Text: N. P. Willis, “Tribute to Edgar Poe,” Home Journal (New York, NY), series for 1864, no. 41 (whole no. 974), October 8, 1864, p. 2, cols. 1-3


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[page 2, column 1, continued:]

TRIBUTE TO EDGAR POE.

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(WITH “MEMS. FROM A WILE-TIME,” BY N. P. WILLIS.)

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A letter which I have just received-offering money in the first place as bounty to the mother-in-law of the deceased poet, and, in the next place, to raise a monument on his neglected grave-will speak best for itself. I will faithfully execute both its offices (taking this opportunity to so promise to the writer, who, carelessly, did not send her specific address) and I will also refresh the memory of the public with copying again my own sketch of the author of “Annabel Lee.” The extracts will all be tributary to our object, and I will reserve what I have especially to say, to the close. But, first,

The Letter: —

Waterloo, N. Y.

MR. WILLIS.

Please do not be offended at my writing to you, whom I have never seen.

I have been strangely attracted, as so many are, you know, by the reading of the works of EDGAR POE, and his life has seemed to me far more interesting even than his productions. Not that there was much to respect and admire in it, but it was altogether so mysterious and sorrowful, and surely no one can help pitying it. His love for his wife was so faithful, and then his mother-in-law’s devotion to him, through all those years of wretchedness, was so beautiful. It is of this mother-in-law that I wish to write. I would like to send her some money if I could. Can you forward it to her, or may I trouble you to tell me where she lives, now? I do not know whether she is still living. If she is, she may be in want, and I would like so well to help her. I would try and do it in such a way that it would not seem assuming to an over-sensitive nature.

A friend of mine who is now visiting Baltimore has promised to find EDGAR POES GRAVE, and we thought we would erect some monument to his memory. Do you know of any reliable friend of the poets’s, to whom we could entrust the matter? It is, perhaps, rather a strange enterprise for me, so far off, but still, it would be a pleasure to me to have the resting-place of such genius remembered. It may be, that my reading of his works when I was so very young, charmed me so strongly, but the poems and the terrible stories have haunted me ever since. Taking them up now, they seem like a theatre seen by daylight; yet I cannot but admire their wonderfully polished and gifted style, and cannot but pity their erring and suffering author.

We all know how hard it is to be good.

Perhaps, after all, there was some latent and unknown good in the soul of Edgar Poe, for which Christ died!

I am, very respectfully yours, —— ———

To this very touching letter, (which I should like to answer immediately, if I but had the address) I will append some parts of an article, once published in a volume perhaps forgotten by the present reader.

* * THE ancient fable of two antagonistic spirits imprisoned in one body, equally powerful and having the complete mastery [column 2:] by turns — of one man, that is to say, inhabited by both a devil and an angel — seems to have been realized, if all we hear is true, in the character of this extraordinary man.

* * * “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, EDGAR A. POE.’

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

“ ‘Fordham, January 22, 1848.

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

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

“Having thus given you the facts of the case, I leave all the rest to the suggestions of your own tact and generosity. Gratefully — most gratefully — Your friend always, EDGAR A. POE.’

“Brief and chance-taken as these letters are, we think they sufficiently prove the existence of the very qualities denied to Mr. Poe — humility, willingness to persevere, belief in another’s kindness, and capability of cordial and grateful friendship! Such he assuredly was when 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 [column 3:] 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 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.”

With the quality of men of genius, I have always felt, somehow, very strangely and tenderly enamored. Recognizing, at once, the certain something which makes this man differ from others, as the Arab steed differs from the common horses of the desert, I love and value him, as the way-worn traveller values his priceless barb-with a tenderness unconfessed but still impassioned. With tears of silence, and in the depths of my heart, I pay homage to the “blood” of that finer creature.

It is not given to all lookers-on alike, however, to recognize this quality. And, curiously enough, the quality goes often unappreciated-its presence enjoyed, while its existence is unwhispered even by its modest self. In a passing acquaintance, that only claims to be “man” or “woman” — neither author nor artist, neither player nor celebrity of any kind — the more gifted observer discovers suddenly the diviner quality, the something to which its homage is resistless. One loves the strange mystery of superiority, and loves it with the tenderness of a woman-though, to a common observer, it be but a man’s love for a man.

There have been, I say, repeated instances of human beings, (and, among them, some clergymen whose genius has charmed me from the pulpit,) to whom my homage has been thus instinctive and resistless — but to none more entire than to him whose genius inspired also the writer of the letter quoted above. I loved EDGAR POE. But, while I looked on the marble pallor of his beautiful features, treating him kindly but still formally within the desks of my office, I could have followed a strong impulse by straining him tenderly to my heart! The refined gentleness of the author of that strange poem* — his dark sad eye, his profound but proudly uncomplaining melancholy of thought and mien — all charmed and inexplicably enslaved me. I was to remember and love him “thenceforth forevermore!”

I have explained (brokenly and briefly perhaps, but still in words that will be understood by the kind readers who are so used to treat me with indulgence) why I welcome, with all my heart, the proposal to pay tribute to that poet, slumbering in his silence. I love to know that the unmarked and almost forgotten grave of EDGAR POE is to be sought out, and honored with its marble monument. It shall be a tender and sweet pilgrimage of mine, (in my coming visit to Baltimore,) to see where it is, and to be then ready for the mingling of my homage with that of other lovers of his genius.

 


[[Footnotes]]

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

*  which; I will here copy again, from the mere change that a generation may have come in, with these tumultuous times, which has overgrown it:

[[reprints Annabel Lee]]



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Notes:

The present article largely reprints material from Willis’ “Death of Edgar A. Poe,” originally printed in the Home Journal for October 20, 1849 and reprinted in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850, vol. I, pp. xiv-xx.)

 

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[S:0 - HJ, 1864] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Tribute to Edgar Poe (N. P. Willis, 1864)