Text: James Wood Davidson, “Edgar A. Poe,” Russell’s Magazine (Charleston, SC), vol. II, no. 2, November 1857, pp. 161-173


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Edgar Poe was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in January, 1811. His parents, who were itinerant actors, died in Richmond, Virginia, within a few weeks of each other, both of consumption. They left three small children destitute, Henry, Edgar and Rosalie. Edgar was adopted by Mr. John Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond. Edgar Poe thereupon became Edgar Allan Poe. He attended school a short time in Richmond, and remained for five years at a high school in England, near London; returned home in 1822; and three years after entered the University of Virginia, where he was, as hitherto, and elsewhere distinguished for his sensitiveness, scholarship, and adventurous hardihood. He was expelled the university for dissipation; quarreled with his adopted father; set out for the battle-fields of struggling Greece, which he never reached, however; and lived some months in the society of the litterateurs of London, — not the fashionable, but the penniless, the gifted, and the garret-dwelling. After quite a Ulyssean wandering, he was finally arrested by the city police in St. Petersburg, Russia, for riot, from which arrest he was relieved by the American Consul, Mr. Middleton, of South Carolina, and also enabled to reach Richmond in safety. He entered the Military Academy at West Point in 1829, where he remained about ten months; left that institution without graduating; and then, at the age of nineteen, dashed into We, reckless of consequences and odds against him, homeless, friendless, dimeless, nameless and — fearless; demanding success, but hopeless [column 2:] of sympathy. He enlisted in the army, but very soon left it. At this period he did generally, and for some years continued doing, a starving business at literature, in the way of writing verses, tales, criticisms, compilations, and translations, for newspapers and magazines. In 1833, a prize tale — “MS. Found in a Bottle” — introduced him to the notice of the public. He was engaged two years after, for five hundred dollars a year, to edit the Southern Literary Messenger, which his talents gave high position at once; married his cousin, Virginia Clemm; wrote, drank, and agonized in that situation for a year and a half, and then went North. In 1839 he became editor of the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” (Philadelphia,) which was merged, with a change of proprietorship, during his editorial connection with it, into “Graham’s Magazine,” of which he remained editor till 1842. He lived in that city two years longer, writing miscellaneously but always vigorously and well; then went to New York, where he first assisted in editing the Mirror, and afterwards edited the Broadway Journal, which fell through in 1846. In January, 1847, his wife died. He labored on, living at Fordham, near New York; wrote Eureka, his completest work, in 1848; and next year left New York for Richmond, where he composed Annabel Lee, by many considered his best poem. He remained in that city till a few days before his death, which occurred while on his way again to New York, on Sunday evening, in the hospital of his birth-city, Baltimore. A marble head-stone in [page 162:] the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church, on the south-east corner of Fayette and Greene streets, in that city, marks his first bed of rest. On the front is engraved:





OBIIT Oct. 7, 1849.

AET. 38.”

On the reverse appears:


A childless memory keeps watch over his solitary grave. He had experienced the soul-solitude of life; and he died as he had lived — alone.

The personnel of Edgar Poe was less peculiar than his mind. He was below medium height, slenderly and compactly formed. His hands and feet were of moderate size, and partook of the compactness of his entire frame. His features were regular, and decidedly handsome. Mr. Willis speaks of his face as “ pale, beautiful, and intellectual.” Its general expression, however, beyond its ordinary abstraction, was not pleasant — neither insolent nor angry — but decidedly disagreeable. His complexion was dark though clear, with a tendency, later, to the bilious and even swarthy. His hair was dark and very early touched with grey. Ho wore a heavy and ill-trimmed moustache. His eyes were dark, full and variable — expressive, luminous, frequently with an air of introverted abstraction — and, on close inspection, they appeared “of that neutral violet tint, which is so difficult to define.” His forehead was faultless in its perfect expression and noble proportions. It was high and symmetrical, large in the perceptive, very large in the reflective, and, in the ideal and constructive, massive. Extreme intuitive perception of human nature [column 2:] crowned the lordly throne of thought. His expansive brow declared the princely power of intellect that throbbed and struggled within. But here his cranial perfection ceased. The central region of his brain was markedly deficient, although the occipital was full. The basilar region, again, was powerful, but the coronal feeble. He was in countenance, gait, person — when sober — a gentleman. His voice was soft but not sonorous, distinct but not clear. His dress was always in good taste — simple, careless, appropriate. His bearing was easy, unembarrassed, polite; and to ladies, it was deferentially and delicately courteous. “His conversation,” says the compiler of his Memoir, “was, at times, almost supra-mortal.” The accomplished editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, (we trust that he will pardon our quoting from a private letter his language upon this point,) says: “Wonderful as are the poems and tales and essays he left behind him, I think one must have known him well and been familiar with his colloquial exercises, so varied, so brilliant, so full of striking thoughts and images, to form anything like an adequate conception of the spiritual Poe.” It was observed by one who knew him intimately that, “either sober or reeking with bad brandy, he talked like an angel.” His epistolary genius equalled his colloquial. “His letters,” said the late Mrs. Osgood, “were divinely beautiful.”

His lot was a lonely one. Out off — not “by some mysterious fate,” but — by the directing; elements of his own mind, from sympathy with the many, he stood in his imperial isolation above them; almost unenvied, for the price he paid was fearful. He lacked almost utterly the spirit of companionship. His singularly unhappy temperament [page 163:] wrought itself into the texture of every production of his brilliant pen. His was the restless, wild want of a soul not understood — unloved until despair became nature. Such a solitude of soul must have been appalling. Cousin says: “Human existence complete and entire may be summed up in these two words which harmonize with each other: Duty and Hope.” With duty many of Edgar Poe’s relations were incidental, and with hope he seems to have had none. The delicacy and accuracy of his æsthetical nature made him keenly alive to beauty in its omnipresent distinctness; and this, joined to the clearest intellect of the age, gave to his mental eye a keenness of vision which could never fail to detect a blemish, and left him no charity when one was detected. Wrong to him was deformity merely, and wounded his sense of harmony more painfully that it did his sense of justice. The uncouth, unbecoming, and illogical, was as abhorrent to his sensibility as a discord to the musical sense of Mozart; as suffering to the acute benevolence of Howard; as the guilt of the convict to the mind of Draco.

What was true the brilliant intellect of Edgar Poe never failed to perceive. What was beautiful his soul recognized at first blush, and loved for its kinship. Guided by these, his conscience was rarely in fault upon points of right. An instinctive self-respect, over which he had no control, forbade his ever seeking the lenient judgment of the many by explaining circumstances or appearances, which, unexplained, he knew must be construed against him. The world has little charity for any; for one who spurns its sympathy, none; and he who contemns its tribunal invariably receives the extreme [column 2:] visitations of its vengeance. As no judgment can be more erroneous, so none is more dictatorially given, or, when given, more persistently ultimate. Poe spurned that sympathy and received therefor the minimum of its meagre charity and the maximum of its profuse condemnation. A morbid sensibility impelled him to seek rather than avoid such occasions. He enjoyed the luxury of being misunderstood.

Intellectually, he has manifested powers of analysis and microscopic penetration, especially into the never-uttered motives of the human heart, unequalled in his time, and rarely if ever surpassed in any time. His “Murders of the Rue Morgue,” the “Mystery of Marie Roget,” the “Purloined Letter,” “Eureka,” the “Power of Words,” the “Imp of the Perverse,” all herein surpass, in much that is wholly original, anything that has ever reached the form of human language. But these qualities pervade to some extent all that he has written. His works are peculiarly free from sectarian obliquity, sectional prejudice, and immoral taint. They are as free from vicious teaching as those of St. Paul. In fiction, his position is peculiar, and marked by points of strength that in their vividness have seldom been equalled. The province he chose is the psycho-analytical. His heroes are monstrous reflections of his own heart in its despair, not in its peace. He told on every page, shivering with horror and icy with dread, the story of his inner life, the soul-horrors he hourly lived. We have heard him compared to Charles Brockden Browne; but the comparison does Poe injustice. Browne has the same direction, some of the energy, but none of the peculiar power — none of the intensely brilliant light — none of the available [page 164:] scholarship to beautify and elevate his rugged conceptions — no nice discrimination, subtle tact, and high and distinctly appreciable principles of genuine Art — none, in fine, of the transcendent inspiration that marked our later suffering child of genius. The author of “Caleb Williams” was careless in manner, unfinished and hasty; and understood far less of man. He had, however, greater tact in linking consecutive events — ordonnance — in more extended fiction. The source of his inspiration was the same — wretchedness. The light that shone over his path was the sun of suffering. But Poe’s genius in this direction has been elsewhere extensively and well discussed. Cooke, Thompson, Willis, Lamson, Oriswold, Gilfillan, Savage, Lowell, Wallace, and quite a number of anonymous writers have variously disposed of this subject.

In poetry Poe’s position is even more distinctive than it is in fiction.

He took bold ground against the nonsense involved in the popular acceptance of the phrase poetic inspiration as distinct from poetic art. It has always been to the poet’s, as well as to the poetaster’s interest to maintain the error that these beings are above the drudge of art, and are wont

“To fling a Poem, like a comet, out.”

In the same direction, the popular idea of genius — “genius superior to the trifles of detail” — has lamentably blinded even honest truth-seekers to the enormity of the proposition. Genius must work its results by its mastery over these very details which it is imagined to ignore and contemn; and that mind lacks the first characteristic of genius which does not confess that the highest triumphs which “ inspired genius” has ever won were won mainly by means of these [column 2:] very contemptible details themselves. Poe took decided and successful stand against both these popular fallacies. His “Philosophy of Composition” is a master-piece in its way. As a poet, he has written the most striking, original, and rhythmically perfect poem in the English language. We must also instance his exquisite requiem of “ Lenore,” in the exultant sorrow and restless hope of which we recognize a triumph of genuine poetic art scarcely before achieved. As specimens of onomatopoetic word-music — the mysterious mingling of the melody of verse with the solemn and stately flow of the most marvellous conception — there is not an example in all literature that equals or even approaches “The Bells,” or “Ulalume,” or “Ulalie [[Eulalie]].” Southey’s “Lodore,” compared with either of these is a failure.

His theory of poetry has been elaborately discussed, and abundantly misunderstood. Some of the efforts in this way, by the Boston clique and their friends, are pitiable in the extreme.

Let us examine Poe’s theory. He claims ‘’ that while the Poetic Principle itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or that Truth which is the satisfaction of Reason. For the tendency of passion is rather to degrade than to elevate the soul. * * * True passion is prosaic — homely. Any strong mental emotion stimulates all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination: — but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs — the grief is subdued — [page 165:] chastened — is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms. * * Love, on the contrary — the divine Eros, the Uranian, as distinguished from the Dionean Venus — is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetic themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect; but this effect is referable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest. * * * It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem. * * * I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem. * * * The sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended upon with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe — of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. * * * A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object, an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; [column 2:] romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music, without the idea, is simply music; the idea, without the music, is prose, from its very definiteness. * * * Music, in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected — is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance. * * * It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul more nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. * * * We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the poet himself the true poetical effect. He recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — :in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells, He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, [page 166:] from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eve — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her lore. * * * To recapitulate, then: — I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations.”

Such is a condensed and collated statement of Poe’s views on the subject of Poetry, given entirely in his own language. As to the theory, it is, in the main, his own — his own in its completeness, but the “creation of beauty” had been suggested before, and Jeffrey allowed its end to be pleasure. Upon its merits evolved by Poe, we unhesitatingly rely; and we hold that it is tenable to the last letter. In its defence, and towards its full admission, however, we suspect that time and the progress of cognate truths will do more than the severest logic, driven at the heads of men either determined not to bo convinced, or utterly incapable of appreciating arguments pro or con on a subject entirely beyond and above tlieir range.

We are reluctant to turn from a theme so suggestive of peaceful [column 2:] thoughts, of hope, of parity, and of love — so like a thing of beauty in itself — to the carping perversions, wilful, malignant, and stupid to which wo referred above. The reviewer again says: — “He [Poe] 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.” The italics are our own. Poe never insisted upon any such thing. What he did insist upon is (speaking of the Paradise Lost) that, “after a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical prejudgment can force us to admired “At least one half,” he elsewhere says, “of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose — a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions — the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.” Is not this every one’s experience? The reviewer further says: “He [Poe] pronounces all long poems a contradiction in terms, scouting epics as poems,” &c. Now, Poe does pronounce that unity of effect must be sacrificed by great length; that “the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity.” We enjoy it as it is poetic, in portions, between intervals; but the aggregate effect is just such as we get from a perusal of the works of an author, and not that of any one poem.

Our reviewer proceeds to infer, “Should we acquiesce in the correctness of his [Poe’s] contracted definition, we should be compelled to go through the centuries, culling out the Homers and Virgils, the Terences and Shakspeares, the Herberts and Hebere, the Byrons [page 167:] and Shelleys, the Juvenals and Popes, the Scotts and Campbells, the Hoods and Holmses; — whole scores of world-renowned bards would be driven pell-mell from the Parnassian heights, on whose summit would remain, solus. Edgar A. Poe,” etc.

The reviewer ought to have known that the Homeric poems are a series of martial ballads, inartistically strung together; that the Æneid owes more to its isolation and monumental value than to its poetic power, and that this power wherever manifested is invariably episodical; that the reputation of Terence and of Shakspeare rest on their dramas, and that dramas are claimed to be poetical only fragmentary, owing their effectiveness to the alternation of practical and poetical; that George Herbert’s poetical works consist of Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations — lyrical all, and worthless at that; that Heber wrote a couple of Prize Poems and a few hymns, quite exemplary indeed, but notoriously unpoetical; that Byron understood too well the invariable principles of true art not to have rested the reader with lapses between his flights — fifteen minutes in no instance being required to exhaust the sublimest gush of his God-like inspiration, and the longer the poem the greater the rests; that Shelley has failed in all save his lyrics and episodes — notoriously failed (and, by the way. Prof. Childs seems to have had this idea when he cut down Queen Mab, in the current Little and Brown’s edition of the British Poets, to less than one-fifth its actual length); that Juvenal has left but short satires, the longest on woman; that Pope is poetical, whenever by chance ho is so at all, by couplets mainly; that Scott charms us, in his metrical fictions, [column 2:] through the medium of the same power by which he charms us in his novels, the exquisite management of romance, of local tradition; that Campbell never transcends ten minutes — rarely three — at any one effort in one direction, even iti the Pleasures of hope; that Hood has produced nothing that is even respectable in the poetical way longer than his Haunted House, a poem of nearly twenty minutes; and, in fine, that Holmes, though he is a Bostonian, has given us his inimitable touches of humor in doses of less than thirty minutes — generally of three. But we have already consumed too much time with this reviewer, and we turn from his ignorance, his malignity, and his platitudes with the sincere pleasure of relief.

It is in criticism, probably, that Poe has excited most attention. His comet-like sweep across our literary sky caused both wonder and terror. He astonished the slumbering litterateurs of that day in their siesta on Parnassus. They were sorely annoyed. The brilliant and subtle force which characterized his achievements in this line reminds one of Dennis, and Gifford, and Hazlitt, and Heine. But he is unlike all of them. The first two were the tomahawks of parties, and, while they were caustic, witty, and uncompromising, they were also clumsy, coarse, injudicious, shallow, and wrong. Their vernacular was Billingsgate. It is of Dennis that Colton speaks, in “Hypocrisy:” —

“That glowing page with double lustre shines,

When Pope approves and Dennis damns the lines.”

It is of Gifford that the N. A. Review, styling him a “critical Dennis,” says: — “His acumen was shown in his profound appreciation of works which died as soon as [page 168:] puffed, and in his insensibility to those whose fame was destined to begin with his oblivion.” “He was,” says the author of Satire and the Satirists, “something between Juvenal and a fish-woman.” Hazlitt was harsh, misanthropic, abusive, indiscriminate, angry, and English. Heine was sarcastic, discriminate, bold, aiming at acknowledged reputations principally; so that two American authors, Poe and Longfellow — we quote the words of the former, while it is the latter who applies it to Heine — find occasion to say: — “ The crab might never have become a constellation but for the courage it evinced in nibbling Hercules on the heel.” Poe was as none of these. He was unlike Gifiord and Dennis in his independence, brilliancy of wit, faultless discrimination, purity and perspicuity of style, and masterly appreciation of the artistic, the delicate, and the true. He was unlike Hazlitt in the ready and skilful touch with which he effected his object, whether it were to sustain or to blast. In the criticism of poetry he was, what every true critic of poetry should be, a poet. He invaded the domain of ancient prejudice, and with a supreme indifference to mere conventionality, arrayed at once the whole world of commonplace against him. With a noble devotion to art, he neither saw nor cared to see the enemy his wholesome truth had made. The clique-sustained and ephemeral litterateurs of the Empire City stood aghast when their pretentious nothingness was exposed by his uncompromising pen. The venerables of the Classic City were inconvenienced, on their self-constructed Parnassus, by his unexampled archery. He was thought to be severe. His severity is frequently characterized as “undue” — a word used instead of an idea [column 2:] by men and women who wish to give voice, at all hazards, on some subject which they do not understand. Let us see what it means. The principal cases in reference to which the term is employed are those of Channing, Headier, Lowell, English, Lord, Matthews, Dawes, Ward, Hirst, and Smith. Against Longfellow his main charge was of plagiarism; and there, too often for the comfort of us, the admirers of Longfellow, he pushed his charges on to the proofs. In other respects, he accorded, we believe, as high praise to the author of Evangeline as any discriminating critic has ever done. Have the others lived down or otherwise practically disproved the critic’s judgment? Not one of them. Channing remains as inartistic, as negligent, and as pretentious as Poe said he was. Headley is universally recognised as the great exponent of magniloquence and rant. Lowell maintains his position as “ the descendant of an old New England family,” with all his professional honors on his head. English is a name fallen, we believe, from the roll of American letters; unless an occasional magazine Uric still entitles it to consideration. Lord has since produced André, a tragedy, which, with all its glaring offences against taste, commonsense, and English grammar, it a little better than the “Poems” of his other days; an improvement attributable doubtless to Poe’s review. Hirst is as extinct a specimen of his class as the Mammoth that he immortalises in one of his most ambitious poetical effusions. Matthews, Dawes,Ward, and Smith,

“One common Lethe waits each hapless hard,

And peace be with you! ’tis your best reward!”

In what now, we pray, consists the undueness of Poe’s severity? In its truth? It may be that “the [page 169:] truth is not to he spoken at all times but the principle does not permit the speaking of untruth. Silence is its ultimate practical result. And does not the mere appearance of a book put the author in an interrogational attitude before the critic upon whose table he places his volume? Unquestionably. Let the answer be given then without reference to the consequences — ruat cœlum.

We are prepared by such an individuality, manifesting itself in such conditions, to see how it would and must produce such positive but antipodal opinions of the individual. His character was positive, intensely demonstrative, and the impression he created was therefore always unmistakable. He is said to have had “a fatal facility of making enemies.” He secured more and more bitter enemies than any other American author has ever done, because he told more wholesome truths than any other author has dared to tell. And, if there is any one thing the exposition of which a man will not forgive, that thing is — the truth. A slandered man may find repose beneath the shade of his real or imaginery injuries, but the stern truth leaves no covert to flee to, save vengeance against the utterer. Poe allowed to quackery and stupidity no mercy; and now, his victims and their adherents, though they shrank to silence during his lifetime, have rallied like cowards to blurt their bravado over his tooearly — but to them how timely! — grave. They have apparently exhausted even their vast vocabularies of villifying epithets upon his name. They have beset him in every possible form and through every available medium, restrained by neither decency, truth, nor honor. As priests they have anathematized him; they have condemned him [column 2:] as judges; they have slandered him like demons, and dogged him like hounds. Nothing farther in this direction is conceivable; whatever castigated mediocrity, through sketches, reviews, rhymes, paragraphs, the cant of the pulpit, balderdash, and Billingsgate can do, has already been done. Some one has suggested for him the epitaph designed for Robespierre, —

Passant! ne plains point mon sort.

Si je vivais, tu serais mort!

On the other hand, Poe’s brilliancy of mind, his independence, his princely poetical genius, his sensibility and suffering, his contempt of convention and manners, his instinctive appreciation of woman — these have secured him admirers, and have won him hearts whose tributes of affection are a world of proof in his favor. Prof. Spalding, in his History of English Literature (an English work), assigns him a high rank in American authorship. Translated by Mine. Meunier into French, his tales have awakened the highest enthusiasm in the French mind, an enthusiasm which has found voice in the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Revue Francaise, and a host of minor periodicals. In Germany, Poe’s works are published in Alphonse Durr’s Leipzig “ Collection of Standard American Authors.” Gilfillan has lavished praises upon his genius, and assigns him a prominent place among the “ Portraits.” In America his personnel has been always too much in the minds of his critics for them to render him full justice; yet we have no scarcity of testimonials even here. A writer in the Southern Literary Messenger styles him “the true head of American literature.” Even the North American Review has accorded Poe a high position, notwithstanding its million abuses which sprang, [page 170:] as every one knows, from the undisguised contempt in which he held that mammoth exponent of Boston prejudice.

The reviewer to whom we have elsewhere made reference, mentions, as witnesses in substantiation of his hearty, wholesale, and apparently gratuitous aspersions on Poe, a list of individuals — Mr. Allan, the Faculty of Maryland (Virginia?) University, the President of the Military Academy at West Point, the officers of the regiment from which he deserted, Mr. White, Mr. Burton, Mr. Godey, and Poe himself. What can the formidable catalogue mean? Can it be necessary to take it item by item and expose the flaunting presumption of such a flourish? Let us see. As to Mr. Allan. — A kind of stepmother difficulty occurs. The events even are studiously kept from the public. Gossip must have a victim. Poe is alone. He scorns to reply to Mrs. Grundy. The matter, as to him, stops there. He has since been severe upon certain Yankee kiting in literature. The castigated victims of his criticism smart, and remember the old rumor. Therefore — such is Grundian logic — ho must be guilty of whatever Mrs. Grundy had surmised. Such is practical charity. The facts are with God. These bruited insinuations against Poe, now, show only the character of his accusers — only an atrocious malignity of heart. What, in the second place, have the Faculty of the Virginia University or the President of the Military Academy to deliver against Poe, save the event that he was expelled from the former institution for reckless dissipation, and that he left the latter after nearly one year’s fruitless effort to conform to its rigid requirements? The circumstances, we are perfectly aware, are presumptive evidence [column 2:] against him, but nothing farther. Many good and great men have been expelled from institutions of learning. Gibbon, Pollock,Shelley, Coleridge, Bvron.and many others, were step-mothered by their almas.

Our purpose here is not to defend the morale of Poe, but to expose the fallacy in the charge of his accusers. Be he innocent or guilty, it matters not, the charge is fallacious, and therein false. The prosecution produces a list of witnesses. The validity of the charge depends in a great degree upon its integrity. When we shall have shown that it is false in part, we shall have established a legitimate suspicion, at least, of the advocate’s veracity. Let us see. Messrs. Allen and White are dead, and have left no record of their final testimony. Mr. Graham’s disavowal, under his own signature, years ago, of such a relation of hostility to Poe, is as notorious as it is utter in its falsification of this fabricated charge. To have ignored the fact shows ignorance or deliberate perversion of truth. From Mr. Burton we believe no opinion has been published. Of Mr. Godey the editor of the Knickerbocker, January, 1857, says: — “Mr. L. A. Godey, publisher of ‘The Lady’s Book,’ Philadelphia, writes us to say, that he is not to be ‘counted in’ among those in Philadelphia to whom the late Edgar A. Poe proved faithless, in his business and literary intercourse. His conduct towards Mr. Godey was in all respects honorable and unblameworthy. The remark which elicits the note of Mr. Godey was copied as a quotation into our pages from the N. A. Review.” What, in fine, says the state’s evidence — Poe himself? — “The errors and frailties which I deplore, it cannot at least be asserted that I have been the coward to deny. Never, even, have I made [page 171:] attempt at extenuating a weakness which is a calamity, although those who did not know me intimately had little reason to regard it otherwise than as a crime. For, indeed, had my pride, or that of my family permitted, there was much — very much — there was everything — to be offered in extenuation.”

Such is the reviewer’s array of witnesses, and such is his success in verifying the slanderous gossip of the Rev. R. W. Grundy, and others of the Grundy family, endowed with an appetite and throat capable of swallowing anything. They have rashly sought to “draw his frailties from their dread abode.” It might have become his reverend memoirist to bethink him of the charity of his creed; and especially to re-peruse the caution about glass houses. If Poe’s frailties must be thus dwelt upon, in God’s name, let them be sealed with the sanction of truth. We are fully aware — which the reviewer seems not to be — of the pertinency of the sterling maxim of the lawyers, Ponderanda sunt testimonia non numeranda; and yet we feel that justice to truth, no less than to Poe (and we write in defence of truth, not of Poe), calls for some opinions from men who are not writhing under the lash of his criticism; or who, like Prof. Longfellow, have the magnanimity to forget mere self in the cause of truth. Longfellow, shortly after Poe’s death, says: “What a melancholy death is that of Mr. Poe — a man so richly endowed with genius! I never knew him personally, but have always entertained a high appreciation of his powers as a prose writer and a poet. * * * The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” This is nobly and generously said [column 2:] — nobly, for Poe was his enemy; generously, for that enemy had shown sometimes but little mercy to him. Mr. Willis’s kindness of heart, and genial, appreciative spirit are signally illustrated in his notices of this man. We will connect a few- sentences from his notice written’ upon the death of Poe. Referring to a business connection of several months which he had maintained with him, Mr. Willis savs: — “ Through all this considerable period, we have 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, * * * invariably the same sad-mannered, winning and refined gentleman. * * * 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 becoming 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 knew 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 [page 172:] heart, of which Mr. Poe was generally accused, seem to us, to be referable altogether to this reversed phase of his character, * * * but, when himself, and as we knew him onlv, his modesty and unaffected humilitv, as to his own deservings, were a constant charm to his character.” A gentleman of New York City, a scholar and a litterateur, as widely known as American literature itself, who knew Poe personally, thus speaks of him, in a correspondence upon the subject: — “ I honestly regard the calumnies, to which you allude, as unqualified falsehoods. * * * His scorn of baseness was immense, and as he gave unsparing expression to it, all ‘the baser sort’ feared and hated him. In his later days he was a sick lion, and the donkeys came and kicked him — him at whose faintest roar they had formerly fled in terror.”

These are the opinions of men. We now propose applying a more delicate touchstone to his character. Whatever were Poe’s weaknesses, he was strong in the profound sympathy he could awaken in the heart of woman. It is the most unanswerable argument in any man’s favor. From woman’s decision in a test of character there can be no appeal. Based mainly upon intuition, it comes untrammeled by the errors of reason; and, within its sphere, it is above reason.

The late Mrs. Osgood has left a characteristic tribute to Poe’s name and character, in her sketch of him embodied in the Rev. Mr. Griswold’s Memoir. She commences it — addressing the memoirist — thus: — “ You ask me, my friend, to write for you my reminiscences of Edgar Poe. For you, who knew and understood my affectionate interest in him, and my frank acknowledgment of that interest to [column 2:] all who had a claim upon my confidence, for you, I will willingly do so. I think no one could know him — no one has known him personally — certainly no woman — without feeling the same interest. * * * To a sensitive and delicately-nurtured woman, there was a peculiar and irresistible charm in the chivalric, graceful, and almost tender reverence with which he invariably approached all women who won his respect.” Her regard for him was pure if earthly feeling can be pure. A wife, in all the comprehensive tenderness of that sacred word, she knew — nay, she could know — no impulse below the purest spirit love for “that stray child of Poetry and Passion.”

Mrs. Osgood was not alone in her appreciation of Poe. His spirit reached the adyta of other beings; and many as pure and as gentle as she stand living witnesses to the justness of her impression. One voice, among the rest, has breathed a plaintive strain, responsive to his own, —

“Wild, unearthly melody,

Whose monotone doth move

The saddest, sweetest cadences

Of sorrow and of love.”

In this lady — for we are not drawing from a gallery of fancy portraits — genius of high order and rare accomplishments unite with the liveliest interest in her spirit-friend; and at his grave she has paid some of the most graceful tributes yet rendered by the American Muse to the memory of this gifted man.

But that devotion to the Poet which transcends all that others have felt or could feel for him (save only the love of the faithful Virginia), is the devotion of Mrs. Clemm. She loved him and watched over him as only a more than mother could do. She knew him intimately, daily, hourly, in all the [page 173:] relations of home and of life; when fortune smiled and beckoned him on to his heart’s goal; in his hour of bitterness, when the many condemned him, and the universe was darkness and solitude to his soul; knew him when hope was gone, and the “Raven” sat upon his threshold, — yes! in life, and in death she knew and loved him. Mr. Willis, in his notice of Poe’s [column 2:] death, dwells with much force and propriety upon her affection, labor, suffering, and disinterestedness. And now, the writer asks, “If woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallows 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?”




Although the article is unsigned, and appears without a name even in the index, the author is known to have been James Wood Davidson (1829-1905), who lived in South Carolina and for several years was a professor of Greek at Mount Zion College, in Winnsboro, SC. During the Civil War, he fought as a confederate, serving under Stonewall Jackson. Although he never met Poe, or had any personally connection to him, he does appear to have been in contact with the Poe family in Baltimore. A copy of the article is among the materials in the John H. Ingram collection at the University of Virginia, and that copy has Davidson’s name written in pencil as a byline, presumably by Ingram.

For biographical material, Davidson has obviously relied on other printed material, and the error of ascribing Poe’s date of birth as 1811 and place of birth as Baltimore goes back to misinformation from Poe himself and would not yet be corrected in the official record several decades.



[S:0 - RM, 1857] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (James Wood Davidson, 1857)