Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 24,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926), volume 2, pp. 730-753


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[page 730, unnumbered:]

 

CHAPTER XXIV
The Universe and Mrs. Shew

 

THE period from the death of Virginia, at the beginning of 1847, to the disappearance of Israfel himself in October, 1849, may be regarded, conveniently, as exhibiting three stages, i.e., a brief attempt at recuperation, and the staging of a literary come-back in 1847, under the care of Mrs. Clemm and Mrs. Shew, — which ended in failure and despair; the effort to find a refuge from self in two notable affairs with “Annie” and Helen Whitman in 1848, — also ending in despair and an attempt at suicide; the last Richmond period, lit by a brief gleam of the sunshine of old memories and the engagement to Mrs. Shelton, — followed swiftly by the end, at Baltimore in 1849.(789)

For some time after the death of Virginia, Poe was too ill to leave Fordham at all. Had it not been for both Mrs. Clemm and Mrs. Shew, it is morally certain he could not have survived. Nothing had appeared from his pen since the last of the Literati Papers in the October Godey’s Lady’s Book of 1846, except The Cask of Amontillado, probably written months before.(790)

Mrs. Shew now once more exerted herself, and was able to raise a purse of $100, to which General Scott — whose mind must have traveled back to a harum-scarum lad in Richmond at a ghost party years before, and to John Allan’s handsome protégé at West Point — contributed, with some evidences of emotion, it is said.(356) Through Mrs. Shew, Dr. Valentine Mott had also been in Poe, and he and Dr. Francis saw him from time to There is considerable reason to suspect that it was the [page 731:] advice and warnings of this trained medical woman, and the two doctors that restrained Poe, and enabled him to recover in so far as he did.

Even the first intense period of grief was broken in upon by the coming to trial of the libel suit in February.(791) The money received, and doubtless too, the sense of final vindication and triumph over his enemies, recalled Poe somewhat from his nightmare of sorrows.(791) At the same time, he was further annoyed by the charges of plagiarism made in Philadelphia over the book on conchology.(792)

Mrs. Clemm, poor old “Muddie,” released from her long years of constant nursing of Virginia, now found herself with a new patient in Eddie. Nevertheless, she went out and bought some comfortable things. A new tea set, some carpets, and a lamp were the proceeds of the libel money. She and Eddie now had a few guests in to tea, and it was commented upon unfavorably that Mrs. Clemm took much pride in her new teapot, and that Eddie seemed fond of Mrs. Shew. To be sure Mrs. Shew had saved their lives — but then, “How could they forget poor, dead Virginia, so soon?”

In 1847 it was a great romantic advantage to be dead. Even the wailing harp of Israfel was not quite sufficient unto the woes with which it was so liberally furnished. Besides, in the notes from those strings, there had been detected a passionate, an almost lunar grief, that was not quite pretty. It was a little out of place in the drawing-rooms where the weeping willow, and the lilies, and violets were appreciated, — but not the tomb itself. Mr. C. C. Burr, however, was adequate to the occasion and insisted that this was what his friend Poe was doing.(793) [page 732:]

Many times, after the death of his beloved wife, was he found at the dead hour of a winter-night, sitting beside her tomb almost frozen in the snow, where he had wandered from his bed weeping and wailing.

The age insisted upon it. Perhaps it was true. Mrs. Clemm tells us that Poe could not sleep; that the darkness and the lonely nights drove him frantic; and that she sat with him for hours with her hand on his forehead until, thinking him asleep, she would try to leave — only to hear him whisper, “Not yet, ‘Muddie,’ not yet.”

There was a rocky ledge overhung by maples near the house that he particularly haunted. And there was a walk along the aqueduct path that, to the northward, at High Bridge, suddenly seemed to leave the earth behind, leading out on to a succession of granite arches, where, in the daytime, one could then look out over a great sweep of landscape, filled with blowing woods, white villages, and meadows that rolled away northward into the highlands and islands about Pelham Bay; or sank away eastward into the far, shimmering mirror of the Sound, streaked by the trailing plumes of steamboats, and flecked with sails. Down in the little graveyard below him, Virginia slept in the borrowed tomb under the cypresses and pine trees. Out of the sea behind Long Island rose the moon.

And now, as the night was senescent,

And the star-dials pointed to morn —

As the star-dials hinted of morn —

At the end of our path a liquescent

And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent

Arose with a duplicate horn —

Astarte’s bediamonded crescent

Distinct with its duplicate horn. . . .

Since childhood Poe had loved the stars, since the days of the at John Allan’s house.(794) In the pages of innumerable he had carefully read the astronomical notes, and followed the news of the progress of that science as it was reported, [page 733:] decade by decade, in their columns.(795) And all this had led him to Laplace, and Newton, Dr. Nichol, obscure works on physics and mathematics, Kepler, and Boscovitck

As Poe paced the arches of the High Bridge through the spring and summer nights of the year A. D. 1847, the mysterious sleeping world seemed to be cut away from beneath his feet, while over his head marched flashing rank on rank “the armies of unalterable law.” He pondered upon it all, upon himself, and upon the place of man in the scheme of things, and he essayed to solve the mystery, which his own exalted ego whispered that he could solve. He could not bear to think that even God should elude him. There were two comments upon all this at Fordham — Ulalume and Eureka.(796) The poet’s comment was strangled, but withal splendidly strangled by the “Magnificent Logician.”

In Ulalume, Poe, the poet, personified the constellations, reading into them an allegory of his soul’s predicament. Once more, as in William Wilson, he saw his own double. It was Psyche, his soul, this time. Bound on the great adventure of life, he and Psyche wandered together in search of the beloved one, and came to the doors of a tomb.

There was a white, frosty starlight caught in these lines; a terror of the great caverns of space haunted by the beasts of the zodiac; an element of irresponsible cosmic will in the fatal hour marked by the star-dials; a titanic alley of cypress for a mystic adventure with his own soul in a demon landscape lit by the star- glimmering, miraculous crescent of the goddess of passion.

Astarte’s bediamonded crescent.

Distinct with its duplicate horn.

A fancy from Henry Hirst’s trite verses had been transmitted, fay genius, into an imaginative figure, an allegory of enormous significance.(601) Virginia, the little invalid maid who had represented [page 734:] for Israfel the maiden-like and chaste love of Diana, had passed away. For her, his tears were hardly dry when he beheld rising into the skies of his life, triumphant over all the lion dens of misery, the crescent of Astarte, who represented physical passion:

And I said — ‘ She is warmer than Diana.’

She rolls through an ether of sighs —

She revels in a region of sighs:

She has seen that the tears are not dry on

Those cheeks when the worm never dies,

And has come past the stars of the Lion,

To point us the path to the skies —

To the Lethean peace of the skies —

And then a colloquy takes place between the poet and his own soul. A strange foreboding of love, of Astarte, has been discovered by his Psyche.

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,

Said — ‘Sadly this star I mistrust —

Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —

Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!

Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must!

In terror she spoke, letting sink her

Wings until they trailed in the dust —

And then the alter ego “I,” passifies the soul, and kisses her out of her gloom, and conquers her scruples,

And we passed to the end of a vista,

But were stopped by the door of a tomb.

All the world knows the rest. “Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume.” It was only last year, Poe cries, “On this very night df last year . . . that I brought a dread burden down here.” Just Below him, in the misty lowlands among the trees, was the vault of Virginia.

Well I know, now, this dark tarn of Amber,

This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.(797) [page 735:]

In the few months that followed, the poet was to tempt his Psyche down the same vista at least three separate times. At the end, he inevitably found the same locked door of the tomb, until it opened for him alone. It was a species of despair that can only be expressed by the dirge-like name which he found written on the door. What it was in his nature that thus ended every love quest, whether it was the long frustration of his marriage, or a fear, even more deep-seated and abysmal, is a question that, if solvable, would go far to explain within him the conviction of tragedy and emotional disaster that rested upon him heavily for almost twenty years.

Thus the poet in him adventured with his soul and the stars. The mind of the man, now convinced of its great logical powers,(796) and under the necessity of so believing in itself, reached out even further into the abysses, and setting no bounds to its activities, beheld God breathing and inbreathing — through an endless succession of eternal cycles — atoms, and universes of stars. Eureka was written at Fordham. Let us descend from the aqueduct a moment into the cottage with Mrs. Clemm.

He never liked to be alone, and I used to sit up with him, often until four o’clock in the morning, he at his desk, writing, and I dozing in my chair. When he was composing Eureka we reed to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk. He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him. I always sat with him when he was writing, and gave him a cup of hot coffee every hour or two. At home he was simple and affectionate as a child, and during all the years he lived with me I do not remember a single night that he failed to come and kiss his ‘mother,’ as he called me, before going to bed.(799)

There is an enormous, an almost sardonic irony between the domestic scene, as described by Mrs. Clemm, and what was going on in the poet’s mind. Eureka must have consumed a deal of coffee, and Mrs. Clemm would have been nearly walked to death. [page 736:] It was nothing less than the Eternal Spirit, brooding on the abyss and making it pregnant, streams of atoms rioting along the illimitable inane which now obsessed the poet’s mind. Indeed, there is a close resemblance between Poe when he was pondering Eureka and “Lucretius,” maddened by the love philter, and the enormous visions he was no longer able to save from the confusion of insane dreams.(800) The parallel in many ways is a true one, even to the events which followed.

It was a strange thing, this prose poem, a compound of many tides of thought at the time. It was the sophistry which Poe was forced to .introduce into its pages in order to try to fuse its imponderable but antagonistic elements, by which the work finally falls. What was meant to be a chemical solution of ideas is found in reality upon analyses to be only an emulsion, but let us grant the fact, cleverly even subtly mixed. The unity is purely mechanical and literary, but Eureka, despite the bitter criticisms which it has received, remains a creditable piece of dialectic. Philosophically it is an Alexandrine concoction, but with this exception — it is animated by the imagination of an abnormally detached and exalted mind.

One hears very little of, or from Poe during the Spring and Summer of 1847. The Home Journal, in March 13, carried his lines addressed to “M. L. S.” — Marie Louise Shew, — which are an expression of passionate gratitude to her for his preservation. Into those lines had already crept an attitude that was something more than gratitude, and a little less than love. Mrs. Shew had now been added to the pantheon of Poesque Angels in lines —

By him, who, as he pens them, thrills to think

His spirit is communing with an angel’s.

The next week Willis in the Home Journal inserted a notice announcing The Authors of America, In Prose and Verse, by Edgar A. Poe, as about to appear. This was evidently an advance puff for the projected anthology which never came out. Willis, [page 737:] from now on, printed and reprinted Poe’s poems whenever he could in the Home Journal, and kept the legend of his genius alive by commendation and notices. He was, in short, a kindly disposed friend, inclined, and able to be a good press agent. Willis undoubtedly desired to encourage Poe out of the despondency that had fallen upon him. He liked Poe, understood the cause of his weaknesses, and admired his genius. The effect of this championing by Willis in the Home Journal had an important bearing upon the rapid growth of Poe’s fame. It was a powerful help. Poe kept writing to Willis, from time to time, telling him of his plans, and Mrs. Clemm called upon him frequently. The large spirit of Nathaniel P. Willis understood, condoned, helped, and still admired.

March, 1847, also saw the publication of The Domain of Arnheim in the Columbian Magazine. This was a revamped version of The Landscape Garden, evidently worked over to be resalable. The retouches, as usual, were great improvements, and shadowed forth vaguely some of the Hudson’s vistas, or what is perhaps Harlem river scenery near Fordham. “Arnheim” is certainly the poet’s name for his domain of retreat, but applies more strictly to “A mass of semi-Gothic semi-Saracenic architecture” that appears at the end of the story. This story, together with its earlier version of The Landscape Garden, alluded to before, is therefore a compound of early Richmond days and the Fordham period.(185) In it is the glorification of hermitage.

And a hermit, Poe remained during the entire year of 1847. What few excursions he made into the world seem to have ended in disaster. He was then in such a delicate and precarious state of health that the least indulgence produced a state of collapse. Only while he remained at Fordham was he safe in Mrs. Clemm’s care. We catch only a few glimpses of him in this sequestered existence.

Eureka and Ulalume, we know, were under way during this period. In the Summer, most of Poe’s time seems to have been taken with gardening, enjoying country walks, and, probably, some boating (we hear in Arnheim about canoes). Poe was passing the time with “Muddie,” the caged birds, and with the still [page 738:] flourishing and fondly cherished Catarina. Mrs. Shew occasionally came out to call, and once there were some English writers and travelers, who were charmed by this pastoral presentation of the poet in his garden with his cat, his flowers, and his caged birds.(801)

As spring advanced, he and Mrs. Clemm laid out some flower beds in the front garden and planted them with flowers and vines given by the neighbors, until when in May the cherry tree again blossomed the little abode assumed quite an attractive appearance. Upon an old settle left by a former tenant, and which Mrs. Clemm’s skilful hands had mended and scrubbed and stained into respectability and placed beneath the cherry tree as a garden-seat, Poe might now often be seen reclining; gazing up into the branches, where birds and bees flitted in and out, or talking and whistling to his own pets, a parrot and bobolink, whose cages hung in the branches. A passer-by was impressed by the picture presented quite early one summer morning of the poet and his mother standing together on the green turf, smiling, looking up and talking to these pets. Here on the convenient settle, on returning from one of his long sunrise rambles, he would rest until summoned by his mother to his frugal breakfast . . . ‘a pretzel and two cups of strong coffee,’ or when there was no pretzel, the crusty part of a loaf with a bit of salt herring as a relish. . . . He was fond of fruit, and his sister said of buttermilk and curds, which they obtained from their rural neighbors. . . . Most of his time, said Mrs. Clemm, was passed out of doors. He did not like the loneliness of the house, and would not remain alone in the room in which Virginia had died.(802)

About the beginning of August, 1847, Poe made a visit to Philadelphia, taking with him some articles to sell to Graham’s. By August 10, 1847, be was back again at Fordham writing to someone connected with Graham’s Magazine (probably Charles J. Peterson) from which it appears that —

Without your aid, at the precise moment and in the precise manner to which you rendered it, it is more than probable that I should not now be alive to write you this letter. . . .(803) [page 739:]

As to the meaning of which, there can be little doubt. Poe, in his already dreadfully disorganized condition, had taken a drink. He was, he said, “ exceeding ill — so much so that I had no hope except in getting home immediately.”(803) He received an advance of $10 from Mr. Graham, who was kindly in his reception. Poe already owed Mr. Graham about $50. Leaving two articles with the magazine, he now returned to Fordham. The first excursion, from the hermitage into the world of reality, had ended in swift, almost fatal disaster.

Poe’s condition at this time, towards the end of 1847, is very difficult to justly apprehend. He seems to have been reduced to a quivering bundle of sensitive nerves by the privations preceding the great shock, for shock it was, of Virginia’s death. From a medical diagnosis, upon which considerable faith may be put, only a few months later, it also appears that his heart was giving out, arid that he was suffering from something akin to lesion of the brain. The trip to Philadelphia seems to show that the slightest indulgence in alcohol was to court death.

He was also troubled by a growing platonic affection for Mrs. Shew, upon whom, next to Mrs. Clemm, he now relied for help and sympathy. There can be very little doubt that, from time to time at Fordham, he resorted to drugs, Rosalie Poe specifically mentions morphine. He had now arrived at that state of ego, wife the writing and completion of Eureka, in which, as he phrases it, “My whole nature revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself.” He states that he felt this feeling to be only natural in all men.(804) In Eureka he had, by his metaphysical-cosmic theories, succeeded, he thought, in identifying all life as being a part of God, and, from that, he doubtless derived considerable comfort. By the end of 1847 he was now, once more, preparing to appear in the world, and to startle men by the announcement of his “discoveries.” Through Willis, he arranged to deliver Eureka as a lecture.

In December, Ulalume appeared anonymously in the American Whig as The Raven had done. Following out precisely the same scheme of calling notice to it, Poe now wrote to Willis who reprinted [page 740:] it the following month in the Home Journal with an inspired query as to its author.(805) Some minor interest was evoked. With the beginning of the new year, another instalment of the Marginalia appeared in Graham’s, and a biography of Poe, by P. P. Cooke, came out in Richmond in the Messenger. Cooke’s article was entitled,

Edgar A. Poe, an estimate of his literary merits. By P. P. Cooke, — the following paper is a sequel to Mr. Lowell’s memorial (so-called) of Mr. Poe, published two or three years since in Graham’s Magazine.(806)

The article concluded with what was, probably, an inspired paragraph by Poe, complaining about the small number, and the confined choice of Wiley & Putnam’s edition of his Tales. “A reader gathering his knowledge of Mr. Poe from this Wiley & Putnam issue would perceive nothing of the diversity and variety for which his works are remarkable.” A complete edition is thus hinted as being desirable.(806)

The lecture On the Cosmogony of the Universe, advertised to take place February 3, 1848, at the Society Library in New York, was to raise funds for the Stylus, now about to be resuscitated again to signs of life. In January, Poe had sent out the old prospectus again, with the added promise of articles on Literary America — a “faithful account of the literary productions, literary people, and literary affairs of the United States” — by the editor, of course. The Classical Department was announced as being in the hands of “the most distinguished of American scholars.” This was Professor Charles Anthon, Poe’s acquaintance of years past.(791)

Poe’s friend, Freeman Hunt of the Merchant’s Magazine, to whom Poe’s mail was sent, had raised money for his own publication by making a personal canvass through the country for subscribers. Poe now decided to follow his friend’s scheme. In January he had written to G. W. Eveleth that his plan was to go [page 741:] through the South and West, and there try to get enough subscribers to be able to commence with a list of at least five hundred.(807) The lecture on the universe was to provide the necessary traveling funds. N. P. Willis did his best through the columns of the Home Journal to advertise the lecture, and to smooth the way for the Stylus.

But even the weather was opposed to the Stylus. The night of the lecture was cold and stormy, and the hall none too well heated. Some sixty odd persons assembled, and listened to a rapturous address of lyrical logic for about two hours and a half. Poe must have read to them nearly the whole text of Eureka, or most copious extracts. Despite the disadvantages of the occasion, and the difficulties of the theme, the personality and eloquence of the lecturer made a memorable impression upon many of the auditors.

Poe’s natural abilities as an orator and actor came out strongly upon such occasions as this. He is said, by people who had seen him, to have resembled Edwin Booth in some of the gestures and attitudes he used, and in certain aspects of his countenance.(808) His voice was thrilling, and wonderfully modulated. It must be remembered that he came of actor parents, and seems to have markedly inherited their gifts. There was always about him the air of the stage, something startling, arresting and dramatic. He seemed, to many, like a great tragedian off-stage, yet forever in the pose of his part. In the lecture on Eureka, Poe became the high priest unveiling the mysteries of God and Nature. So convinced was he himself, that, while the play lasted, the audience remained spell-bound, going away impressed, only to wonder later what it was all about.

The reports in the papers were of course ludicrous. Poe was grieved, and enclosed abstracts of the lecture to his friends, “to eke out a chance of your understanding what I really did say: I add a loose summary of my propositions and results:” [page 742:]

The General Proposition is this — Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are.

1. An inspection of the universality of Gravitation — i.e., of the fact that each particle tends, not to any one common point, but to every other particle — suggests perfect totality or absolute unity, as the source of the phenomenon.

2. Gravity is but the mode in which is manifested the tendency of all things to return into their original unity — is but the reaction of the first Divine Act.

3. The law regulating the return — i.e., the law of Gravitation — is but a necessary result of the necessary and sole possible mode of equable irradiation of matter through space: this equable irradiation is necessary as a basis for the Nebular Theory of Laplace.

4. The Universe of Stars (contradistinguished from the Universe of Space) is limited.

5. Mind is cognizant of Matter only through its two properties, attraction and repulsion: therefore Matter is only attraction and repulsion: a finally consolidated globe-of-globes, being but one particle, would be without attraction — i.e., gravitation: the existence of such a globe presupposed the expulsion of the separative ether which we know to exist between the particles as at present diffused: thus the final globe would be matter without attraction and repulsion: but these are matter: then the final globe would be matter without matter — i.e., no matter at all: it must disappear. Thus Unity is Nothingness.

6. Matter, springing from Unity, sprang from Nothingness — i.e., was created.

7. All will return to Nothingness, in returning to Unity. . . . What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly — but I say it.(809)

For obvious reasons, in a biographical narrative, it is not possible to discuss Eureka here. It contains what is, at best, a highly and cleverly elaborated sophistry. There are irreconcilable inconsistencies of thought in its thesis, with misapplications and misapprehensions of the data of science, even at the time that it was written (1847). Its chief virtue resides, even now, in a certain grandeur of imagination, and a vast breadth of detached vision, almost lyrically expressed at times in magnificent cosmic analogies, A successful apology for it cannot be made, and there is no necessity for doing so, when the central figure of a biography [page 743:] is not projected with the bias of a prejudice which calls for heroic propaganda. In justice, however, it must be said that Eureka cannot be easily brushed aside. It is by no means a fit subject for the sallies of “rash bavin wits.” It must be remembered, in considering it in connection with Poe’s life and the nature of his intellect, that the man was very ill, mentally and physically, when he wrote it. Despite that fact, it shows a certain logical ingenuity of no mean stamp, and a surprising scope and vigor as a synthesis of certain tendencies in early Nineteenth Century thought. Considerably more is to be learned from Eureka, even now, by pointing out and comprehending exactly where and why Poe was wrong, than by understanding why many of his contemporaries, who did not dare, nor fail so greatly, are so unimportantly right.(810)

One thing can be chronicled with certainty. The lecture on the universe did not provide sufficient cash to enable Poe to start on his mundane tour to solicit subscribers for the Stylus. Poe had hoped for three or four hundred in his audience. He had been forced to ask the Society Library to waive the payment in advance for the lecture hall, $15, and must, in the end, have come out of the affair with something less than $50, at best.(811) His enthusiasm for his theories was not a bit abashed by this, however. One catches a glimpse, about this time, of a man exalted. He now offered Eureka to George P. Putnam, lately of the firm which had published The Collected Tales, and The Poems, and, in an interview with the publisher, discovered his unbounded hopes and faith in the importance of the “discoveries” in Eureka by suggesting an edition of 50,000 at once. Mr. Putnam was patient and kindly. He divided the estimate of the enthusiastic and exalted author by 100, and published an edition of 500, which sold very slowly. [page 744:]

Eureka: A Prose Poem, By Edgar A. Poe, New York: Geo. P. Putnam, of late firm of “Wiley & Putnam,” 155 Broadway. MDXXXXLVIII, — a small book in board bindings published in March, 1848, was Poe’s tenth published volume, the last of his lifetime. It was a 12mo of 143 pages. “With profound Respect” this work is dedicated to Alexander Von Humboldt.

PREFACE

To the few who love me and whom I love — to those who feel rather than to those who think — to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities — I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: — let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.

What I here profound is true: — therefore it cannot die: — or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will “rise again to the Life Everlasting.”

Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead, E. A. P.

After which follow 136 pages of text.

The returns from the book were small, and very slow to come in, so Poe now went ahead with plans to lecture elsewhere, i.e., at Lowell and Providence. The Lyceum idea was just getting under way. It had developed from the Sunday lecture. These were often delivered in the afternoon, and even in the evenings from pulpits. The inevitable opposition of the clergy to anything secular or interesting invading their sacrosant field, soon developed, and various societies were soon organized over the country that imported lecturers and people of note to the local circle of literati or cognescenti. New England, the East, the middle West, and a few places in the South took up the idea eagerly, and lecturers and propagandists of all kinds began to make the rounds of city, town, and village. Mrs. Oakes Smith was the first woman to appear publically ‘before circles of some prestige. Later on, these Lyceums were turned over to the slavery question and trouble ensued. In 1848, Poe was preparing a new lecture to raise money [page 745:] for the Stylus. Eureka proving not to be a popular subject, he now turned to his Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle which Graham had bought in manuscript, and began to turn them to account on the platform. These lectures included the recitation of poetry, his own, and selected bits from others with which he was able to make an impression.

In February, 1848, there was a Valentine Party at Miss Lynch’s which Poe did not attend, as he was now persona non grata to most of the literati. At this gathering some verses from Mrs. Helen Whitman addressed to The Raven were read. These later on paved the way to an important affair with the “Seeress of Providence.”

The rest of the Spring and Summer was taken up with the publication of Eureka, correspondence with Eveleth, and the disturbing vicissitudes of the friendship with Mrs. Shew. Of all the women with whom Poe was intimate during the latter years, Marie Louise Shew seems to have shown the most sterling essentials of a well-rounded vigorous personality. She was the daughter of a doctor, and, as has been previously noticed, herself a nurse with considerable medical education and experience, as well as the friend of physicians. This practical acquaintance, and familiarity with the essential physical verities of life endowed her with a genuine pity and humanity, and saved her from the quagmire of spiritualism and aesthetic sentimentality in which so many of the starry sisterhood wallowed. She understood Poe, although she did not read his poetry and stories, unless addressed to herself, and she sympathized with the difficulties of his temperament, and his physical infirmities. More than this, she brought him food and clothing in time of bitter need, and made her house a haven for him after the death of Virginia.

Poe, on his part, began by regarding her with respect and gratitude, and ended by allowing her sympathy to lead him into an utter dependency, worship, and affection which became so pronounced that Mrs. Shew was forced to end her ministrations and association. In the Spring of 1848, Poe was much at her house. After Virginia’s death it was like a second home to him.

Mrs. Shew had permitted him to help, and gladly accepted his [page 746:] aid in furnishing her drawing-rooms. This he had done after the canons of taste announced in his Philosophy of Furniture.(534)

Louise! my brightest, most unselfish of all who ever loved me! . . . I shall have so much pleasure in thinking of you and yours in that music room and library, Louise, I give you great credit for taste in these things, and I know I can please you in the purchases. During my first call at your house after my Virginia’s death, I noticed with so much pleasure the large painting over the piano, which is a masterpiece, indeed; and I noticed the size of all your paintings, the scrolls instead of set figures of the drawing room carpet, the soft effect of the window shades, also the crimson and gold. . . .(534) I was charmed to see the harp and piano uncovered. The pictures of Raphael and the ‘The Cavalier’ I shall never forget — their softness and beauty! The guitar with the blue ribbon, music-stand and antique jars! I wondered that a little country maiden like you had developed so classic a taste and atmosphere. . . . (812)

“The little country maiden” had also developed a classic common sense that read Mr. Poe, if she did not read his works, like a book. Poe was more than willing to be her “patient,” and under her tactful care and diagnosis. He regarded her, like all women who showed marked sympathy with

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow —

Lines, from Shelley, which he once pointed out as the truest characteristic of hopeless love that he knew. Israfel, it seems, could not think of any love but the “highest love,” i.e., a hopeless love, and was fond of harping on the theme both in ink and conversation.

The Shew house was close to a large New York church and there, after the death of Virginia, we hear of Poe’s attending service with Mrs. Shew. He sang well, she remarked, in a fine “tenor” voice, and knew all the responses. His mind must have traveled back to the old Monumental Church at Richmond, with Frances Allan standing hand in hand with a child in long past, [page 747:] golden days. It is one of the few records known of Poe in church in manhood.(813) The sermon touched on a theme that reminded him of Virginia, and reduced him to despair.

Sometime later in the Spring of 1848, Poe paid a visit to Mrs. Shew’s house which resulted in the writing of The Bells, next to The Raven, his most popular poem.(814)

Poe and Mrs. Shew retired to a little conservatory overlooking a garden, where they had tea. He complained to his hostess that he had to write a poem, but had no inspiration. Mrs. Shew, to help him, brought pen, ink, and paper, and; while they sat there, the sound of church bells filled the air, and fell almost like a blow of pain on Poe’s hypersensitive ears and jangled nerves. He pushed the paper away saying, “I dislike the noise of bells to-night, I cannot write. I have no subject, I am exhausted.” Mrs. Shew then wrote on the paper, “The bells, the little, silver bells “ — and Poe finished a stanza, again almost relapsing into a state of coma. Mrs. Shew then urged him again, beginning a second stanza with “The heavy iron bells.” Poe finished two more stanzas, heading them “by Mrs. M. L. Shew,” after which he was completely unable to proceed. After supper he was taken upstairs and put to bed, where he appears to have lapsed into a coma. Mrs. Shew called Dr. Francis in. The Doctor and Mrs. Shew sat by the bedside and noted his symptoms. The pulse was very weak and irregular, and caused the doctor to say, “He has heart disease, and will die early in life.” Mrs. Shew had previously noted the symptoms also. Both of them felt that Poe was nearly dying, and that he was close to the verge of insanity. He remained for the night, but did not seem to realize his danger. The end was indeed near.

During the remainder of 1848, and part of 1849, The Bells west though many revisions. Three versions of it are known before ‘it made its final public appearance in Sartain’s Union Magazine for November, 1849, with the following notice: [page 748:]

There is a curious piece of literary history connected with this poem. . . . It illustrates the gradual development of an idea in the mind of a man of original genius. This poem came into our possession about a year since — (December, 1848). It then consisted of eighteen lines! They were as follows:

THE BELLS, — A SONG

The Bells! — hear the bells!

The merry wedding-bells!

The little silver bells!

How fairy-like a melody there swells

From the silver tinkling cells

Of the bells, bells, bells!

Of the bells!

The bells! — ah, the bells!

The heavy iron bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells!

Hear the knells!

How horrible a melody there floats

From their throats —

From their deep-toned throats!

How I shudder at the notes

From the melancholy throats

Of the bells, bells, bells!

Of the bells!

About six months after this we received the poem enlarged and altered nearly to its present size and form, and about three months since, the author sent an alteration and enlargement, in which condition the poem was left at the time of his death. This kind of revision was typical of Poe’s method.

The poem, however, was not of such a sudden birth as Mrs. Shew imagined. It would be possible to show that the poet had long contemplated writing a poem on the subject. Chateaubriand’s Géuie du Christianisme, a source from which Poe adapted a number of items, suggests a poem on the subject of bells. A clipping said to have been found in Poe’s note-book from Poulson’s Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser, an obscure sheet, supplied the following here closely paraphrased:

St. Paulinua, Bishop of Nola, first introduced bells into the Roman [page 749:] Compagnia in 409. A bell was then called Nola or Compagnia. Then they were called (after) saints, then toc-saint, hence toc-sin, Pliny reports that ages before his era bells were used and were called Tintinnabula. . . .(815)

The inference is plain. It seems more truly the mark of a great creative mind that, out of such dross as this, Poe was able to seize the nugget of the word which most people suppose him to have coined. It was from such dry sources that the inspiration came, and not from the bottle.(816)

Mrs. Shew speaks of Poe’s sleeping twelve hours after this collapse, and of his being taken home to Fordham by Dr. Francis — “the old man was odd but very skilful.” Poe was evidently close to exhaustion. One must regard him, now, as being so delicately over-strung that the slightest emotional stress produced results out of all proportion to the cause. He was now, beyond doubt, in a thoroughly abnormal condition, and subject to delirious spells, and hours of wandering out of which he emerged to remember nothing of what happened. At times his sleep resembled a coma. It seems to have been during the approach of one of these periods, when in a half-exhausted, sub-conscious state, that he produced the first draft of The Bells. It was finished and given an intellectual unity, from time to time, later on.(814)

On one occasion, Mrs. Shew says that Poe, in a half dreamlike state, told her of a trip he had made to Spain where he bad fought a duel, and had been nursed by a Scotch lady whose name he could not divulge. He showed Mrs. Shew a scar on his arm or shoulder which he said he had then received. From Spain, Poe went to Paris, where he said he wrote a novel that had later been brought out under Eugene Sue’s name, etc., etc. This, of course, was a half delirious recital of mythical events that has tended [page 750:] to confuse some biographers who desired to lay stress on Poe’s foreign experiences and background.(814)

Friendship with a man in this state was exceedingly difficult. Poe’s dependence, and affection for Mrs. Shew alarmed a woman of her experienced and common sense type. She realized that it could not go on. At the same time, she plainly saw that he needed the care and affection that only an acknowledged member of his family circle could provide. She undoubtedly advised Poe to look about him, and to marry someone who could, at once, provide him the means of existence, and the care of a wife. Dr. Francis is said to have warned the poet that, unless he gave up all stimulants and excesses, the end was near. For a short time Poe seems to have heeded this, and to have restrained himself. Mrs. Shew now withdrew in a kindly, but firm way from further intercourse, realizing that she had done all that she could, and that any further intimacy would find her involved in the same kind of gossip which had driven Mrs. Osgood to Albany. In June, Poe received a letter from Mrs. Shew saying that her visits to Fordham, and his visits to her must cease.(817) It was kindly but explicit. A glimpse into Poe’s state of mind, and the result of his platonic friendship with this fine woman who had saved his life, and who now refused to be compromised, may best be obtained by reading the poet’s reply written from his retreat at Fordham:

Can it be true, Louise, that you have the idea fixed in your mind to desert your unhappy and unfortunate friend and patient? You did not say so, I know, but for months I have known you were deserting me, not willingly, but none the less surely — my destiny —

‘Disaster, following fast and following faster, till his song one burden bore —

Till the dirge’s of his Hope, that melancholy burden bore —

Of “Never-nevermore.”’

So I have had premonitions of this for months, I repeat, my good spirit, my loyal heart! Must this follow as a sequel to all the benefits and blessings you have so generously bestowed? Are you to vanish like all or desire, from my darkened and ‘lost soul’? I have read over your letter again and again, and cannot make it possible, with any [page 751:] degree of certainty, that you wrote it in your right mind. (I know you did not without tears of anguish and regret.) Is it possible your influence is lost to me? Such tender and true natures are ever loyal until death; but you are not dead, you are full of life and beauty! Louise you came in (refers to some time when Mrs. Shew had been nursing him) in your floating white robe — ‘Good morning, Edgar.’ There was a touch of conventional coldness in your hurried manner, and your attitude, as you opened the door to find Muddie, is my last remembrance of you. There was love, hope, and sorrow in your smile, instead of love, hope, and courage, as ever before. O Louise, how many sorrows are before you! Your ingenious and sympathetic nature will be constantly wounded in its contact with the hollow, heartless world; and for me, alas! Unless some true and tender, and pure womanly love saves me, I shall hardly last a year longer alive!(818) A few short months will tell hew far my strength (physical and moral) will carry me in life here. How can I believe in Providence when you look coldly upon me? Was it not you who renewed my hopes and faith in God? . . . and in humanity? Louise, I heard your voice as you passed out of my sight leaving me . . . ; but I still listen to your voice. I heard you say with a sob, ‘Dear Muddie,’ I heard you greet my Catarina (the cat) but it was only as a memory . . . nothing escaped my ear, and I was convinced it was not your generous self . . . repeating words so foreign to your nature — to your tender heart! I heard you sob out your sense of duty to my mother, and I heard her reply, ‘Yes, Louise . . . yes,’ . . . Why turn your soul from its true work for the desolate to the thankless and miserly world? . . . I felt my heart stop, and was sure I was then to die before your eyes. Louise, it is well — it is fortunate — you looked up with a tear in your dear eyes, and raised the window, and talked of the guava you had brought for my sore throat. Your instincts are better than a strong man’s reason for me — I trust they may be for yourself. Louise, I feel I shall not prevail — a shadow has already fallen upon your soul, and is reflected in your eyes. It is too late — you are floating with the cruel tide . . . it is not a common trial — it is a fearful one to me. Such rare souls as yours so beautify this earth! So relieve its toils and cares, it is hard to lose sight of them even for a short time . . . but you must know and be assured of my regret and sorrow if aught I have written has hurt you. My heart never wronged you. I placed you in my esteemin all solemnity — beside the friend of my boyhood — the mother of my schoolfellow, of whom I told you, and as I have repeated in the poem (To Helen) . . . as the truest, tenderest of this world’s most womanly souls, and an angel to [page 752:] my forlorn and darkened nature. I will not say ‘lost soul’ again, for your sake. I will try to overcome my grief for the sake of your unselfish care of me In the past, and in life or death. I am ever yours gratefully and devotedly.(819)

EDGAR A. POE

Thus Mrs. Shew had departed, leaving her words of farewell ringing in his ears — and her advice. Feminine sympathy was now essential to Poe. He seems to have desired an angel rather than a woman, and he now deliberately set about to bring one home to his cottage whence both his good angels, Virginia and Marie Louise, had departed.

In the poetry of Helen Whitman, Poe thought that he detected that quality and temperament which was his necessity, and he now set about to find this kindred soul. Strangely enough, disastrously, in fact, across this spiritual chase, passed the vision of another woman whom he accidently met. It was Mrs. Annie Richmond. To these, to make emotional confusion thrice confounded, was shortly added the name of his boyhood love, Sarah Elmira Royster (Mrs. Shelton), — and, through it all, danced the ghost of a magazine striving to be born.

Never was so fast disintegrating a nature torn amid so many woes and loves. Behind it all was “Muddie,” patient, but ever hoping and urging, conniving, when necessary, in little harmless, but important subterfuges, to provide her dear Eddie with a wife who might bring him a competence, and the protection of a preserving love. “Muddie” was no longer his mother-in-law and aunt, but his mother in every act and thought. Mrs. David Poe had now been sleeping in her unmarked grave at St. Johns in Richmond for thirty-seven years. Her husband’s sister had long taken her place;

Because the angels in the Heavens above,

Devoutly singing unto one another,

Can find amid their burning terms of love,

None so devotional as that of ‘mother,’

Therefore by that sweet name I long have called you;

You who are more than mother unto me, [page 753:]

Filling my heart of hearts, where God installed you,

In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.

My mother — my own mother, who died early,

Was but the mother — of myself; but you

Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,

Are thus more precious than the one I knew,

By that infinity with which my wife

Was dearer to my soul than its soul life.(820)

It was during this last Summer at Fordham, in 1848, that Poe is said to have had a portrait painted by Charles Hine, a Connecticut artist. Poe is shown in a dressing gown, seated by his table with a bust of Pallas, some books, and a manuscript upon it. He is depressed and cynical, and bears the stamp of great suffering in the drawn lines of his face. The contrast between the right and left sides of the countenance is so startling as to defy description. Very little is known about the history of this picture which has but recently come to light.(821)


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 730:]

789.  These divisions, of course, are purely convenient ones.

790.  Poe may have contributed about this time to the Literary World, contributions as yet untraced — see (Eveleth) correspondence, also Poe’s reference to his file of this periodical to Mrs. Clemm from Richmond, September, 1849.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 731:]

791.  See Poe to G. W. Eveleth, New York, March 11, 1847. Prof. James Southall Wilson’s pamphlet of Poe — Eveleth Letters, page 14. Also see Chapter XXII, pages 708 and 709.

792.  Published in the Saturday Evening Post. See Poe to Eveleth, New York, February 16, 1847, Prof. James Southall Wilson’s Poe-Eveleth Letters Pamphlet, page 12. In this letter appears Poe’s defence, quoted in this book from another source. See Chapter XIX, page 443. Also see note 532, also Chapter XXII, page 627, and note 608.

793.  Charles C. Burr was a friend of Poe in Philadelphia, See Chapter XXV, page 759.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 732:]

794.  See Chapter VII, page 130, also note 183.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 733:]

795.  The North American: See Poe’s Brother, George H. Doran Co., 1926. Even as early as 1827 the North American carried astronomical news typical of the “scientific” notes that interested Poe.

796.  The pronunciation of U-lalume as “Oolalume” is contrary to Poe’s obvious fondness for the sound, “U” long (u), repeated often in such words as “Eulalie.” The “U” in Ulalume is like the “U” in Uranus, Urania, etc.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 734:]

797.  In The Domain of Arnheim and Landor’s Cottage will be found descriptions of the same landscape under mist, and mystery that these two lines symbolize.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 735:]

798.  See Poe’s comparison, in a note in Eureka, of his logical process in the prose poem with the same in his detective stories.

799.  R. E. Shapley in a Philadelphia newspaper, quoted by Woodberry, 1900, vol. II, page 236.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 736:]

800.  See Tennyson’s Lucretius, — and De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius, for the references. Harrison also mentions this parallel.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 738:]

801.  The Englishmen speak of “rare tropical birds.” There was a bobolink, a parrot, and canaries.

802.  Home Life of Poe, S. A. Weiss, pages 150, 151. Mrs. Weiss constructed her accounts from various authentic recollections in this case. See note 777.

803.  This letter at the University of Virginia is minus an address, but was probably written to Peterson, the assistant editor of Graham’s Magazine. Poe to —— , August 10, 1847, quoted by Harrison, vol. I, pages 270, 271, Biography.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 739:]

804.  Eureka.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 740:]

805.  Poe to Willis, Fordham, December 8 (1847).

806.  J. H. Whitty, Poems, large edition, Memoir, page lix, gives the best account of this. Also consult Poe to Cooke, New York, August 9, 1846. The notice had been arranged for the year before it appeared. Cooke’s admiration for Poe continued.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 741:]

807.  Poe to Eveleth, January 4, 1848. Prof. James Southall Wilson’s Poe-Eveleth Letters Pamphlet, page 19.

808.  Edward V. Valentine of Richmond to the author, July, 1925. Mr. Valentine made a bust of Edwin Booth, and also saw Poe.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 742:]

809.  Poe to Eveleth, New York, February 29, 1848,

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 743:]

810.  A critique of Eureka has been left out of the text here as the bulk of an adequate discussion precludes its being included in a work of limited and biographical scope. There is no adequate discussion of Eureka extant An attempt to relate it with modem discoveries in physics and astro-physics would be valuable and interesting. Einstein, and recent experiments in the nature of electricity, the behavior of atoms, and cathode rays might be included in the discussion.

811.  Poe to H. D. Chapin, Fordham, January 17, 1848. Mrs. Shew aided Poe to get permission to use the Library hall. At this time, Poe also thought of seeing John Neal about delivering a lecture at Portland, Maine.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 746:]

812.  Poe to Mrs. Shew, undated, “Sunday night,” — Spring of 1848. Harrison, Letter, vol. II., page 297, quotes.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 747:]

813.  Poe attended church with Mrs. Shelton in Richmond in 1849.

814.  Ingram: from a portion of Mrs, Shew’s diary. Parts of this diary were read to the author by Prof. James Southall Wilson of the University of Virginia in July, 1925. Ingram gives only portions of the full account.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 749:]

815.  J. H. Whitty, Poems, notes on The Bells. The final draft of the poem was finished February 8, 1849, see Poe to Annie, same date, F. W. Thomas cherished manuscript copy of The Bells. Poe also told Thomas that Dickens’ Chimes was the final inspiration; from it comes the “high, high, higher up.” See Poe’s remark on lines in The Valley of Unrest in the American Whig Review of April, 1845, etc., etc., etc. This poem has one of the longest and most intricate history of any of Poe’s poems.

816.  Also see Woodberry, 1909, pages 258, 259, for a similar version of the sources of the Bells.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 750:]

817.  This is distinctly implied in Poe’s reply.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 751:]

818.  These italics are here supplied as being prophetic, and as Poe’s own comment on his need for feminine affection, and an indication of his precarious health. He lived only a little over a year after this letter.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 752:]

819.  Ingram, ii, pages 157-159. Woodberry also quotes, 1909, vol. II. pages 261-264.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 753:]

820.  Probably written later than the time order implied in the text indicates. Published in The Flags [[Flag]] of Our Union, Boston, July 7, 1849, under title of To My Mother.

821.  Facts About Poe, Prof. James Southall Wilson. This is the most authentic test for the discussion of portraits of Poe. Hine also painted a portrait of Walt Whitman.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HVA26, 1926] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (H. Allen) (Chapter 24)