ‘1849. The position I held in the Division made it my duty to administer to the candidate the obligation of total abstinence. During his stay in the city of the next three months or more there was not the least intimation that he had failed to live up to his obligation. In October he started to Baltimore (as was reported and generally believed to make preparation for his marriage to Mrs. Shelton, who as Miss Royster was a sweetheart of earlier life). A few days later we heard of his death at a hospital in that city, and the statement was made and too busily circulated that his death was the result of a spree commenced as soon as he reached Baltimore. We of the temperance order to which he belonged exerted ourselves to get at the facts, and the consensus of opinion was that he had not been drinking, but had been drugged. A gentleman by the name of Benson, born in Baltimore in 1811, and living there until he was twenty-one years old, went to Baltimore, and, as he knew Poe and felt much interest in the manner of his death, went to the hospital at which he died, and had a talk with the doctor (an acquaintance), who told him that Poe had not been drinking when brought to the hospital, but was under the influence of a drug; he added that he suggested the use of stimulants, but that Mr. Poe positively declined taking any. Mr. Poe lived very quietly while here. Some stories were told like the following, showing eccentricity: “He left with a Broad Street shoe merchant (who was also a member of the above mentioned order, and of the same division of which our friend had become a member) a pair of boots for repairs. Our shoe merchant was surprised a few mornings later at being knocked up by the [page 322:] poet about two hours before daylight, who had called for the boots. He explained that as he was out walking he thought to get the boots then would save him another trip.

I have stated only such facts in regard to Mr. Poe’s last visit as I was in some manner mixed up with, and only wish they were of such a character as to be useful to you.

Very Respectfully Yours,  
W. J. GLENN.

Bishop Fitzgerald mentions two important circumstances not hitherto known of Poe: that he was to be literary editor of “The Examiner” and had already contributed critical articles to it, and that he left Richmond with $1,500 in his pocket. The possession of this money throws significant light on the theory that he was drugged.

“The evening of the day,” reports Mrs. Weiss, “previous to that appointed for his departure from V Richmond, Poe spent at my mother’s. He declined to enter the parlors, where a number of visitors were assembled, saying he preferred the more quiet sitting-room; and here I had a long and almost uninterrupted conversation with hum. He spoke of his future, seeming to anticipate it with an eager delight, like that of youth. He declared that the last few weeks in the society of his old and new friends had been the happiest that he had known for many years, and that when he again left New York, he should there leave behind all the trouble and vexation of his past life. On no occasion had I seen him so cheerful and hopeful as on this evening. ‘Do you know,’ he inquired, ‘how I spent most of this morning? In writing a critique of your poems to be accompanied by a biographical [page 323:] sketch. I intend it to be one of my best, and that it shall appear in the second number of “The Stylus“’ — so confident was he in regard to this magazine. In the course of the evening he showed me a letter just received from I his friend, Dr. Griswold,’ in reply to one but recently written by Poe, wherein the latter had requested Dr. Griswold in case of his sudden death to become his literary executor. In this reply, Dr. Griswold accepted the proposal, expressing himself as much flattered thereby, and writing in terms of friendly warmth and interest. It will be observed that this statement is a contradiction of his statement that previous to Poe’s death he had had no intimation of the latter’s intention of appointing him his literary executor.

“In speaking of his own writings, Poe expressed his conviction that he had written his best poems, but that in prose he might yet surpass what he had already accomplished. He admitted that much which he had said in praise of certain writers was not the genuine expression of his opinions. . . . . ‘You must not judge of me by what you find me saying in the magazines. Such expressions of opinion are necessarily modified by a thousand circumstances, the wishes of editors, personal friendship, etc.’

“Poe expressed great regret in being compelled to leave Richmond, on even so brief an absence. He would certainly, he said, be back in two weeks. He thanked my mother with graceful courtesy and warmth for her kindness and hospitality, and begged that we would write to him in New York, saying it would do him good.

“He was the last of the party to leave the house. We were standing on the portico, and after going a [page 324:] few steps he paused, turned, and again lifted his hat, in a last adieu: At the moment, a brilliant meteor appeared in the sky directly over his head, and vanished in the east. We commented laughingly upon the incident; but I remembered it sadly afterwards.”

The prophetic words of “Ulalume ” immediately recur:

“The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere,

The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year.”

October somehow seems mystically entangled with the poet’s fate, just as the great dirge of “The Raven,” which Dore has transformed into a magic and ardent Passion Play of Shadow-Land, swarming with the mystic imagery of Dreams, seemingly points in its “bleak December,” to the month in which the poet’s mother died in Richmond.

“As he was about to leave Richmond, he turned to Mr. Thompson; saying, ‘By the way, you have been very kind to me, — here is a little trifle that may be worth something to you‘; and he handed Mr. Thompson a small roll of paper, upon which were written the exquisite words of ‘Annabel Lee.’ ”(1)

Just a little while before, on St. Valentine’s Day, 1849, he wrote to his friend Thomas: “Right glad am I to find you once more in a true position — in the field of Letters. Depend upon it, after all, Thomas, Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my part, there is no seducing me from the path. I [page 325:] shall be a Littérateur at least all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California [the Argonaut “craze” was just then starting and the whole country was aflame with fabulous reports from the western Golconda]. Talking of gold, and of the temptations at present held out to ‘poor-devil authors,’ did it ever strike you that all which is really valuable to a man of letters — to a poet in especial — is absolutely unpurchasable? Love, fame, the dominion of intellect, the consciousness of power, the thrilling sense of beauty, the free air of Heaven, exercise of body and mind, with the physical and moral health which result — these and such as these are really all that a poet cares for: then answer me this — why should he go to California?”

Life seemed bewilderingly bright — almost as bright as the fairy landscapes of “Arnheim” and “The Island of the Fay ” painted it — now that he had arranged with a Mr. E. H. W. Patterson, of Gquawka, Illinois, for the simultaneous publication, in St. Louis and New York, of “The Stylus,” to appear in July, 1850. Meanwhile, there were dark sides to the picture: Mrs. Clemm was actually suffering, as she wrote Griswold, for the necessaries of life, and begged a small loan from the supposed friend; neither “Annie” nor “Estelle” had yet come to the rescue as they so nobly did, later.

But the wedding-ring was ready, and the scene so exquisitely pre-figured in “The Bridal Ballad” — with the situation of bride and groom reversed — was about to take place: only a dress-coat was still wanting, to make Richmond, the scene of the first marriage, the scene of a second and happier one. Much, and eloquently, as Poe had written against second marriages [page 326:] — in “Ligeia” for instance, and “The Bridal Ballad ” — he was about to embark on one himself, the same match from which, a year before, he had been mysteriously recalled by the reception of two anonymous stanzas from Mrs. Whitman when he was in Richmond on the same mission. Apparently, he did not remember his own prophetic and incisive words:

“Would God I could awaken!

For I dream I know not how,

And my soul is sorely shaken

Lest an evil step be taken,

Lest the dead who is forsaken

May not be happy now.”

“The [last] night,” continues Mrs. Weiss, “he spent at Duncan’s Lodge [the home of the Mackenzies, who had adopted his sister]; and as his friends said, sat late at his window, meditatively smoking, and seemingly disinclined for conversation. On the following morning, he went into the city, accompanied by his friends, Dr. Gibbon Carter and Dr. Mackenzie. The day was passed with them and others of his intimate friends. Late in the evening he entered the office of Dr. John Carter, and spent an hour in looking over the day’s papers; then taking Dr. Carter’s cane he went out, remarking that he would step across to Saddler’s (a fashionable restaurant) and get supper. From the circumstance of his taking the cane, leaving his own in its place, it is probable he had intended to return; but at the restaurant he met with some acquaintances who detained him until late, and then accompanied him to the Baltimore boat. According to their accounts, he was quite sober and cheerful to the last, remarking, as he took leave of them, that he would soon be in Richmond again.”

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 313:]

1.  Scribner’s Monthly, March, 1878.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 314:]

1.  A Defence of Edgar Allen Poe. By Jno. J. Moran, M. D. Washington, 1885.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 320:]

1.  Zolnay’s bust of Poe was unveiled with brilliant ceremonies in the Public Hall of the University, October 7, 1899. Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie, the guest of the Poe Association, delivered a masterly address on “Poe’s Place in American Literature.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 324:]

1.   Gill’s Life of Poe: Chatto and Windus: 1878: p. 231.


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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 16)