Text: Mary Gove Nichols, “Reminiscences of Edgar Poe,” Sixpenny Magazine (London), vol. IV, whole no. 20, February 1, 1863, pp. 471-474


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SOME sixteen years ago, I went on a little excursion with two others — one a reviewer, since dead, and the other a person who wrote laudatory notices of books, and borrowed money or favours from their flattered authors afterwards. He was called unscrupulous by some, but he probably considered his method a delicate way of conferring a favour upon an author or of doing him justice without the disagreeable conditions of bargain and sale. It is certain that he lived better and held his head higher than many who did more and better work. The reviewer petted him, relied upon him, and gave him money when he failed to get it elsewhere.

We made one excursion to Fordham to see Poe. We found him, and his wife, and his wife’s mother — who was his aunt — living in a little cottage at the top of a hill. There was an acre or two of greensward, fenced in about the house, as smooth as velvet and as clean as the best kept carpet. There were some grand old cherry-trees in the yard, that threw a massive shade around them. The house had three rooms — a kitchen, a sitting-room, and a bed-chamber over the sitting-room. There was a piazza in front of the house that was a lovely place to sit in in summer, with the shade of cherry-trees before it. There was no cultivation, no flowers — nothing but the smooth greensward and the majestic trees. On the occasion of this my first visit to the poet, I was a good deal plagued — Poe had somehow caught a full-grown bob-o’-link. He had put him in a cage, which he had hung on a nail driven into the trunk of a cherry-tree. The poor bird was as unfit to live in a cage as his captor was to live in the world. He was as restless as his jailer, and sprang continually in a fierce, frightened way, from one side of the cage to the other. I pitied him, but Poe was bent on training him. There he stood, with his arms crossed before the tormented bird, his sublime trust in attaining the impossible apparent in his whole self. So handsome, so impassive in his wonderful, intellectual beauty, so proud and reserved, and yet so confidentially communicative, so entirely a gentleman on all occasions that I ever saw him — so tasteful, so good a talker was Poe, that he impressed himself and his wishes, even without words, upon those with whom he spoke. However, [column 2:] I remonstrated against the imprisonment of “Robert of Lincoln Green.”

“You are wrong,” said he, quietly, “in wishing me to free the bird. He is a splendid songster, and as soon as he is tamed he will delight our home with his musical gifts. You should hear him ring out like a chime of joy bells his wonderful song.”

Poe’s voice was melody itself. He always spoke low, even in a violent discussion, compelling his hearers to listen if they would know his opinion, his facts, fancies, or philosophy, or his weird imaginings. These last usually flowed from his pen, seldom from his tongue.

On this occasion I was introduced to the young wife of the poet, and to the mother, then more than sixty years of age. She was a tall, dignified old lady, with a most ladylike manner, and her black dress, though old and much worn, looked really elegant on her. She wore a widow’s cap of the genuine pattern, and it suited exquisitely with her snow-white hair. Her features were large, and corresponded with her stature, and it seemed strange how such a stalwart and queenly woman could be the mother of her almost petite daughter. Mrs. Poe looked very young; she had large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look. One felt that she was almost a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.

The mother seemed hale and strong, and appeared to be a sort of universal Providence for her strange children.

The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates. So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw. The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair, and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it perfectly. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light stand, and a hanging bookshelf completed its furniture. There were pretty presentation copies of books on the little shelves, and the Brownings had posts of honour on the stand. With quiet exultation Poe drew from his side pocket a letter that he had recently received from Elizabeth [page 472:] Barrett Browning. He read it to us. It was very flattering. She told Poe that his “poem of the Raven had awakened a fit of horror in England.” This was what he loved to do. To make the flesh creep, to make one shudder and freeze with horror, was more to his relish (I cannot say more to his mind or heart) than to touch the tenderest chords of sympathy or sadness.

On the book-shelf there lay a volume of Poe’s poems. He took it down, wrote my name in it, and gave it to me. I think he did this from a feeling of sympathy, for I could not be of advantage to him, as my two companions could. I had sent him an article when he edited the Broadway Journal, which had pleased him. It was a sort of wonder article, and he published it without knowing the authorship, and he was pleased to find his anonymous contributor in me. He was at this time greatly depressed. Their extreme poverty, the sickness of his wife, and his own inability to write, sufficiently accounted for this. We spent half an hour in the house, when some more company came, which included ladies, and then we all went to walk.

We strolled away into the woods, and had a very cheerful time, till some one proposed a game at leaping. I think it must have been Poe, as he was expert in the exercise. Two or three gentlemen agreed to leap with him, and though one of them was tall, and had been a hunter in times past, Poe still distanced them all. But alas! his gaiters, long worn and carefully kept, were both burst in the grand leap that made him victor. I had pitied the poor bob-o’-link in his hard and hopeless imprisonment, but I pitied Poe more now. I was certain he had no other shoes, boots, or gaiters. Who amongst us could offer him money to buy a new pair? Surely not the writer of this, for the few shillings that I paid to go to Fordham must be economized somewhere and somehow, amongst my indispensable disbursements. I should have to wear fewer clean shirts, or eat a less number of oyster stews. In those days I never aspired to a broil. It is well that habit is a grand ameliorator, and that we come to like what we are obliged to get accustomed to. But if any one had money, who had the effrontery to offer it to the poet? When we reached the cottage, I think all felt that we must not go in, to see the shoeless unfortunate sitting or standing in our midst. I had [column 2:] an errand, however — I had left the volume of Poe’s poems — and I entered the house to get it. The poor old mother looked at his feet, with a dismay that I shall never forget.

“Oh, Eddie!” said she, “how did you burst your gaiters?”

Poe seemed to have come into a semitorpid state as soon as he saw his mother.

“Do answer Muddie, now,” said she, coaxingly.

“Muddie” was her pet name with her children.

I related the cause of the mishap, and she drew me into the kitchen.

“Will you speak to Mr. —— ,” said she, “about Eddie’s last poem?”

Mr. ——   was the reviewer.

“If he will only take the poem, Eddie can have a pair of shoes. He has it — I carried it last week, and Eddie says it is his best. You will speak to him about it, won’t you?

We had already read the poem in conclave, and Heaven forgive us, we could not make head or tail to it. It might as well have been in any of the last languages, for any meaning we could extract from its melodious numbers. I remember saying that I believed it was only a hoax that Poe was passing off for poetry, to see how far his name would go in imposing upon people. But here was a situation. The reviewer had been actively instrumental in the demolition of the gaiters.

“Of course they will publish the poem,” said I, “and I will ask C —— to be quick about it.”

The poem was paid for at once, and published soon after. I presume it is regarded as genuine poetry in the collected poems of its author, but then it bought the poet a pair of gaiters, and twelve shillings over.

At my next visit, Poe grew very confidential with me.

“I write,” said he, “from a mental necessity — to satisfy my taste and my love of art. Fame forms no motive power with me. What can I care for the judgment of a multitude, every individual of which I despise?”

“But, Mr. Poe,” said I, “there are individuals whose judgment you respect.”

“Certainly, and I would choose to have their esteem unmixed with the mean adulation of the mob.”

“But the multitude may be honestly and legitimately pleased,” said I.

“That may be possible,” said Poe, [page 473:] musingly, “because they may have an honest and legitimate leader, and not a poor man who has been paid a hundred dollars to manufacture opinions for them and fame for an author.”

“Do reviewers sell their literary conscience thus unconscionably?” said I.

“A literary critic must be loth to violate his taste, his sense of the fit and the beautiful. To sin against these, and praise an unworthy author, is to him an unpardonable sin. But if he were placed on the rack, or if one he loved better than his own life were writhing there, I can conceive of his forging a note against the Bank of Fame, in favour of some would-be poetess, who is able and willing to buy his poems and opinions.”

He turned almost fiercely upon me, his fine eyes piercing me, “Would you blame a man for not allowing his sick wife to starve?” said he.

I changed the subject and he became quiet, and we walked along, noting beauties of flowers and foliage, of hill and dale, till we reached the cottage.

At my next visit, Poe said, as we walked along the brow of the hill, “I can’t look out on this loveliness till I have made a confession to you. I said to you when you were last here, that I despised fame.”

“I remember,” said I.

“It is false,” said he. “I love fame — I dote on it — I idolize it — I would drink to the very dregs the glorious intoxication. I would have incense ascend in my honour from every hill and hamlet, from every town and city on this earth. Fame! glory! — they are life-giving breath, and living blood. No man lives, unless he is famous! How bitterly I belied my nature, and my aspirations, when I said I did not desire fame, and that I despised it.”

Suggestive that the utterance on both occasions might be true to the mood that suggested them. But he declared that there was no truth in his first assertion. I was not as severe with him as he was with himself.

The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption, and I saw her in her bed-chamber. Everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the sufferer with such a heartache as the poor feel for the poor. There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow white spread and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever [column 2:] of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoiseshell cat in her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth, except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.

Mrs. Clemm was passionately fond of her daughter, and her distress on account of her illness and poverty and misery, was dreadful to see.

As soon as I was made aware of these painful facts, I came to New York, and enlisted the sympathies and services of a lady, whose heart and hand were ever open to the poor and miserable. A featherbed and abundance of bed-clothing and other comforts were the first fruits of my labour of love. The lady headed a subscription, and carried them sixty dollars the next week. From the day this kind lady first saw the suffering family of the poet, she watched over them as a mother watches over her babe. She saw them often, and ministered to the comfort of the dying and the living.

“My poor child,” said Mrs. Clemm, “my blessed and beloved, who has gone before me. Mrs. ——   was so good to her. She tendered her while she lived, as if she had been her dear sister, and when she was dead she dressed her for the grave in beautiful linen. If it had not been for her, my darling Virginia would have been laid in her grave in cotton. I can never tell my gratitude that my darling was entombed in lovely linen.”

It seemed to soothe the mother’s sorrow in a wonderful way, that her daughter had been buried in fine linen. How this delicate raiment could add so much to her happiness, I was not able to see, but so it was.

The same generous lady gave the bereaved mother a home for some time after the death of the poet. I think she only left her house to go to her friends in the South.

Soon after Poe’s death, I met the aged mother on Broadway. She seized me by both my hands, regardless of the passers by.

“My Eddie is dead,” she sobbed, hardly able to speak. “He is gone — gone, and left his poor Muddie all alone.”

And then she thought of his fame, and she clung to me, speaking with pathetic and prayerful earnestness. “You will take care of his fame,” said she; “you will not let them lie about him. Tell the [page 474:] truth of my Eddie. Oh, tell the truth — tell the world how great and good he was. They will defame him — I know they will. They are wicked and envious; but you will do my poor, dear Eddie justice.” She pressed my hands convulsively. “Say that you will take my Eddie’s part,” said she, almost wildly.

“I can never do him injustice,” said I; “I assure you I never will.”

“I knew you never would,” said she, seeming greatly comforted.

I have said nothing of Poe’s genius. His works are before the world. Those who are able to judge of them will do so. There is no need to manufacture fame for the poet now. He cannot be pleased or benefited by it.

Poe has been called a bad man. He was his own enemy, it is true; but he was a gentleman and a scholar. His clear [column 2:] and vivid perception of the beautiful constituted his conscience, and unless bereft of his senses by some poison, it was hard to make him offend his taste.

People may be starved, so that they will eat coarse, disgusting, and unhealthy viands, and a poet has human liabilities. We may be sure if Poe sold his poems, to be printed as the productions of another, or if he eulogized what he despised, that the offence brought with it sufficient punishment. Poor Poe! If the scribblers who have snapped like curs at his remains, had seen him as his friends saw him, in his dire necessity and his great temptation, they would have been worse than they deem him to have written as they have concerning a man of whom they really knew next to nothing.

Requiescat in pace!



This article was reprinted by T. O. Mabbott, ed., “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” New York: Union Square Book Shop, 1931, but that printing omits italics and introduces several minor errors in the text. A photocopy of the original article, from a microfilm made of the rare copy at the British Museum, was kindly provided by Ed Okonowicz. The Sixpenny Magazine was printed in London by Ward and Lock; true to its name, the price was sixpence. (It was also printed in  New York, by Wilmer and Rogers.) The article was published without any reference to the name of its author, including the table of contents.

The volume of poems given to Mrs. Nichols was almost certainly The Raven and Other Poems (Wiley & Putnam, 1845). The poem which she could not understand was “Ulalume,” first published in the American Review for December of 1847. The unnamed “C——,” therefore, must have been George Hooker Colton, editor of the magazine. Virginia Poe died on January 30, 1847; her hair was dark brown rather than black. The lady who so kindly tended to Mrs. Poe was Mrs. Marie Louise Shew.

Since Mrs. Nichols' recollections are set “some sixteen years ago” and specifically mentions that Virginia was still alive, they have been assigned as having occurred in the summar of 1846.


[S:1 - SPM, 1863]] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Reminiscences of Edgar Poe (M. G. Nichols, 1863)