Text: N. P. Willis, “Letter from Idlewild,” Home Journal (New York, NY), series for 1856, no. 42, October 18, 1856, p. 2, cols. 1-5


[page 2, column 1:]




The work I had laid out for myself this evening chances to be so much better done in the new Number of the “North American” (which I opened by mere chance after mending my pen, stumbling first upon the very article I wanted) that I shall serve our readers much more satisfactorily than I had hoped to do, though with scissors instead of pen. I was going to call the attention of our “Home” Public to the singular revivification of the fame of EDGAR ALLAN POE — (the translation of whose poems is the present “rage” of the reading classes in France, — and to the simultaneous apotheosis of him in our own country (accidentally simultaneous, I believe) shown in the subscription now afoot to erect a monument to his memory. I chance to know also that a distinguished Professor in one of our Colleges is preparing, in a course of Lectures, for the coming season, one on the genius and character of the author of the “Raven.” To get our readers ready for this evidently top-crest on the coming wave of literary interest, I intended to make some critical comments on the character of Poe’s genius — which, as I said before, I find done already and much more ably in the North American. (This last, perhaps, a third simultaneousness of resuscitation.)

Let me first quote one of the paragraphs which relate to the erection of the monument:

“A monument to Poe.

To the Editor of the New-York Daily Times. — I read with interest the note of your correspondent H., in this morning’s Times, proposing a fund for the erection of a monument to the gifted Edgar Allan Poe, and inviting some one to open the ball for so desirable and proper a project. I have this day received a letter from an accomplished authoress, in which she says: —

“I saw in a magazine the other day, a very touching appeal to the public in behalf of the memory of poor Edgar Allan Poe, mentioning the circumstance that the spot where he lies is unmarked by slab or head-stone, and soliciting the attention of the feeling to the subject. Nothing ever goes so much to my heart as the tale of the forlorn, neglected remains of those who, by their genius, have benefitted the world. I wish to do something for the cause; cannot you help me? You must not remember the man’s sins, (for he was human,) so much as his colossal intellect. If each one of your thriving New-York publishers should contribute but a dollar or two, the thing might be accomplished.’

“Please, therefore, as the nucleus of a fund for a monument to E. A. Poe, put down — Miss J. H. five dollars; and also add from J. C. D., ten dollars. I respectfully recommend the appointment of a treasurer; perhaps you will suggest one, and the increase of this little beginning to one or two thousand dollars. J. C. D.”

[As I see no response to this suggestion of the “appointment of a treasurer,” let me propose that you yourself, my dear Morris, (being quite the best man living for bringing a popular enthusiasm to a focus) should undertake this responsibility- particularly as the North American gives the following incidental reason for it: — “In 1844, he (Poe) removed to New-York, where he was shortly afterwards engaged as assistant editor and critic by General Morris and N. P. Willis, then publishers of the Mirror. This was the only business engagement of his which proved satisfactory to his employers and was terminated in a friendly manner.” A singling out of yourself for this somewhat laborious and responsible “office of love” which I think you can scarce resist.]

The critical article under my hand (in our Boston Review) is no less tributary to the genius of Poe because it is very trenchantly severe. The high quality of mind evidently expended on it, is, itself, a strong breeze blown into the spread sail of his fame — both write-able and copy-able without offence, too, as the sensibilities of the poet are now beyond wounding.* Differing from the criticism, point-blank, as I do, in some of its merciless condemnations, I still think it very fine writing and well calculated for the object I spoke of — to prepare the minds of our readers for reception of the criticisms from abroad. The Parisian reviews will, in a month or two, be giving us the perspective view of his genius, as seen at that distance, and through the lens of another language.

But to the review. The critic thus makes the first pass with his keen scimitar: —

“The late Edgar A. Poe achieved a certain position in three distinct branches of literature, in poetry, criticism, and fiction. His reputation as a writer, up to the present time, may be sectionally or geographically apportioned. In the South, it is almost altogether grounded upon his skill as a writer of fiction; in the commercial metropolis of the country, it was his critical acumen which attracted most attention; in the Eastern States, his personal qualities, carried into his literary productions, have hitherto limited the number both of his friends and his admirers. In France and England, what fame he has was earned by a series of literary impositions. But wherever his works are read, perhaps we might justly say wherever the English language is spoken, he is best known, and will be longest remembered, as the author of two brief but exquisitely beautiful poems, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” — the only productions of his pen that have met with that unanimous appreciation of the learned and unlearned, which at once and forever establishes an author’s claim to genius.

“But though his popular reputation is that of a poet, it was in poetry that he accomplished least. Of the contents of the four volumes before us, only one hundred pages out of more than two thousand consist of poetical compositions, and in these are included all his juvenile poems and some dramatic fragments. Only one poem of his, in addition to those already named, has attained any remarkable celebrity; while, in our opinion, several of his prose tales fully equal in imaginative power, in vividness of description, and in thorough artistic finish, anything that he ever produced in a [column 2:] metrical form. Among several in the highest style of art, we would instance “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

“Mr. Poe’s earliest appearance as an author was in the publication of a small volume of poems when he was in his eighteenth year. In a note in the present edition of his works, it is stated that they are here reprinted, without addition or correction, as they originally appeared in 1829. We believe this; for only by recasting most of them — rewriting them entirely — could any essential emendation have been effected. No mere revision could make “Al Aaraaf” coherent, or establish to our recognition a mental succession to the juvenile author of “Tamerlane” in the matured artist who afterwards chimed forth his soul’s turbulence to the wild music of “The Bells.” In some half-dozen of his minor poems Mr. Poe has fully displayed his poetic capacity, in the opulence of imagination, the power of production and skilful combination, and especially in that delicate perception of the true harmonies of thought and expression, which is the soul of physical aesthetics. Yet is there something wanting to his poetry which we cannot express by any better phrase than the lack of spontaneity. It does not bear so much the impress of soul-utterings (we except only “Annabel Lee”) as of word-manoeuvring. His poems do not grow up in his mind; but the theme is carefully and mathematically adjusted, and the words, being marshalled out in order to a thorough inspection, are then successively dragooned into the especial service required. When completed, his work appears a rich and elaborately finished piece of art, but it lacks the vis vitæ which alone can make of words living things. Hence in but few of his efforts has he succeeded in enlisting the sympathy of his readers. They become admirers only, not lovers.

“His theory of the legitimate purpose and end of poetry was so exceedingly limited, as to necessitate a great reliance for effect upon a skilful adjustment of the parts; and to this theory, which he claimed not only as original, but as subversive of all others, he was enthusiastically attached, and with but slight deviations, and a few exceptions, which probably he would not admit to be such, adhered to it in his own writings. Far from agreeing with Ben Jonson, “that the principal end of Poesy is to inform men in the best reason of living,” he peremptorily determines that Beauty, including in that term Sublimity, is the only legitimate theme for a poem, and that “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” is the poet’s sole vocation; that Poesy has no connection with truth, morals, or spiritualities, unless incidentally. Indeed, he rigorously excludes these as an end,with all didacticism, wit, reasoning, satire, and even passionate love. He pronounces all long poems a contradiction in terms, scouting epics as poems (though allowing them other merits), and denying the very existence of such a thing as a humorous poem. The only element of humor which his theory admitted was archness. His objection to long poems was founded on what he was pleased to consider as a “psychal necessity,” namely, that an elevated mental excitement, which he deemed the true effect of poetry, could not be maintained above half an hour. This is the utmost tension of the soul which he could imagine. Any so-called poem, therefore, to be truly such, must be brief enough to admit of its perusal within thirty minutes. He even insists upon it that readers do not really enjoy such works as the “Divina Commedia,” or “Paradise Lost,” though they may seriously profess to do so. He might have avoided all circumlocution, and been equally modest, had he put his general proposition in regard to epics thus: “I, Edgar A. Poe, am incapable of keeping on the wing more than half an hour at any one time; ergo, no one else ever did, or ever can.” Unity of effect he considered an essential in every work of art, and this he deemed impossible in a literary production which could not be read without fatigue at one sitting.

“To be convinced of the inherent unsoundness of his theory, we need only observe that his limitation of the proper themes and uses of poetry would exclude all the noblest productions of the best poets of all times and of every tongue. Should we acquiesce in the correctness of his contracted definition, we should be compelled to go through the centuries, culling out the Homers and Virgils, the Terences and Shakespeares, the Herberts and Hebers, the Byrons and Shelleys, the Juvenals and Popes, the Scotts and Campbells, the Hoods and Holmeses; whole scores of world-renowned bards would be driven pell-mell from the Parnassian heights, on whose summit would remain solus Edgar A. Poe, attended, not by the noble bird of Jove, or even Minerva’s symbolic favorite, but by that “ghastly, grim, and ancient raven,” which has almost become a synonymous appellation of him who first evoked “this ominous bird” from the dark realms of Pluto, to harass a poor love-lorn poet with its melancholy plaint of “Nevermore.” None of those who rank highest in the world’s esteem as poets, could escape his condemnation. The ages contradict him.

* * “Mr. Poe seems, indeed, to have been led into the error of excluding moral and spiritual themes from poetry, by a lack of susceptibility in his nature, which blinded him to their intrinsic beauty. Indeed, his theory is a severe satire upon his own moral constitution; for even admitting his main proposition, that the creation of novel forms of beauty is the poet’s sole vocation, how could one of his otherwise acute perception, had not his moral nature been fearfully warped, have overlooked the very obvious fact, that in moral and spiritual ideas may be found the very highest types of beauty?

The reviewer now passes to the consideration of

Poe’s genius as a Prose Writer. —

“For the purpose of giving as clear a view as possible of the range of Poe’s imaginative powers and constructive ability, we shall divide his Prose Tales into four classes, the simply horrible, the grotesque, the illusive, and the semi-scientific or philosophical. He would have added another class, the humorous; but of this we shall speak hereafter. Of course this arbitrary classification only approximates to correctness; for the distinctive features of each class are occasionally all combined in one; while a few, which we have placed in a particular division, might, from possessing a nearly equal proportion of various qualities, have appeared indifferently and with perfect justice in either. In several, the grotesque and the horrible strive for a grim preeminence. Of the threescore and ten tales to be found in these volumes, more than half are based upon the sentiment of horror, ranging from the actual and tangible dangers of real life to the utmost refinement of intense but unreal terrors, the offspring of weird phantasms or fancies; while but a small fraction of the whole are free from terrific, sorrowful, or melancholy imaginings. Of the thirty-one tales in the first volume, twenty-two describe death in some unusual and appalling shape; while for abnormal crimes and premature burials he has a revolting and ghastly penchant. The general characteristics are

“Much of crime, and more of sin,

And horror the soul of the plot.”

Yet in this class must be placed his most finished works of art. He found the most genial employment for his pen in picturing painful idiosyncrasies of temperament, monomania, and madness, the anomalies and deformities of humanity. And not finding horrors enough in the explored arcana of sin and suffering, he invents new crimes, and novel and terrible penalties. Metempsychosis is one of his favorite themes; of which “Ligeia” and “Morella” are thrilling illustrations. To his mind the existence of entozoa in the brain was an ever-present fact, and the actual horrors of posthumous physical decay seem to have been his while living. In his “Colloquy of Monos and Una” he has anticipated all the phases and possibilities of sentient life after death, and during the decomposition of the body in the grave. In perusing his most powerful tales, the reader feels himself surrounded by hitherto unapprehended dangers; he grows suspicious of his best friends; all good angels appear turning to demons; God seems dead; and on closing the book, the first impulse is to shake off the frightful incubus by rushing out into the glad sunshine, and freely inhaling the pure fresh air of heaven, to assure himself that he is still among the living, and that nature has not been transformed, while he read, into something soul-sickening and horrible.

“One of our author’s most decided tastes was for all forms of mystification; to solve enigmas was to him an agreeable pastime, and to mislead and bewilder others, a strong motive to exertion. It was not enough for him to write fiction, to write it well, and to let it pass as fiction: he frequently indulged his inclination for deception in the elaboration of tales, published with the express purpose of imposing on the public credulity, which he believed to be boundless. Of his few pleasures, it was one to see his readers seizing with avidity on his wildest imaginings as facts. His first essay in the line was the story of “Hans Pfaall,” commenced in 1835, and brought to a premature conclusion by the almost simultaneous appearance of the celebrated “Moon Hoax,” by Richard Adams Locke, with which “Hans Pfaall” had too many points of resemblance to admit of both being pecuniarily profitable. Poe, finding that Mr. Locke had superseded him in attracting all the floating enthusiasm of lunar discoveries then recently excited by the publication of Sir John Herschel’s latest work, left the field, and, after having set his hero fairly afloat in the upper ether, abandoned him to his fate, with all his elaborate scientific paraphernalia. He subsequently published his ‘Balloon Hoax,” which was originally foisted upon the Northern press, under the form of “Express News” for a daily paper in New York, purporting to have been received from Norfolk, Va., and was in substance the pretended account of an aerial voyage across the Atlantic. But the public had become more wary since the exposure of the “Moon Hoax,” and this excited comparatively little attention. [column 3:]

Most of the tales and other prose articles of Mr. Poe which we should place in the semi-scientific or philosophical class, depend for their interest chiefly upon the solution of some mystery or enigma, or the untangling of a web of unusual incidents, demanding the exercise of the highest powers of reasoning, an intimate knowledge of the motives which actuate, not only common, but uncommon and peculiar minds, and the ability to apply this reasoning to novel plots and circumstances. But in judging of the merits of these tales, we must remember that in all but two the writer is the Sphynx as well as the Œdipus of his riddles, and therefore his success in their solution is by no means so marvellous as at first sight it appears. In a few papers, similar in tone to that entitled “The Power of Words,” this love of the intricate and mysterious has led him to the discussion of the hidden powers of nature, and the inexplicable influence of mind over matter, in such a sweet and melancholy tone as to elicit more of the reader’s sympathy for the evident unrest of the author, than could have followed any direct appeal.”

Farther on, the reviewer thus speaks of

Poe as a Critic: —

His general style of criticism, when his private feelings were in abeyance, was acute, but not comprehensive. It treated of words, rather than of thoughts. He was a masterly analyst, and could readily reduce a literary performance into its original elements; but he did not always discern its animating principle. He was a close logician, and could assume the guise of a subtle reasoner; he had a thorough acquaintance with the resources and capabilities of language; and in the niceties of grammatical construction, and a keen perception of the harmonies and proprieties of diction, he had probably no superior and few equals. Himself unerring in precision of purpose, he had a microscopic eye for the faulty arrangement of a theme, and an equally nice ear for a false quantity in rhythm. He excelled in seizing and holding up to ridicule obscurities and affectations in language, feebleness of thought or expression, wavering of purpose, or inconsistency between aim and execution. But with all his discriminative talent, he was not a safe leader in critical literature. In his determination to be precise and to avoid generalizations, he frequently failed to grasp the spirit and the total effect of a work, while diligently engaged in hunting to the death some awkward expression, or carping at some ill-chosen word. He saw all the faults a writer had, and many; which he had not. Thus, in his frequent forays against those whom he especially labelled “plagiarists,” he detects proofs undiscernible to all other eyes,-including many of those who were well enough disposed to see all that he saw if they could. This charge of plagiarism was his favorite weapon, and one which he wielded with no very strict regard to the rules of honorable warfare, for he was constantly in the habit of insinuating the charge, instead of proving it.

Before quoting what the reviewer has to say of

Poe’s personal character,

let me copy a passage I found yesterday in that most luscious-thoughted of books


“To go back to MEN OF GENIUS, we happen to know some of their lives pretty well. It has been truly said, they are the only lives we do know well; and even tolerably clear water, exposed to a Drummond light, shows a great many pugnacious horrid looking animalculæ. Moreover there are particular snares for men of genius. Their sympathies are wider than those of other men. They transact more life. The misery of the world has more room to play about in them. They were, perhaps, intended to have more evil to contend with than other men: that they might look into it and express it, and thus help others to bear it. So best for them, possibly, and so best for the world. At the same time, it may be said that such men are by no one thing subdued. Their imaginations ands their sympathies, which admit much of life, and life’s worst struggles to them, create an outlet for such things to pass away from them.”

With the preparation of this broad and philosophical sentiment of charity to genius the reader may pass, more fitly than perhaps otherwise, to the reviewer’s closing remarks on Poe’s Life and Genius: —

“In this superciliousness of spirit, we find the reason why a man who has written so much and so well as Mr. Poe has, should, after all, have produced so slight an impression upon his own times. The people were nothing to him, and he is considerably less to them than he would have been had his sympathies run in a broader and more genial channel. He not only failed to make friends of his readers, as all earnest, truehearted writers, with any measure of talent approximating to his, do; but he deliberately provoked the animosity of many of his literary peers and superiors by the bantering tone of his criticisms, — the most offensive, and not the most useful, style of reviewing. Whether this was a weakness on their part, or an unjustifiable presumption on his, each person will probably decide according to his direct or incidental interest in the question. But his frequent disagreements and quarrels in his business relations arose out of no such equivocal position.

“The fact that he had at the time of his death so few friends, naturally led to the inquiry, among those who had been interested in his literary career, whether he had, or had not, any of those social qualities on which permanent friendships are based. The general response was, that he had not,-that he was irascible, cynical, suspicious, supercilious, envious, and untruthful. Whereupon Mr. N. P. Willis, appearing as his champion, magnanimously affirmed that “there was goodness in Edgar A. Poe,” which affirmation, thus elicited, bears in it, unintentionally we have no doubt, (for Willis is not given to sarcasm,) the bitterest irony. Mr. Poe’s goodness, it seems, had escaped ordinary observation, and to establish a belief in its existence it became necessary to authenticate it by a similar process to that by which other men’s crimes are substantiated. And so it befell, that writs of curiosity (with some from a better motive) were issued, and instructions were given to all volunteers in the cause of justice and humanity to “attach” this said “goodness” of Mr. Poe’s, wherever it might be found, and to bring it before the court of public opinion for adjudication. For some time the returns constantly were non est, but a hue and cry being raised, and more joining in the search, it was finally discovered, and two witnesses were summoned to testify to the genuineness of the thing. These were the late Mrs. Frances S. Osgood, and Mrs. Clemm, his wife’s mother, who was also his own aunt. Mr. Willis we may consider as his attorney, and Mr. Griswold as the prosecuting officer. The list of witnesses called by the latter is long, and some of the names are weighty; among them is Mr. Allan, his guardian, who charges him with wanton insult and ingratitude; the Faculty of Maryland University; the President of the Military Academy at West Point; the officers of the regiment from which he deserted; the publishers, White, Burton, Graham, and Godey, whose business he had injured or neglected, with others, who, being superfluous, are excluded. But one we must not omit, the state’s evidence, — himself; for none have accused Poe of more numerous indefensible motives and actions than he admitted to be true. He accuses himself of deliberate falsehood, for the sake of sustaining appearances; of insulting a respectful audience, and a respectable literary association, solely in order to avenge himself upon a small clique, who he fancied had slighted him; of making public, unjust, and untrue allegations against an individual, without any evidence, satisfactory to himself, of their truth; and of experiencing a “superior relish for a row over all sublunary pleasures.” Here the prosecutor may be content to rest the case, though but a small fraction of the evidence is in; and we are glad to hear his counsel call for the rebutting testimony. Mrs. Osgood testifies to his “chivalric, graceful, and almost tender reverence for all women who won his respect, and of his playful, witty, and affectionate behavior at home, both to his wife and visitors.” Mrs. Clemm, who speaks with a more intimate knowledge than any mere acquaintance could, says: “He was more than a son to myself, in his long-continued and affectionate observance of every duty to me.”

“Here we have reached the one oasis in his checkered and unhappy life; and most cheerfully do we accede to the plea of Mr. Willis, and agree with him “that there was goodness in Edgar A. Poe.”[[*]] Indeed, this gentle home-character, which we cannot doubt, redeems his memory from many of the darker shadows that seem to rest upon it. It is pleasant to know that, however irascible abroad and with strangers, he was always as kind to his delicate and gentle wife as the sin of habitual intemperance ever permits a man to be. Yet must we confess that this favorable testimony, coming from the persons who render it, impresses us more deeply with their charming character than with his, when we remember that those who saw this “goodness” most clearly were both unusually lovely and gentle women, who probably never hurt his self-esteem, never thwarted, never disputed him. The only other person who coincides with their view of his character is Mr. Willis, himself remarkable for general urbanity of manner, and who expressly says, in his notice of Poe, that he always treated him with “deferential courtesy,”exactly the manner to suit this sensitive and wayward [column 4:] child of genius. And thus we are forced to the conclusion, that it was only in a few exceptional cases, and where the sacrifice of dignity and pretension was all on the side of the other party, that Mr. Poe presented that winning and gentlemanly demeanor described by Mrs. Osgood.

“That Poe had genius of a high order, both analytic and creative, no one thoroughly acquainted with his writings will deny. But he had also, to its fullest extent, and in its most virulent form, the cant of genius; we mean that disposition exhibited by many of the erratic stars of literature to claim exemption, on account of their peculiarly fine temperament, from the ordinary rules of morality, ever begging the indulgence and tender judgment of their fellows on the very score of superiority, — a kind of perpetual plea for “benefit of clergy” in the realm of letters, which ought to have been proscribed there when it was disowned by the law-courts of the fatherland. This cant, learned from the chronicles of Grub Street, and wholly unwarranted, either by the times in which Mr. Poe lived, or the circumstances under which he made his literary début, we regard as the weakest point in his character. It is a plea which any man should be ashamed to make. In the name of virtue, let it be for ever banished from the domain of letters in this Western World.

“The impression which is made by Poe’s writings, as a whole, is decidedly painful, the contrast is forced so perpetually upon us of what he was, and how he used his talents, with what he might have been, and might have accomplished, had he applied his energies to any one noble purpose. We find in him great mental power, but no mental health. His force was the preternatural activity of a strong imagination, which curbless and uncontrolled, bore him whithersoever it would. Even his ambition had nothing ennobling in it. He “struggled, labored, created, not,” as he tells us himself, “because excellence is desirable, but because to be excelled, where there exists a power to excel, is unendurable.” If the human brain is indeed a palimpsest, as the author of “Suspiria de Profundis” suggests, and if all the inscriptions once written there are liable to be reproduced, then most assuredly should we pray for some more potent chemistry to blot out from our brain-roll for ever, beyond the power of future resurrection, the greater part of what has been inscribed upon it by the ghastly and charnel-hued pen of Edgar Allan Poe. Rather than remember all, we would choose to forget all that he has ever written.”

Thus ends a very able, but (we must be excused for saying it of the great Gospel of New England criticism, under whose shadow we were brought up,) not a very charitable article. I shall not endeavor, now, to show wherein it seems to me needlessly severe. The subject is one that will be a great deal talked and written about for the next tide-flow of literary interest, and something may float along on which to embark another discussion of it. If not, however, this criticism will still serve the good purpose of giving the reader an extreme from which to re-act, and to this probably unintended mission, we may well leave it.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of column 1:]

*  I cannot help quoting, here, a couple of stray stanzas I clipped from a newspaper not long ago, headed “The first Home and the Last,” which (to those who have read of Poe’s troubled life and who remember that it is now ended) will seem to express what we trust was the change from Life to Death, for him: —

“Out of my first home, warm and bright,

I passed to the cold world’s winter night;

From love more real than light or life.

Ill hath it ended that well begun,

Into the shadow, out of the sun!


“Out of my last home, dark and cold,

I passed to the city whose streets were gold;

From the silence that falls on sin and pain,

To the deathless joy of the angel’s strain.

Well hath it ended that ill begun,

Out of the shadow, into the sun.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of column 3:]

  Published by James Munroe and Co., of Boston, and most learning by heart.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of column 4, running to the bottom of column 5:]

*  It really seems to me that the article in question — (the one I wrote as some defence of the character of Poe) — does not quite deserve this suppressed sneer of comment. It was written in a spirit, at least, which might claim for it a more considerate mention. As it was but a newspaper ephemeron, forgotten by this time, of course, and as its information bears a little upon the question of Poe’s qualities now freshly before the public, perhaps it would not be amiss to re-publish it here, and I will venture to do so, trusting to the reader’s indulgence:

“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 attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful and intellectual face, as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of course, not to treat him always with deferential courtesy, and, to our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a criticism, or that he would erase a passage 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 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 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,


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 Point acquaintances — and see what I can do. In order to get the means of taking the first step, I propose [column 4:] 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 sane. 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.

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 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 [column 5:] 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 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.

We have occupied so much room that we defer speaking critically of Mr. Poe’s writings, as we intended to do when we sat down, and this, and some more minute details of biography, we shall hope to find time for, hereafter.





[S:0 - HJ, 1856] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Letter from Idlewild (Nathaniel P. Willis, 1856)