Text: James A. Harrison, “Appendix D,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 360-367


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[page 360:]

DEATH OF EDGAR A. POE.(1)

BY N. P. WILLIS.

The ancient fable of two antagonistic spirits imprisoned in one body equally powerful and having the complete mastery by turns — of one man, that is to say, inhabited by both a devil and an angel — seems to have been realized, if all we hear is true, in the character of the extraordinary man whose name we have written above. Our own impression of the nature of Edgar A. Poe differs in some important degree, however, from that which has been generally conveyed in the notices of his death. Let us, before telling what we personally know of him, copy a graphic and highly finished portraiture, from the pen of Dr. Rufus W. Griswold, which appeared in a recent number of the Tribune:(2)

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Apropos of the disparaging portion of the above well-written sketch, let us truthfully say: —

Some four or five years since, when editing a daily paper in this city, Mr. Poe was employed by us, for several months, as critic and sub-editor. This was our first personal acquaintance with him. He resided with his wife and mother at Fordham, a few miles out of town, but was at his desk in the office from nine in the morning till the evening paper went to press. 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 [page 361:] attention to his dudes, 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 colored 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.

Residing as he did in the country, we never met Mr. Poe in hours of leisure; but he frequently called on us afterwards at our place of business, and we met him often in the street, — invariably the same sad-mannered, winning, and refined gentleman such as we had always known him. It was by rumor only, up to the day of his death, that we knew of any other development of manner or character. We heard, from one who knew him well (what should be stated in all mention of his lamentable irregularities), that, with a single glass of wine, his whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost, and, though none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane. Possessing his reasoning faculties in excited activity at such times, and seeking his acquaintances [page 362:] with his wonted look and memory, he easily seemed personating only another phase of his natural character, and was accused, accordingly, of insulting arrogance and bad-heartedness. In this reversed character, we repeat, it was never our chance to see him. We know it from hearsay, and we mention it in connection with this sad infirmity of physical constitution, which puts it upon very nearly the ground of a temporary and almost irresponsible insanity.

The arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart of which Mr. Poe was generally accused seem to us referable altogether to this reversed phase of his character. Under that degree of intoxication which only acted upon him by demonizing his sense of truth and right, he doubtless said and did much that was wholly irreconcilable with his better nature; but when himself, and as we knew him only, his modesty and unaffected humility, as to his own deservings, were a constant charm to his character. His letters (of which the constant application for autographs has taken from us, we are sorry to confess, the greater portion) exhibited this quality very strongly. In one of the carelessly written notes of which we chance still to retain possession, for instance, he speaks of “The Raven,” — that extraordinary poem which electrified the world of imaginative readers, and has become the type of a school of poetry of its own, — and, in evident earnest, attributes its success to the few words of commendation with which we had prefaced it in this paper. It will throw light on his sane character to give a literal copy of the note: —

FORDHAM, April 20, 1849.

MY DEAR WILLIS, — The poem which I enclose, and which I am so vain as to hope you will like, in some [page 363:] respects, has been just published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It — pays well, as times go — but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it I feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets. The verses accompanying this, may I beg you to take out of the tomb, and bring them to light in the Home journal? If you can oblige me so far as to copy them, I do not think it will be necessary to say “From the ——,” — that would be too bad; — and, perhaps, “From a late paper” would do.

I have not forgotten how a “good word in season” from you made “The Raven,” and made “Ulalume,” (which, by-the-way, people have done me the honor of attributing to you) — therefore I would ask you, (if I dared), to say something of these lines — if they please you.

Truly yours ever,  
EDGAR A. POE.

In double proof of his earnest disposition to do the best for himself, and of the trustful and grateful nature which has been denied him, we give another of the only three of his notes which we chance to retain: —

FORDHAM, January 22, 1848.

MY DEAR MR. WILLIS, — I am about to make an effort at re-establishing myself in the literary world, and feel that I may depend upon your aid.

My general aim is to start a Magazine, to be called “The Stylus;” but it would be useless to me, even when established, if not entirely out of the control of a publisher. I mean, therefore, to get up a journal which shall be my own, at all points. With this end in view, I must get a list of, at least, five hundred subscribers to begin with: — nearly two hundred I have already. I propose, however, to go South and West, among my personal and literary friends — old college and West [page 364:] Point acquaintances — and see what I can do. In order to get the means of taking the first step, I propose to lecture at the Society Library, on Thursday, the 3d of February — and, that there may be no cause of squabbling, my subject shall not be literary at all. I have chosen a broad text — “The Universe.”

Having thus given you the facts of the case, I leave all the rest to the suggestions of your own tact and generosity.

Gratefully — most gratefully —

Your friend always,  
EDGAR A. POE.

Brief and chance-taken as these letters are, we think they sufficiently prove the existence of the very qualities denied to Mr. Poe, — humility, willingness to persevere, belief in another’s kindness, and capability of cordial and grateful friendship? Such he assuredly was when same. Such only he has invariably seemed to us, in all we have happened personally to know of him, through a friendship of five or six years. And so much easier is it to believe what we have seen and known than what we hear of only, that we remember him but with admiration and respect, — these descriptions of him, when morally insane, seeming to us like portraits, painted in sickness, of a man we have only known in health.

But there is another, more touching and far more forcible, evidence that there was goodness in Edgar A. Poe. To reveal it, we are obliged to venture upon the lifting of the veil which sacredly covers grief and refinement in poverty; but we think it may be excused if so we can brighten the memory of the poet, even were there not a more needed and immediate service which it may render to the nearest link broken by his death. [page 365:]

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 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 “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. Her daughter died, a year and a half since, but she did not desert him. She continued [page 366:] his ministering angel, — living with him, caring 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 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?

We have a letter before us, written by this lady, Mrs. Clemm, on the morning in which she heard of the death of this object of her untiring care. It is merely a request that we would call upon her; but we will copy a few of its words, sacred as its privacy is, to warrant the truth of the picture we have drawn above, and add force to the appeal we wish to make for her: —

“I have this morning heard of the death of my darling Eddie. . . . Can you give me any circumstances or particulars? . . . Oh ! do not desert your poor friend in this bitter affliction. . . . Ask Mr. —— to come, as I must deliver a message to him from my poor Eddie. . . . I need not ask you to notice his death and to speak well of him. I know you will. But say what an affectionate son he was to me, his poor desolate mother. . . .”

To hedge round a grave with respect, what choice is there between the relinquished wealth and honors of the world and the story of such a woman’s unrewarded devotion! Risking what we do, in delicacy, by making it public, we feel — other reasons aside — that it betters the world to make known that there are such ministrations to its erring and gifted. What we [page 367:] have said will speak to some hearts. There are those who will be glad to know how the lamp, whose light of poetry has beamed on their far-away recognition, was watched over with care and pain, that they may send to her, who is more darkened than they by its extinction, some token of their sympathy. She is destitute and alone. If any, far or near, will send to us what may aid and cheer her through the remainder of her life, we will joyfully place it in her hands.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 360:]

1.  These remarks were published by Mr. Willis, in the “Home Journal,” on the Saturday following Mr. Poe’s death.

2.  The preceding Ludwig article.


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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) (Appendix D)